A story of vulnerability

Many Different Kinds of Love: A story of life, death and the NHS (Ebury Press) by Michael Rosen reviewed by Dr Jo Kirk.

As psychologists we are especially curious about the inner workings of the mind. This curiosity takes some of us into privileged roles where we regularly bear witness to the most private and protected parts of a person’s story. At the very least, we do no harm, but at our best, it is a kind of love. We might therefore be especially interested in Michael Rosen’s Many Different Kinds of Love, in which he reveals his very personal story of Covid-19.

Through diary entries, poems and private family messages, he shares physical, psychological and spiritual challenges, held within a quieter, yet bigger story of the healing power of love. Like Rosen, I am conscious of the very different ways in which Covid-19 may have affected readers over the past year, so this book and my review come with a trigger warning. Nevertheless, in the magical manner that good literature and poetry holds us safe in the extremes, I found it to be heart wrenchingly raw and painful, beautiful and uplifting.
Each chapter recounts a different stage in Rosen’s recovery, accompanied by pencil drawings by Chris Riddell that perfectly capture the scenes. From the first tweet – Rosen’s last before going into hospital and losing his voice – it is as if we walk alongside him. We watch and listen as he sickens, then is put ‘to sleep’ so a machine can keep him breathing. Although we know that he will live, it often feels far from certain. We hear the voices of NHS staff through their daily diary entries, and picture their care, often given with reverential respect. They each offer something of themselves, bringing comfort through frightening nights of delirium by holding Rosen’s hand, or like Wincy, the ITU nurse, offering a prayer-like wish: ‘May you continue to touch and inspire every human being you will encounter.’ It is incredibly powerful.

Once out of ITU, Rosen begins to speak for himself. Through his familiar style of poetry, he reflects on his near-death, losses, and recovery from Covid-19, and what it is like to be loved and cared for. He reflects on relationships with his parents, wife, and children, quietly inviting us to do the same. It is reassuring to see his ironic humour, and his characteristically astute sideswipes at the government, showing us that he is getting a little better.

If you love Rosen already, his words will surely make you cry, pulling you into the loss and pain of recovery, before spitting you out with a belly laugh. To others the book might seem saccharine, or self-indulgent, but whilst it speaks for Rosen and his journey towards acceptance and the creation of a new story about himself, it also speaks for others. It is a universal story of vulnerability, and a very deliberate tribute to all those who work in the NHS and the wider community supporting our recovery.

Not everyone had the same ending as Rosen, or a diary filled with loving comments to treasure, but for those who were unable to see loved ones before they died, this book speaks of the many loving hands of the NHS staff who touched them in their final days, and the communities we continue to need to heal. Howsoever Covid-19 has affected you, be kind to yourself, and when you feel ready to open the first page, get your tissues. You are in for a life-affirming rollercoaster ride.

- Reviewed by Dr Jo Kirk, Clinical Psychologist and literature lover

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