The very title of journalist Jill Smolowe’s memoir—Four Funerals and a Wedding—with its play on the title of the 1994 hit movie, lends credence to its subtitle: Resilience in a Time of Grief. The title (which was her idea) refers to the deaths of her husband, sister, mother and mother-in-law in the span of 17 months. As a writer—full disclosure: she and her late husband, Joe Treen, were colleagues of mine at People in the ’90s—Smolowe combines striking clarity and acuity with relaxed humor and unpretentious candor. She brings those qualities to this affecting account of her marriage and family, repeatedly buffeted by illness and loss, managing not to run aground.
Four Funerals doesn’t preach or prescribe. As a journalist, Smolowe drew comfort from learning all she could about Treen’s leukemia. But “my trove of information is a perfect fit for one person only—me.” Yet by joining her on her difficult journey, the reader learns valuable lessons—for example, that recent research has shown that resilience in times of strife and grief is in fact the norm. Or that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s totemic five stages of grief were meant to apply to the dying, not to the bereaved. Or that offers of “anything you need” from friends are often more burdensome than helpful.
In one of Treen’s hospital stays, he told her, “you should remarry.” Three and a half years after he died, she did. No one would envy Smolowe’s ordeal. But the way she handled it and writes about it? Very much so.