WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER…a phrase seen and uttered all too often in response to a pandemic year that tried and tested much of our resolve, patience, trust, and hopes to the point of near breakdown. In Frances Itani’s The Company We Keep, she suggests that even in the singularly private state and process of grief, we are all still in it together. Within the confines of a casually organized, weekly ‘grief discussion’ group at a local Coffee Shop, 6 strangers discover immediately how together they truly are in their own grief journeys. Itani takes us around the corner, and all over the globe…back in time and moving forward. She tangents us off in many directions entering six lives, six journeys, six struggles to survive and even thrive with the heaviness that their losses weigh on them.
Six strangers, whose lives’ paths cross at a neighbourhood grocery store bulletin board, find themselves drawn to a weekly grief discussion group. Each stranger, with no expectations and no pre-conceived notions, finds their own way to continue in their own process in dealing with the losses in their lives. With each meeting, the frayed emotional ends of their pain start to bind. Their internal questions start to become clearer to answer. Friendships begin to evolve and the strangers find real healing solace in collective sharing and discovery. New feelings, resolved issues, and growth emerges, making the ‘Company’ part of what can happen when we take time to see our grief for what it could really be, and put it in a better place, easier to carry as we go onward, in making sense of living being alive.
Hazzley, the organizer of the discussion group, lost her husband to alcoholism for years even before his death.
Chiyo, the fitness trainer, lost her overbearing and over-opinionated mother after caring for her until her mother’s needs outweighed her own capabilities.
Tom, having lost his beloved soulmate Ida just months earlier, runs a small but upscale antique shop.
Addie, divorced for only a few years, watches as her best friend of decades fades away to cancer and has her life on hold, driving out of the Province to be with her through palliative care.
Then there’s Gwen, who has been asked to care for a high maintenance pet for travelling friends, while trying to move on from a brute of a husband, whom she lost suddenly to a stroke earlier this year fresh off of her retirement as a bookkeeper.
Allam joins the group later, a friend of Tom’s. Allam’s life took a turn as his wife was killed as his family tries to flee amidst the civil unrest in Serbia.
Although the strangers come from significantly different worlds, but the meetings, the light-then-deeper discussions and the takeaways affect each of them profoundly, uniquely, and yet similarly, leading them all to better understanding of their pain, their challenges and new places in the world.
Grief is like anything else in life... each experience with it is different and we are all unique in living with and through it. Itani finds the ties that bind…the connected emotions that make the journeys so similar. One thing that’s apparent immediately is that each of the members of the ‘Company’ (they refer to it as such almost right away) is together in that they were all ready for answers and peace, however they might find it through the light discussions and deeper conversations that the Company meetings could bring about. They open up early into the very first meeting and the comfort between them is clear. They were ready, even with the all questions and doubts and pain and resentments…they were open to moving ahead.
“Shall we start by introducing ourselves? Say a few words?” The man seated to her left, responded instantly.
The Company is not without its imperfections, however, as we find out soon too, that one of the group ‘sort of’ led the others to believe that her best friend was gone when in fact, she was still alive. In the openness, a secret. Like spokes on a wheel, the book splays out on many meandering roads through the lives of the six, then directs us back to the ‘hub’ of the Company meetings. It actually reads like six stories, each leading the characters to varying degrees of recovery and understanding, back to the next meeting. With every gathering, more clarity for the characters, more peace, more sense of life!
Itani’s message is clear and absolutely relevant given the year we’ve all observed and continue to endure. We are all in this together, but it doesn’t mean we’re all the same. It means we may all hope to get to the same place with all the fears, worries, and doubts on how to get there. So many questions fill our time these days, as they did for Gwen, who found herself sad with love for a man who she didn’t like very much when alive.
“How far would she have to go to find the Gwen that was buried in the past?”
What we are discovering about ourselves from this year that will carry us to better places in our future? What have we or would we see about ourselves when grief finds us and blankets us in sorrow as it certainly has and will again? Each character’s journey has elements that we can all relate to. The questions we may ask when we lose someone close are asked here. Itani’s secret is that there need not necessarily be answers, and that’s OK. That others share in the search for those answers, is the collective answer in finding peace and clarity.
I appreciated the soft approach Itani takes with The Company We Keep. I liked the way in which she easily shows how alike the six main characters really are, even though each from very different backgrounds. She indicates that they’re all strangers, yet soon began to reveal places, other people, landmarks that they shared knowing about.
It was interesting that Allam, invited later in the book to the group, was shown taking great strides in trying to understand and use the English language, yet seem to be very clear in understanding the emotions connected to the other characters and relating them (some more than others 😉) despite the language barrier.
The Company We Keep is an interesting read to any of us who have ever, or will ever, lose someone close, which of course is almost everyone, if we’re lucky. I say lucky because I feel it’s a privilege of life to have people so close to us, to feel such great emotion in losing them. The inevitability of death in our lives makes our life that much more precious.
What exactly is the ‘company’ in The Company We Keep? The name of the group itself? The luggage they carry in dealing with death around them? The heavy memories, weighted regrets, and fears we all drag along in our lives, and the moments of revelation we get from time to time, to shed those unwanted pounds. To send the company packing, when they’ve stayed with us long enough.
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