When my sons died, I realized that after you’ve buried your child, everything else in life should be easy. Whatever it is you formerly feared, from sky diving to public speaking, suddenly seem completely manageable. You’ve already done the very hardest thing. And, as you also learn when you’re reminded of the forever finality of death, there’s no time for doing these things like the present. My advice to bereaved parents, or anyone really, is to do whatever it is you’ve always wanted to do. Go and live the life you wanted your child to have. Why not? Time is ticking, whether you can hear it or not.
For me, one of those things was to tell the story of my sons, to write a book, which I’ve now done. But after the writing comes the equally difficult task of publishing. “Grief doesn’t sell,” was a common response I heard from the gatekeepers to the publishing world. And then, after the writing and publishing of a book comes the marketing, which is where I’m at right now, and which never really ends. One of the many challenges of selling a book about child loss is that people are afraid to read it and I wrote my story to help other people, so what good is it if nobody reads it? I think it goes without saying, that even though living and surviving these stories is the most difficult thing to do, the fact remains that selling them is not all that easy either. Burying your baby is every parent’s worst nightmare and it’s not something you ever want to imagine. In fact, you can’t even imagine it. Even after you’ve experienced the loss of one of your children, it’s still virtually impossible to fully imagine losing another of them. Your mind just can’t go there. Nor do you really want it to. Fortunately, there’s a shut-off valve called survival that stops you just short of insanity.
Books are some of my best friends and I’m never without a pile of them on my nightstand. I also have four piles stacked next to my nightstand. And the space designed for books under it? Packed. During this past holiday season, one of the books who’s spine kept staring at me as I lay in bed each night was rare bird. And I have to confess that even I, who have spent the last nine months trying to convince people that they shouldn’t be afraid to read my own book, was hesitant to pick it up. “Breathe is about a sad subject but it’s not a sad book,” I’ve said over and over again. “I believe that we read to inform our lives,” I’d tell my audience, sometimes telling them about the following story that was cut from my own manuscript.
“The last book I read before Noah died was The Deep End of the Ocean, by Jacquelyn Mitchard. I never want to see that book again. It was about a boy who is kidnapped out from under his mother while she is busy checking into a hotel and how she completely falls apart in the aftermath of losing him, dragging the rest of her family down with her. I tried not to look for deeper meaning in the fact that I was reading that book instead of some sappy love story or non-fiction account of mountain climbing or sled-dog racing but it was hard not to. I learned from that book what not to do. I thought it a bit ironic and hopefully not an omen that I had read it. And I tried hard not to fall apart as a result.”
The point of this being that reading, even fiction, can prepare us for life. Probably the most common response I’ve had from my readers is that at first they were afraid to Breathe, and then they read it in two days. Or one. Or overnight. Or that it reminded them that there are books that need to be read in one sitting. Or that it made them miss their train. Or their bus stop. Or their subway stop. Or even how Breathe has led them back to their lost enjoyment of reading. This last thing is particularly sweet to me. And in light of my own passion for books and how I’ve struggled to “sell” this book to readers, every single one of these responses made me smile while silently shouting and fist pumping the air.
So after putting it off through the holidays, I began the new year by doing the very thing I’d been praying others would do—I read a book about every parent’s worst nightmare, including my own. I read rare bird. And I read it in two nights. And in those pages, I found myself. I found my own thoughts. I found my own words. I found my own fallibility. And I found my own strength. I am in the habit of reviewing every book I read on Goodreads but rare bird is not a book I can simply review before moving on to the next book in the pile. I’ve met many, many bereaved parents in my travels through the past 18 years since Noah died, but I’ve never read their books. I’ve never met Anna Whiston-Donaldson, although I’m sure I will some day, but I have, indeed, read her book. And her book spawned so many thoughts and ideas for me I could almost write a book about it. It would be a book about the absolute commonality of a mother’s grief. When I wrote Breathe, I never intended it to be a bereavement book and certainly not a guide to the dark underworld of grief. I intended Breathe to be for a much wider audience, for anyone and everyone. I wanted Breathe to read like any good creative non-fiction book because it was such a wild story. The book I’ve considered writing since reading rare bird would be that bereavement book I struggled so hard not to write. Because what I marveled at in reading rare bird were the common threads which were woven through our experiences.
