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I Promise It Won't Always Hurt Like This: 18 Assurances on Grief


I Promise It Won't Always Hurt Like This: 18 Assurances on Grief

Clare Mackintosh, the bestselling author of such thrillers as HOSTAGE and THE LAST PARTY, invites readers into --- and out of --- her deeply personal grief in I PROMISE IT WON’T ALWAYS HURT LIKE THIS, a meditative collection of essays on grief, healing and remembrance.

It can be odd to think of your favorite authors as living, breathing people going about their days --- preparing meals, stubbing a toe, calling a friend --- and living perfectly normal lives outside of their work. Part of those lives includes love, births and deaths, and Mackintosh (whose debut, I LET YOU GO, remains one of my all-time favorite thrillers), has seen and lived through it all. In 2006, she gave birth to premature twin boys, 28 weeks earlier than their due date, but they were more or less healthy. After a month of good, encouraging progress, her son Alex picked up an infection called Pseudomonas, or “hospital infection” for those of us who aren’t medical professionals.

Soon after, Mackintosh and her husband were called into a meeting in the hospital’s “Quiet Room,” a deceivingly serene name for a room reserved for only the worst of news. Alex had bacterial meningitis, and the next few days would be critical. At their next visit to the Quiet Room, the Mackintoshes were told, gently, that he had suffered a catastrophic hemorrhage. He might be able to breathe independently one day, but there was only one certainty: he would be profoundly disabled for the rest of his life, never able to walk or talk. His condition was incompatible with life. So they made the impossible decision to take him off life support and let him die a peaceful, natural death.

"[Mackintosh's] greatest promise of all is that no matter who you have lost or how recently you cried, you are not alone. Mackintosh and her indispensable book are right there with you."

The days, weeks, months and years that followed were no doubt foggy for Mackintosh, who faced all the usual platitudes: He’s in a better place!; God only calls his best angels home!; and, least helpfully, At least you have another son!, as if the presence of one negates the loss of another. For years she dreaded hospitals, doctors, advertisements for baby clothes and toys, and occasionally even her own son. But while grief never grows smaller, life does, in time, expand around it. In the years since Alex’s death, she has found peace, indulging in her family and her career, her memories of her son, and the new ones she has formed with her children.

Now, in I PROMISE IT WON’T ALWAYS HURT LIKE THIS, Mackintosh turns her finely honed writing skills onto herself, dispensing 18 promises to readers who, like her, have suffered an enormous, shocking loss. She advises that not every promise will provide comfort, and for those who are grieving the most, the book is probably best read in intervals, one chapter at a time. But regardless of its reception, it promises one sure thing: It won’t always hurt like this. (It will always hurt, Mackintosh maintains, but never like this.)

“I promise it won’t always hurt like this, that you won’t always lie awake at night, sobbing until you cannot breathe. I promise the waves of grief that knock you off your feet won’t drown you. I promise you will find a way to say goodbye, and a reason to keep going. I promise this won’t always be your first thought in the morning, that you won’t always fear the worst. I promise you won’t always feel so angry, so guilty, so tired. I promise you’ll find someone who understands. I promise that you won’t always be winded by someone else’s happiness, broken by anniversaries or by questions you cannot answer. I promise you will be happy again, that one day you’ll be able to pay it forward. I promise you won’t forget. I promise it won’t always hurt like this.”

So begins I PROMISE IT WON’T ALWAYS HURT LIKE THIS, which is structured around 18 promises, each of them accompanied by memories of Mackintosh’s own grief, confessions about the moments she has suffered, and advice for readers in the same position. She is soothing and comforting, but this is no overly sentimental “Chicken Soup”-esque checklist through grief. Rather, she is raw and unflinching as she faces her grief, her mistakes and her moments of cruel thoughts...and the book is infinitely better for it.

If there is one overarching theme, it’s that grief --- much like your lost loved one and your love for them --- is unique and individual, like a fingerprint. One person’s grief will never look like another’s, even if they are mourning the same person. And that is okay! It is important to remember that grief’s hold on each of us --- whether we cannot make it to the grocery store without crying or are back at work right after the funeral --- is heavy and clinging, a presence that feels eternal and can often shift our perspectives, turning us confused, angry or cruel.

But knowledge is power, and the mere knowledge that a woman like Mackintosh, who suffered perhaps the cruelest grief known to man, can get through it and come out on the other side alive and well is a true gift. Her journey to peace was not a short or even straightforward one, and she has no trouble admitting to the days that she has backslid or that she will never quite be done saying goodbye to Alex. But she no longer hurts the way she did driving home from the hospital that day, or even celebrating her other twin’s birthday a little less than a year later. For those experiencing all-consuming, cloying grief, that knowledge is enough.

In the introduction to I PROMISE IT WON’T ALWAYS HURT LIKE THIS, Mackintosh explains that she chose to focus on the elements of grief that seem most universal and common, fully aware that not every chapter or promise will resonate with everyone. She also acknowledges that while some lines will stick with her readers forever, others will be the moment they say, “No, this is not how I feel,” and give up. It is her consciousness of this fact --- her willingness to welcome and accept readers from all walks of life experiencing all types of grief --- that makes this book such a powerful talisman against the inevitable pain of grief.

While no expert, as she states, Mackintosh is someone who is perhaps a little further along in her journey than her readers. Her greatest promise of all is that no matter who you have lost or how recently you cried, you are not alone. Mackintosh and her indispensable book are right there with you.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on March 22, 2024

I Promise It Won't Always Hurt Like This: 18 Assurances on Grief
by Clare Mackintosh

  • Publication Date: March 19, 2024
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Sourcebooks
  • ISBN-10: 1728281199
  • ISBN-13: 9781728281193