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Choosing to Live: Enduring the Loss of a Loved One

Death is difficult to discuss. When it comes to our own demise, we might think we’re tempting fate if we talk of wishes or of writing a will. And when it comes to the death of a loved one, we are hit with a major loss: we feel sad, hurt, angry, unsettled — a panoply of emotions. As a therapist, I know that in dealing with death, there is not a right way or a wrong way to feel or to grieve.

In Choosing to Live: Enduring the Loss of a Loved One, Jerry D. Campbell writes that even though he and his love of forty-seven years spoke often of death and of having their wishes and affairs in order — and even though he thought of her death not as a tragedy but a life well-lived — he still experienced his wife’s death as deeply painful. (Not surprising, perhaps, that death upends us no matter how prepared we may feel.)

In this self-published book, Campbell, a retired United Methodist clergyman and former president of the Claremont School of Theology, introduces a so-called grief calendar. He also uses his experience to help readers maintain a positive attitude during a highly difficult time, and discusses how to keep on going despite that one may fee alone. Taking a deliberate approach to grief, Campbell posits, can help a person get through the attendant emotions. His experience may help some readers, but Campbell also posits several ideas with which I strongly disagree.

After a major loss, it may take months or even years to feel whole again. Campbell writes that he was “muddling” through his life after his wife’s death and knew it was affecting his ability to function and grieve. He felt he needed a tool, he writes, or some kind of structure, that would let him to some degree compartmentalize his personal life from his professional life. He wanted a way to give adequate attention to both, and to better manage his grieving process.

This is when Campbell used his calendar. He scheduled time to reflect on what he was feeling, what was bothering him, and to review emotions he felt he had successfully dealt with. The structure allowed him to have a focus, he writes, and gave him deadlines to help him be aware of his feelings. Importantly, it prevented him from getting stuck or not dealing with his feelings at all.

Honesty with oneself is, after all, not easy after a death. Yet in order to move into recovery, we need to stop trying to cover up our pain and instead be real with ourselves that difficult feelings are stirring about inside. We need to give ourselves permission to feel our loss, and to deal with it. I can get behind that part of what Campbell writes.

The book also introduces a so-called sixth stage of grief called growth, which Campbell defines as dealing intimately and thoughtfully with your own emotions. Readers may have heard of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. For a long time, mental health professionals accepted these as universal stages in the grieving process. Unfortunately, it is not that simple — and clinicians have begun to debate the Kübler-Ross theory. In reality, each of us deals with grief or loss in our own unique way. To try and pigeonhole a person into a category does not allow her to feel the full range of feelings and emotions, some experts argue, and I agree.

Despite the debate over the validity of the five stages of grief, Campbell takes the concept of stages and “schedules” time to do the grief work of each one. He encourages readers to calendar time for these emotional stages, too, though does luckily caution us to allow as much time as needed. That is an important caveat: It does not help to judge our grief experience, and it will take as long as it needs to take for each of us. Pressuring oneself to hurry up and get past the grief will actually disrupt the natural healing rhythm and prolong our pain.

That said, Campbell veers from his own advice when he sets a calendar goal for being back to normal. There is no normal, however! Here, the book does a huge disservice to readers coping with loss.

Another drawback is that Campbell seems especially self-aware, in a way that few people are right after the death of a loved one. Specifically, after Veta died, Campbell had the meta-cognitive ability to know he needed to find balance between his personal and professional lives. He realized that once he got into his work responsibilities, he could get wrapped up and forget to grieve.

While it is wonderful that Campbell had this insight, not many people have that level of self-awareness during extreme grief. Instead, they often stumble through life and work obligations until the issue of loss comes out in other ways, such as insomnia, depression, or risky behaviors.

In addition, Campbell spends a great deal of time talking about theology and god. That makes sense, due to his status as a retired clergyman, but it also automatically alienates a large swath of readers.

Despite these major flaws, Campbell gives us a number of powerful moments as he reflects on the pain of losing a spouse. He found himself disoriented, he writes, in the absence of Veta, as if a piece of himself had died with her. Many readers will be able to relate to that.

Campbell includes poems, too, that Veta wrote, to help the reader get to know her through her own words. One especially heartwarming poem is about the loss of a pet. In it we see Veta’s love for animals — as well as her own ideas on life and death.

This book is certainly not for all readers, and as a mental health professional I object to some of what Campbell puts forth. Still, it does provide an interesting perspective on how one can attempt to give oneself time to grieve, and time to grieve is certainly important.

Choosing to Live: Enduring the Loss of a Loved One

Archway Publishing, September 2014

Paperback, 146 pages


Choosing to Live: Enduring the Loss of a Loved One

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Paula Lopez

APA Reference
Lopez, P. (2016). Choosing to Live: Enduring the Loss of a Loved One. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 22, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 May 2016
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 May 2016
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