In Breathe I write that we have names that describe us when we lose others, such as widow, widower, orphan, but that losing a child is so terrible, there is simply no word to describe it. So one of the things I’ve been thinking about for a long time now is somehow coming up with that word. Then we’d at least know what to call ourselves. One word that Anna writes about is “cleave”. Cleave is a verb that has two very different meanings. It can describe cutting or splitting something apart with a sharp instrument or, oddly enough, it can also mean the opposite—sticking to something like glue. It’s not a noun, but this to me describes how it is to be a bereaved parent. Your child has been sharply, painfully torn away from you, cleaved from you, and yet in so many ways, they are still a vital part of your being and so you clutch them, you cling to them, you cleave them to your heart. It’s a powerful word and a brilliant dichotomy. So, how about that? Cleaver sounds awful. But there’s something in there I haven’t yet named.
Anna’s Jack drowned and Noah was run over. Both Anna and I admit that grief can feel so much like shame because it feels like failure. I wrote, “As a parent you have failed at the most basic level. You have failed to protect your child from death, be it accidental or not. You couldn’t prevent those cancer cells from forming and you couldn’t prevent that vehicle from backing up. You ask the entire spectrum of whys and why nots and what ifs, and you beat yourself up endlessly until you come to understand that we are not in control of everything. In fact, we are not in control of anything, period. You would lay down your own life for your child. You would take his pain for your own, give anything and everything you have for him, including your place here on earth. But nobody asked you for your sacrifice; no one warned you that it was time to run outside and change places with him.” Both of us railed at the unfairness of losing them, and yet we also wondered how many times we’d actually saved them?
We both write about the “wake-up call”. When you face the unimaginable, losing your child, your own experience can serve as a “wake-up call” for others. Your loss can serve as a reminder of what they have not lost, a time to reexamine their own priorities. This is all well and good and yet, as much as we want our children to have mattered and to see that something, anything, good has come from their death, still, no parent wants to sacrifice their son so others can reorder their lives. It’s a nice outcome, but nobody would choose it. Would you? One of the many ironies which is not lost on bereaved parents is that while they are aching for their dead child, other children in our world are being abandoned, aborted, abused. It’s akin to watching others waste food when you are starving.
“When your child dies,” we both ask in our books, “who’s there for you?” Because we both came to the realization that sometimes, oftentimes, the friends and family in your life who you would expect to be there for you right now, while you struggle with this most critical of life’s crises, simply are not. Or can not. For whatever reason, reasons even they can’t or don’t articulate. But other folks, strangers even, come out of the woodwork to love and support you. They lift you up when you least expect it and it is amazing. It is the power of the holy spirit that lives and dwells among us. Indeed, relationships change after the death of your child, sometimes forever. The trick is to learn to be grateful for what we have and what we get and not focus on the things we don’t. I’ve tried to carry this along with me forever after the deaths of my sons and it’s a worthy goal for all of us, cleaved, bereaved, or otherwise. It is grace. And it isn’t easy.
One of the more obsessive things I experienced after Noah died was the pain I experienced daily from seeing the vehicle, the dreaded green Tahoe, that ran him over. So to read Anna describe her own everyday agony as she watched the two boys whom her son had been playing with when he drowned as they laughed and played together outside her house was very familiar to me. For both of us, seeing this car or these boys out our kitchen windows stopped us dead in our tracks as we tried to do the dishes or sip our coffee. These unwanted views were constant reminders of what we had lost and kept our fingers on the PTSD trigger that goes hand in hand with grief. Both exacerbated the pain we were trying to live through and move beyond. We both tried to cope, tried to find the grace to look beyond, and, ultimately, we both failed. Both of us eventually moved away. And when we did? We felt much better.
We each wrote about crying after we made love, a new thing. Both of us developed a hatred for math with our new family equations. Both of us are avid readers and read every book on death, grief, hope, forgiveness, and the meaning of life we could get our eyes and hands on. Both of us described how strange we suddenly felt, what it felt like to be “other” and that we began to feel like aliens. My thoughts on the subject were ultimately edited out, but in trying to describe how it felt in those first hours after the accident, after Noah was taken by life flight and we had to drive three hours to join him, I had written this:
“Outside of our deathly quiet van, it was a sunny summer day. We drove silently under the cloud of our thoughts like aliens newly arrived at this planet of sunshine. Our world had tilted so that even this road we had traveled so many, many times now carried us through an unfamiliar landscape. We passed happy families sitting down to Sunday dinners, blessing their food and giving thanks to God for their good fortune. We were becoming other, apart, and separate—like pod people whose sunshine has been eclipsed by a dusty morning driveway. We would never again feel the full effect of the sun’s rays through our new invisible pods—pods that prevented us from feeling but not from watching while others cavorted in the warmth we’d once relished when it had comforted our own skin.”
