Book Review: The Lively Shadow by Donald M. Murray

I don’t know about you, but when I read a book written by a bereaved parent concerning the death of his or her child, one of the first things I do is try to figure out the distance of time between the loss and the writing of the book. I think it’s an important factor to take into account. How long did it take this particular author to reach a place where s/he could talk about the loss or to reach the point where s/he felt s/he had something to say? How far into  the journey of integrating the loss into life is this person? Has s/he walked along the path of grief long enough that this person might have something valid to speak into my life?

I recently finished the book The Lively Shadow by Donald M. Murray, written concerning the death of his middle daughter, Lee, from Reyes syndrome in 1977. It took Mr. Murray 25 years to reach the point where he could write the story of his daughter’s death – even though he was an accomplished author, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Boston Globe, and an English professor at the University of New Hampshire; even though both Lee’s doctor and his family agreed (six weeks after Lee’s death) that he needed to write the story of his journey; even though (to his horror) he felt like he was “a reporter to my daughter’s death” at the time and kept “recording external and internal specific details in my mind as if I would write this story (ix).” I find it extremely interesting and profound that it took 25 years for Mr. Murray to be able to put his words to paper in talking about his daughter’s death.

Although Mr. Murray is an excellent writer, I have to admit it took me a little while to get into this book. At the beginning, it seemed to jump around a bit too much for my liking. Once I reached Chapter 5, though, I found Mr. Murray’s descriptive writing riveting as he recalls the beautiful summer day and general feeling of well-being on the day they received the call that their daughter was terribly sick. In continuing to tell the story, Mr. Murray puts into words what I’m sure many bereaved parents have felt.

Imagining the future:

Lee’s death will be part of us forever. It will mark us forever. There will be healing as there is when a leg is amputated. We will become who we are: “the Murrays, who lost a daughter, you know.” And as we live this life, we will always feel the leg that others cannot see, that invisible leg I have heard amputees talk about that feels cold, pain, itches, lives on in memory.

It will not get any better, and I feel a strange comfort in that. I will have to live this changed life as well as I can. There will be no healing, but I will become familiar with this new life, always having at my side the daughter no one else can see. I might even find it a comfort to know she will always be near (105).

Disorientation:

At times I have to sit for what seems a ridiculously long time to remember how to start the car, how to turn on the TV or stereo, eat dinner, answer the phone, keep the calendar, pay attention to what someone is saying…We pass each other in the house as if we are sleepwalking, not speaking as we all search for the way to live our lives around the edge of the crater left by Lee’s death (105).

Emptiness:

One of the personal and artistic problems is how to deal with emptiness…This morning [25 years later] I pass an empty field, rich with new spring grass, but see only its emptiness. Usually I take pleasure in the tidal flows of fields that seem to move under wind or shadow…And then there are days like today when the empty fields remind me of the space in my life empty by Lee’s leaving…I miss the casual conversations we have not had, the communication of gesture, glance, or movement, the anticipation of a visit or its memory…It is still achingly hard never to hear her voice from the other room, never to pick up the phone and talk to her (151).

Getting over it:

To those who wrote asking for help in getting over it, I gave this counsel: Imagine that you could forget. Think how terrible it would be not to dream, not to remember, not to miss, not to be sad, not live with this lively shadow that no one can see by your side, always alive in memory, laughing, teasing, worrying, suffering, sharing the life you go on living. Remembering may be a celebration or it may be a dagger in the heart, but it is better, far better, than forgetting (193).

I think what I took away from reading this book is a confirmation of what I’m learning: it takes a long time to integrate the death of a child into the fabric of life; it takes a long time, even for an experienced writer, to talk about the depths to which a child’s death affects a parent; it’s only with extended time that we have the perspective to look back and say, “this is what I’ve learned from this experience,” because each year teaches us something new or reveals something that we may not have realized at that time as we were walking the grief path; and, it’s important that bereaved parents give voice to their experiences so that others will know they are not alone.

