Forget Prayers, Bring Cake: A Single Woman’s Guide to Grieving by Merissa Nathan Gerson, Mandala Publishing, 2021, 180 pgs., $16.99.

The progress of medical science in the last century has not only postponed death for many Americans but transformed it as well. It’s gone from an intimate tragedy experienced in the home to an often protracted clinical struggle experienced in a hospital. This has had inevitable psychological side-effects. It could be rightly said that most 21st-century Americans have either forgotten how to grieve or else never learned it.

Merissa Nathan Gerson, in her indispensable new book Forget Prayers, Bring Cake, acknowledges this immediately.

“So many of us were never taught how to grieve, who to speak to, what to do, or when to quit,” she writes. “Sure, the Bible says to sow in tears and reap in gladness, but whose priest or rabbi or guru sat them down and slowly explained what grief is, why it must be honored, and how to grieve? Not mine.”

Ms. Gerson experiences a rudely quick introduction to the whole process of grieving when her father, a vital, brilliant man, is suddenly struck with precipitous mental decline and, in what feels like an overnight change, goes from immortal in Ms. Gerson’s eyes to enfeebled and very much mortal. He begins by forgetting small things, but far too soon, he’s forgetting the entire world as his body slowly shuts down.

“He looked young, childlike, born new in some ways,” Ms. Gerson recalls, of the final days when her family had brought her father home to die. “He was helpless, but also so present. I wanted to climb inside his mind and see the peace he was creating for himself.”

The book’s genial, resolutely upbeat narrative takes readers through the whole course of grief, from what Ms. Gerson calls “pre-grief,” when the living know what’s coming and can’t escape the reality of it, all the way to that weird period long after the worst of grief is over, when the soft handling of the broader world begins to fritter away. Life, in other words, returns to normal, and although there’s no such intent, the impact can be oddly brutal.

“Suddenly there’s this territory with no funeral, no anniversary, and less coddling, less asking after you,” Ms. Gerson writes. “I was on my own. I had to remember to eat. I had to remember to cook. I had to make my own tea.”

These returning priorities align perfectly with the book’s main refrain, one starkly at odds with virtually all other grief manuals: “Your needs come first. Period.”

Ms. Gerson relates the story of her own grief with a marvelous understated eloquence — anyone who’s ever lost a loved one will immediately recognize aspects of the experience in these pages — but her sympathies are always with the living, and her strong urgings are always for self-healing. You are your own best friend, she insists. You know yourself better than anybody in the world, and you don’t honor the beloved departed by running yourself down in your grief. Remember to eat, she reminds her readers. Remember to take time for yourself. Cherish sleep. Be generous to yourself with naps.

It’s not all solo, of course. As the title of Ms. Gerson’s book indicates, there’s plenty of community in these chapters. Readers are warmly encouraged to reject the modern mind-frame that characterizes grieving as a lonely, solitary experience, something nobody can touch or help and that only time can heal. Rather, a far more holistic view of grief and grieving is presented, complete with variations on prayer if that helps. 

Ms. Gerson writes glowingly of the value she herself got from her grief counselor, and she advocates that kind of assistance as part of self-help.

“My advice is to find someone who knows death and the experience of loss better than you do, let another remind you of the gravity of what you are going through,” she writes. “Those who haven’t waded through the waters of mortality will not be able to navigate this terrain in the same way.”

Readers of Forget Prayers, Bring Cake will find a grief-book unlike anything they have ever read before, one entirely free of cheap sentimentality and entirely brimming with life, one that concentrates on the living, not the dead. Deep, ragged grief is the price people pay for the joy of cherishing loved ones, and Ms. Gerson has written a book that looks at the whole of that spectrum. Ms. Gerson has written a funny, wise book that does indeed wade through the waters of mortality — it will bring comfort to any grievers lucky enough to read it.

Merissa Gerson joins this Sunday’s service at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Martha’s Vineyard to talk about her book via Zoom. The service begins at 11 a.m. For a Zoom link, visit