Both of us discovered that contrary to the five stages theory, grief is not linear. Translating strong emotions into words is not an easy task and to this end, I wrote the following four paragraphs, only one of which made it into my final manuscript. “They say there are five stages of grief but I did not find grief to be a linear progression of neat little stages. Indeed, this seems to be an idealistic simplification of an incredibly personal and chaotic process. I think it is a feeble attempt to rationalize the irrational on our part, reducing a maelstrom to a neat little step by step guide. Grief is an irrational and crazy thing. It makes you sick in every quadrant of your being: mentally, physically, emotionally, and psychologically. And it arrives in waves and in circles, not in goose-stepping lines of progression. On some moments or days it hits from all sides simultaneously and lays you low; on others it eases up and maybe only makes your belly ache and your appetite disappear. Maybe you cry all day. Or maybe you can muster a smile when you feel like crying. Certainly you feel the five emotions she described, but you also feel many others, as in every other that there is.
Grief is like standing immobile in front of a whirling dervish. And in that cyclone is every emotion there ever was. And at any given moment one of those emotions will stick out its muscled arm and punch you in the stomach or the heart or wherever you might feel it most, splitting open old wounds like a professional boxer. Some days you see the strike coming and manage to receive only a glancing blow, and other times it catches you off guard, connecting suddenly and completely, and you find yourself in some strange dark place doubled over with pain, clutching your belly.
Grief stands with you on the shores of your ocean. Some days the sea before you is angry and turbulent. There are whitecaps on every horizon, the waves are huge and powerful, slamming into your body, knocking you down, tumbling you over and over, allowing you to emerge briefly, struggling to stand, gasping for air before being pummeled back to the murky depths of the bottom where your body is folded around itself like a fetus for protection and security and your face is rubbed raw. Your mouth opens to scream and is filled with gritty sand. Other days the waves are so small, lapping so gently at your ankles from a calm and serene sea. You are the personification of strength and tranquility as you stand firm and brave on the shore, casually picking the leftover sand from your teeth.
These grief-by-the-sea scenes change by the minute, by the hour, by the day. You are forced to live for the moment because every moment is an eternity and you can only manage to struggle through by taking them one breath at a time. Some are filled with such incredible beauty and joy that you want them to last for all eternity, cherishing each second, not rushing to move on to the next one. You are never quite sure what to expect so that all of it, every moment, is constantly, eternally, new.”
Both of us discovered that the days and weeks leading up to the dreaded firsts are actually worse than the day itself, as if you’ve already worked it out, so that by the time the day you’re dreading arrives, like the first anniversary (“crapiversary”, writes Anna) of your child’s death, you’re prepared, you’ve made your plan, and you’re somewhat at peace with it. Both of us read The Lovely Bones and railed at the mom’s decision to cut and run. In fact, I often cite that book, among others, as typical story lines involving a child’s death where the parents respond by making the tragedy even worse. I don’t think this is the norm. Most of us don’t have the option to turn to drugs or alcohol, have an affair, or otherwise quit our lives and up and leave. Nor would we abandon our other children. Why would you take a terrible situation and make it even worse?
When I was pitching and querying my story, I had to explain what set my tale apart from other books about child loss and I was led to understand that a book about losing two children was simply not enough. It wasn’t different enough. I had to have something original to say. For me, our family conflict was the drama that drove the plot and set my story apart. So my hat is off to Anna for simply writing a book about losing her son and finding a publisher who would publish it. Her angle is religion and faith, which is clearly a part of any book about death, and her publisher publishes Christian books. We both started our blogs in 2008 but she has a giant following and me? Not so much. Noah died in 1997, Jonah in 1998, and Jack, much more recently in 2011. Yet we both published our books in 2014, me in May, her in September. I was counseled to wait ten years to write my story whereas she has clearly been on a much faster track. I’ve read other books about death and grief that I felt were written way too soon, but I didn’t think this of hers. Breathe includes a lawsuit that didn’t conclude until 2002, and my family planning goals which happily concluded in 2004 so my storyline spans six years whereas hers is much shorter. It took me seven years to write and publish my book while she accomplished hers on a much faster track. All of this is to say, that if you’re considering writing your own story, lending your hand to shattering the silence that surrounds death, there are as many paths to publication as there are stories to tell. Personally, I’d like to prove the gate-keepers wrong. I believe that grief does sell.
Brevity has never been my strong suit but this is definitely the longest “book review” I’ve ever written. Burying your child informs everything you do for the rest of your life. You never get “over” it because it lives in every single cell of your body. This is what we have left of our children as we carry them to our graves. As the great gospel hymn goes, “Some bright morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away . . . when I die, hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away.” In the meantime, birds of a feather do flock together and finding kindred spirits to breathe with like Anna, like rare bird, is like finding my flock.