Book review: Given time to say goodbye by Dianne Leutner

Categories: In The Media.

In ‘Given time to say goodbye’, Dianne Leutner has written a memoir of a seven-year period during which she lived through the deaths of both her parents, two sisters-in-law and her father-in-law.

As the title suggests, the main focus is the experience of bereavement and grief when the death is expected; both her parents died from cancer and much of the narrative follows their stories.

The other deaths are sudden and these stories, which fill far less space in the book, stand in contrast to the day-by-day accounts of living with a terminal diagnosis and an anticipated death.

The writer is a Dutch national and writes from the perspective of living in the UK with her young family. During this period she also found herself unexpectedly pregnant and the birth of her child less than three years after her father’s death illustrates one of the themes which weave through the book; how life can exist alongside dying, and the cyclical nature of human existence.

The book is a memoir, although presented as a chronological account of this period. Leutner also includes her own first experiences of death as a girl. This is useful as it shows how early experiences will shape responses to subsequent bereavements, for good or for bad. The diary format, as well as the blog posts written during the period, give a sense of immediacy and intimacy with this family.

There is much that will chime with readers who have been involved in the daily care of people at the end of their lives and who have known bereavement.

The initial disbelief of diagnosis: ‘this doesn’t happen to families like ours’, sensory connection with the seasons and nature, the value of support and being held in the thoughts of others and of doing simple everyday tasks. How being involved in the practical care of a patient can be better than being an onlooker, the daily ups and downs of end of life care, the difficulties of decision making, the cycle of hopes raised then dashed and the emotional toll on families.

Leutner writes of the intensity of experiences when the inevitability of dying is embraced, the importance of having the conversations you need to have so that things are not left unsaid, of saying goodbye and the agonizing uncertainty of ‘when will it happen’. The surreal feel in the days just after the death is described as well as the tensions that ensue while the family is temporarily derailed and the cascade of realisations that come only after a death.

The author is honest about feeling relief, however unwelcome, when death does come, and the slightly guilty feeling of enjoying attention as a bereaved person. She writes well on the essential loneliness of grieving but the overarching message is that this family were fortunate in having ‘gifted’ time to share with their parents who were able to embrace the imminence of their deaths and live fully in the moment.

As a childhood bereavement practitioner, I was interested in the way the young children were included in the narrative. Dianne Leutner wrote a book for children, ‘Remembering’, after her father’s death and ‘Given time to say goodbye’ illustrates much of what is generally considered ‘good practice’; allowing and encouraging children to view the bodies if they wish and with support, giving age appropriate information, involving them in the funerals, having tangible memories and bonds with the deceased.  

It’s not always easy to be interested in someone else’s family and yet we are drawn into the lives of these ordinary people who are remarkable in their own way. The book includes a link to the website created by the family where there are photos of Dianne’s parents. While looking at these after reading the book, I was surprised at a feeling of fondness and recognition. Much of this is probably due to Dianne Leutner’s generosity of approach in writing from the heart and in sharing the evident love which pervades this family.

It is a self-published book and this is unfortunately shown in the many typographical glitches and inconsistencies that pepper the text.

The family are also very spiritual in a non-religious way which will not be shared by every reader; frequent references to being blessed and the relatively easy journey to acceptance and being able to give and receive love can feel a bit cloying and may conflict with the experience of those whose family relationships are more fractured.

I always wonder about anger, which in this book seemed largely absent and struggled a little with the sense of perfect family happiness.

It is a very personal account and will probably not resonate totally with every reader but neither does it come across as a ‘writing as therapy’ memoir; there is a sense of perspective and distance.

As a memoir, this is also a book written from the point of view of hindsight. But all family stories are constructions and work in progress in a sense and all are subjective as well as being mutable. This book nevertheless confirms many of the common aspects of caring for a terminally ill person and grieving, and as such would be helpful for people who are experiencing this.

It isn’t a book on grief theory but nevertheless imparts many helpful messages of grief theory. Grieving can be hard and lonely and this book may help some people to feel less alone and to feel that hope and happiness can be possible. 

Given time to say goodbye is available to buy through Amazon, and bulk orders can be purchased at a discount by contacting

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