The Cactus by Sarah Haywood

I’m a sucker for a book with a gorgeous cover and a British audiobook narrator. The Cactus by Sarah Haywood had both of these and I knew I was a goner. I mean, look how gorgeous this cover is!

The Cactus by Sarah Haywood tells the story of Susan Green. Susan is very particular in how she wants her life to run. Everything around her is perfectly ordered. Anything out of the norm presented to her must be weighed carefully by Susan to assess the pros and cons before she decides to either add it to her life or banish it completely. Emotions are one part of daily life that Susan just doesn’t see the point of because they are unpredictable and don’t fit into her perfectly ordered existence. They’re messy. Susan doesn’t like messy.

Susan has the perfect flat for one, a job that lets her logical side run free, and a longstanding, as she calls it, ‘interpersonal arrangement’ that has been going on for 12 years. This arrangement provides Susan with all the cultural and more intimate personal relations she feels she needs. With all this perfection and order, something is bound to go awry. And sure enough, Susan is soon faced with changing circumstances she can not control.

Susan’s mother unexpectedly passes away. Her mother’s will leaves Susan angry and confused as it details that Susan’s lazy and spoiled brother is given the larger share of everything. Susan also learns that her ‘interpersonal arrangement’ with Richard has resulted in her becoming pregnant, a fact that knocks her off course.

Susan is losing control. Despite her best efforts to curtail her brother’s efforts and to deal with her pregnancy, nothing seems to go her way. As her due date looms closer, the circumstances with her brother seem to be getting more complicated and do not clear up the way that she had hoped. Soon everything comes to a head and Susan finds herself looking for help from the most unlikely of people in the oddest of ways. Susan discovers things about herself that she previously didn’t know. This self-discovery amidst her mother’s death and unexpected pregnancy allows Susan to find the strength to move forward and create a different life.

This book reminded me a lot of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, so much so that I had to consciously remind myself that these were two separate books. If I had read them back to back, my confusion would have been great! Both main characters seem to have Asperger’s Syndrome, have difficulty relating to others, and have complicated personal and professional lives. Definitely recommend them both.

Breaking Sad edited by Shelly Fisher & Jennifer Jones

Breaking Sad: What to Say After Loss, What Not to Say, and When to Just Show Up edited by Shelly Fisher & Jennifer Jones lays out for you what to say when you just don’t know what to say. Loss, grief, bereavement, and sympathy are all complicated emotions and states of being that have the power to bring even the strongest, calmest, and most stoic of us to their knees. When that happens, what are those of us surrounding the bereaved supposed to do? If you’re like me, you stand awkwardly by in fear that you will say the wrong thing or that the words you meant to be kind will somehow be construed the wrong way. Breaking Sad helped me figure out what to do.

Breaking Sad breaks down loss into multiple sections: new loss, sudden loss, loss with time for a good-bye, loss at a tender age, persistent loss, complicated loss, unacknowledged loss, other kinds of loss, and loss and time. It additionally ends with a section of takeaways and an epilogue entitled: “One for the road”. Each section of loss features real stories and real feedback from people who have struggled with each type of loss presented in this book. These personal stories allow readers to gain a better understanding of what the bereaved are feeling. Each story further shows to highlight how people all grieve differently as what comforts one person only proves to irritate another. Grieving with a sudden loss versus a loss with time for a good-bye necessitates mourners to comfort the bereaved in different ways.

The part that I found the most helpful were the suggestions from survivors about how to comfort them. These suggestions are broken down into four sections: best thing someone did or said, worst thing someone did or said, advice for someone going through a similar experience, and advice for those surrounding the bereaved. Reading about such a wide variety of loss coupled with the suggestions from the survivors gave me a well-rounded look into how I should approach someone when they’re going through a loss. This book helped me work through my own grief and helped me become more comfortable when it comes to offering support and caring for people when they’re struggling through their own grief.

In addition to giving me real-life examples and ways to comfort others, this book also helped me work through grief of my own. Being able to read through situations that were similar to mine helped me realize that the emotions that I have felt, both in the past and the present, are normal and valid and that there is no right way to grieve. Having someone say those things to your face are one thing, but being able to read multiple accounts of people going through the same process is another. Everyone grieves in their own way, just like everyone expresses their sympathy and grief towards another in a different way. We’re all human beings. This book continuously reminded me to live in a place of kindness and understanding towards others because we truly have no idea what could be living under the surface. Be kind to everyone because you have no idea the battles waging within.

This book by no means captures all types of loss, all stages of grief, and even all the different ways that sympathy can be extended towards the bereaved. Read this as more of a guidebook, a collection of signs, that can help guide you towards what to say and how to act.