Book Review: Leaning into Love by Elaine Mansfield
“I’ve seen death, raw and unstoppable, and understand that my own death is not a distant thing.”
Elaine has to identify her husband Vic’s body at the funeral home. She and her sons choose images and objects, and decorate Vic’s cremation box with his body in it to create a sacred experience. Then, “I turn away from death and face the rest of my life.”
This is a rare book that offers significant insight into death, dying, end of life, and the process of grief and bereavement. I almost do not know where to stop writing. The book mesmerized me from the first page. Elaine’s writing style flows easily and draws the reader in. It is beautifully written. The love between Elaine and Vic is evident on every page along with the fact that they nourish and cherish this connection. The story flows and you, as the reader, are immediately drawn in as if you are being wrapped by a warm, soft shawl.
One would expect a book about the death of one’s spouse to be sad and parts of it were, but I also found the book to be uplifting and comforting. Elaine and her husband Vic studied Buddhism and many spiritual traditions, traveled to India three times, and while Vic was dying in the hospital read from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. They met in university.
“I care about focusing my love and grief for a limited amount of time and then find a way to move on…..I need to release myself.”
Vic taught physics and a class on Tibet at Colgate University and wrote about Buddhism and physics. In 1967, Vic and Elaine became students of Anthony Damiani who founded Wisdom’s Goldenrod Center for Philosophical Studies. Goldenrod is a spiritual center dedicated to all spiritual traditions where students attend classes, take retreats, and meditate together. The Dalai Lama first visited the study and meditation center in 1979 and became the spiritual head of Goldenrod after the founder’s death. About the same time as Vic was diagnosed with cancer, the Dalai Lama requested that Vic write a book on Buddhism and physics and offered to write an introduction for it. Vic dedicated his last two years to this work.
Inspired by The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Elaine creates the first of many altars dedicated to helping her accept her loss, adds photos and images, lights a candle, wraps herself in Indian silk, and meditates. She reflects on a conversation Vic had with their spiritual teacher Anthony Damiani forty years earlier. Vic said he was afraid of death and Anthony told him, “Widen your view. Mortality is universal. Human incarnation is a precious gift. Make the most of the time you have.”
Vic becomes sick in 2006 with flu like symptoms which later are diagnosed as lymphoma, but a very rare form called, Angio-Immunoblastic T-cell Lymphoma- AITL which is usually a secondary cancer after radiation. It is incurable. Chemo therapy starts. It becomes a two year battle.
Elaine is his main caregiver as their grown sons live out of state. Things are difficult at times, fatigue both mental, and physical. Her life goes on hold to care for him which is typical in a spousal relationship. She doesn’t have time to focus on herself, her own work, and provide the support that her husband needs.
During this time Elaine’s mother dies, but as she is in her 90’s with severe Alzheimer’s, it is easier and more acceptable.
In the last weeks, although Vic wants to continue the battle, Elaine is overwhelmed, exhausted, and it is difficult for her to witness her husband’s suffering and the side effects of the treatment. When Vic slides toward a coma and is obviously dying, doctors suggest a ventilator, but Elaine and their primary care doctor decide a ventilator will only prolong his suffering. Surrounded by family, friends Vic dies in the hospital.
The first few years are hard for Elaine as it is an adjustment to be alone and do things alone. “My body recoils from the persistent raw grief and tears and my muscles ache from sleeplessness. My mind is foggy and my heart feels heavy and swollen.”
She focuses on writing and rituals to ease her grief and invites twenty women to her land for a community ritual of release after Vic’s death. She and their son’s bury Vic’s ashes in the forest. She begins volunteering at Hospicare ten months after his death. She invites the community for a walk on the one year anniversary of Vic’s death.
Her writing leads to this book. She completes a hospice volunteer bereavement training to offer comfort and support to others and leads support groups for women who have lost partners and spouses. Her life goes on.
By Victoria Brewster, MSW