Murray, Donald M. The Lively Shadow: Living with the Death of a Child. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.

© 2011 Rebecca R. Carney

Helping the Grieving

In January 2003, the son of a family in our homeschool group was hit and killed by a train. In an effort to encourage support for the family, I wrote the following article for publication in the homeschool newsletter and for copies to be made available at homeschool gatherings [edited slightly for clarification]:

Helping the Grieving

Saturday, March 2, 2002, was like any other Saturday – running errands, cleaning the house, doing homework, and preparing for the upcoming week. Jason (19) and Jenna (17) picked up a friend, Alina Christianson, to go get a coffee at Starbucks. They then came back to our home to watch a movie. No one could have convinced me that by Sunday our lives would never be the same.

A little after 1 a.m. on Sunday morning, as he took Alina home, the car Jason was driving was broadsided by another car. The young man driving the other car had been partying and was going more than twice the speed limit. He hit Jason’s car right on the driver’s side door. Both Jason and Alina died instantly.

Our wonderful son – intelligent, gentle, funny, Godly young man, best friend to his sister, leader among his peers – was gone in an instant. His hopes, dreams, future, graduation from college, possibilities for marriage and children all died with him.

The thing that I’ve observed personally, along with recent reading I’ve done on the subject of grief, is that most people are not sure what to do to help a grieving family. Sometimes the grieving family isn’t sure what to do to help themselves or what they need! It’s not typically a subject where people have received instruction beforehand. It’s not a subject people typically tend to read about “just because.” When the occasion arises, most people don’t have the time to read an entire book on the subject. Because of lack of instruction or understanding, sometimes help is poorly given – or not given at all.

As one who is “on the other side of the fence,” I thought it might be helpful if I made some suggestions for those who wonder what to do to help. I realize it seems like a tricky thing to figure out what to do or say, and there are no formulas; but maybe these guidelines will help. They are written from my perspective of losing a child in an automobile accident, but can apply to any grieving person.

