A Manual for Heartache – Cathy Rentzenbrink


Published June 29th 2017 by Picador
Author: Cathy Rentzenbrink
Format: Hardback
Genre: Non-fiction, memoir, self-help, mental health
Pages: 151
Star rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Opening Line:

“Life hurts.”

Goodreads synopsis:

The wise and inspiring new book from the bestselling author of The Last Act of Love.

When Cathy Rentzenbrink was still a teenager, her happy family was torn apart by an unthinkable tragedy. In A Manual for Heartache she describes how she learnt to live with grief and loss and find joy in the world again. She explores how to cope with life at its most difficult and overwhelming and how we can emerge from suffering forever changed, but filled with hope.

This is a moving, warm and uplifting book that offers solidarity and comfort to anyone going through a painful time, whatever it might be. It’s a book that will help to soothe an aching heart and assure its readers that they’re not alone.

My review

The first thing I have to say is I’m glad this book exists. I’ve never read a book dealing with grief and loss at its core, and never sought such a book out. But I’d heard about this one, or had it recommended to me before, and I liked the title. I liked what it promised: a manual.

It’s clear from early on that the grief of the author is about the death of her brother Matty, and the grief and mental anguish that she’s had to deal with ever since. It’s this grief, and the process of working through her grief to this point, is what makes this book so good. There’s hindsight and wisdom in these pages, but also just really honest thoughts.

My dad passed away when I was quite young, and I’ve been processing it ever since. But I’ve never focused on it in the way that Cathy focuses on her brother’s death in this book. As well as exploring grief as an emotion, she offers her personal story of how she reacted to his death, and the ways she tried to deal with her grief. It is both a manual and a memoir, and it puts mental health at the front.

“This is a legacy of trauma: we spend so much time anticipating a new horror that we destroy the present.”

This is the kind of book which is going to help me to reflect on my own processes of grief, and I’ll re-read sections of this and consider my own attitudes towards loss in my own life but also others lives. In 2017, the town I live in, Beeston, grieved collectively after a young boy drowned in the river. The whole town came together in the immediate aftermath, and it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. But despite this, it’s still hard to know what to say when you think of his family and what they are going through as individuals, away from the masses of support.

This book offers some kind of answer towards that. I wouldn’t exactly want to knock on his mother’s door and say ‘read this book’, but at the same time I do. It’s an emotion and a process that we need to address and try to deal with, and this is the book to turn to for those looking for some kind of guidance or help, or just someone else’s story.

It’s also a happy coincidence that I decided to read this while reading the Harry Potter series, because Cathy draws on aspects of the books that relate to mental health. The dementors being akin to depression, and the Mirror of Erised, with its power to show us what we truly, deeply want.

Cathy also writes a letter to her son, Matt (name inspired by her late brother) in which she includes general life advice. This is an incredible chapter, and definitely one to return to. In the same vein, an earlier chapter where Cathy writes advice to herself on how to deal with life when in a depressive state, is something we should all take the time to read. There’s no pressure to follow the advice, but there are gems that I realise have already helped me just by reading the book. My whole outlook to life has shifted while reading this, and I’ve no doubt that it’ll do the same for others.

“It’s quite something to realize that you can have power and influence over your own thoughts and moods.”

The final part of the book offers a list of writing prompts which can be used to aid mental health. These are simple questions such as ‘how are you feeling?’ and ‘what are you grateful for?’. I’ve copied these out and stuck them in the front of a notebook, so that I can use them when I need to.

There’s also a really handy reading list at the back, with a bunch of recommended books. I’ve notes some of these down too, and noticed that a lot are already on my ‘to be read’ list.

I borrowed this book from the library, but I think I’ll have to get a copy from somewhere for me to keep, re-read and mark out all the bits that helped me, and the quotes that are worth re-visiting every now and then. I’ll publish a separate post with all my favourite quotes from this book.

In a similar way to Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, this book is essential reading for anyone who has been touched by grief.

Link to the book on Goodreads: A Manual for Heartache

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