  1. Be there. Support is crucial. “Being there” can mean just keeping someone company, watching a movie together, going for a walk, doing a chore. Don’t necessarily expect to sit and visit. The griever may or may not feel like talking. I sat like a zombie for a long time and just didn’t have the energy to carry on coherent conversations. I have found, from research contained in books I’ve read and from my own personal observation, that grievers tend to fall into two categories – those who feel tremendously supported and those who feel tremendously abandoned. Although it is never easy to lose a child, those who have adequate support “recover” (for loss of a better term) more quickly than those who don’t. Those who feel abandoned feel like they have support for about a week and a half, and then nearly everybody disappears.
  2. Do something. Bringing a meal is a good thing, but it’s only a start. Anyone, even a stranger to the family, can do that. If you know the family at all beyond just an acquaintance relationship, look for any practical help you can be – folding clothes, cleaning bathrooms, yard work. Be gentle, but tune into the daily responsibilities or necessary jobs that the family has no energy to do. Don’t say, “Call me if I can do anything.” It’s nearly impossible to make any calls at all for a long time. Be specific. “Do you need help with ______?” or “What is something I can do that will be of help to you?” If the griever responds to your offer, be sensitive to the fact that asking for help is hard, and he or she probably needs your help right away. Don’t offer something if you don’t mean it. That’s worse than doing nothing. You may have thrown a small lifeline to the griever, only to pull it away. Be creative and look beyond the basics. For example, put together a memory book. Think about how the griever would typically show caring, loving or serving (as in Gary Chapman’s book The Five Love Languages). The way a person shows love is the way he or she would most appreciate having loved shown. Also, remember that the family may be under a financial strain on top of everything else they are dealing with. Burial and cemetery costs are very expensive, so some monetary contribution may help. It doesn’t have to be money, though; sometimes people feel awkward concerning money. Even a weekend away, a gift card, a day trip, tickets to a show or something else may be nice treat.
  3. Perception of time is not the same. It may have been one day, one week, or one month to you since you called or stopped by, but it may have seemed like an eternity to the grieving family. To us, weekends used to represent relaxing family time, a houseful of teenagers hanging out, or some fun activity with any number of people. After the accident, weekends were horrendous – long hours to try to figure out how to fill, a house that shrieked its silence. Sunday was no longer a joyous family day when we went to church together, out to lunch or to a movie. It also represented the day of the week Jason died.
  4. Don’t make the assumption that someone else is doing the job. That may not be true. A large turnout at the funeral or memorial service does not equate to support in the trenches. We are the hands and feet of God in this world; there is something you probably should be doing. The Word says, “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8 NIV) To “demonstrate” means to show clearly, to make clearly evident. John 15:12 (NIV) says, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” The line of logic is clear between these two verses. God loves us and did something to prove it; we are commanded to do the same. If you demonstrate something, you don’t just say something. You do something. Telling the grieving family that you love them and are praying for them (as long as you really are) is great. Putting action to your words/faith is even better. The “problem” with the death of a child is that it calls into question the goodness of God. Why didn’t God protect that child? It’s easier to pretend it never happened. Avoid. Out of sight, out of mind. The flaw in this behavior is that it’s never “out of sight” for the grieving family. As a matter of fact, it’s in our faces all the time. It’s in every nook and cranny, every event and holiday, every minute of every day forever. Pretending the death never happened or never talking about the child may be interpreted as lack of caring. Write a note, make a call, stop by, tell your favorite memory, remember birthdays, remember death anniversaries. It may not be someone else’s job. Maybe it’s your job to do something.
  5. Assumption, Part 2. Don’t assume that the family has each other to help or “be there” for each other. That’s like the drowning saving the drowning – everybody goes down. I’ve had people say to me, “It’s a good thing you and the Christianson’s (Alina’s family) have each other.” The same principle applies. It’s too hard. We’ve all been trying to keep our heads above water. Assuming that extended family is a support may not be true, either. There may be no local family or the extended family may be incapacitated with grief, too.
  6. Be consistent. Grieving is a long walk. It’s not like a wound to your physical body that heals over time. It’s not like starting at the bottom of a hill and climbing steadily upward. It’s up and down. It’s backward and forward. It takes a lot of energy, depleting all reserves. It honestly takes more than one person to be a support. We all have busy lives, but consistent support pays off. If you look at the story of the Israelites fighting the Amalekites in Ex. 17:8-13, you will notice something interesting – a lesson that could easily apply to support in grief. As the Israelites fought, Moses stood on a hill with the staff of God in his hands. As long as he had his hands lifted, the Israelites won. When Moses’s hands grew tired so that he could no longer keep them lifted, the Amalekites started winning. Aaron and Hur came to his rescue. They got a rock for Moses to sit on, and one of them stood on either side of Moses. They held his hands up and steady until the battle was done. They came alongside him to support him when he needed it most. They stayed with him. Personally, it’s hard for me to feel like someone who calls once every few months to “see how I am” is really a support. I am a guarded person, anyway. To bare my broken heart to someone requires a lot of trust in that relationship, a consistent “being there.” Don’t misunderstand me – by consistent, I don’t mean to the point of neglecting your own family or responsibilities. Just steady, ongoing.
  7. Say something. Don’t avoid us. Grieving does not make us blind or stupid. It may actually cause hypersensitivity because hearts and emotions are so raw. We do notice when someone pretends he or she doesn’t know us or didn’t see us. And it hurts. They’re called secondary wounds. We have unwittingly been made victims of a terrible tragedy. We did nothing to cause it. It’s not contagious. Don’t cause further hurt by pretending you don’t see us. The flip side to this, of course, is to put your brain in gear before you speak. Probably the biggest mistake people make is to say they know how the griever feels…or compare it to the death of their a relative or pet. Because every person is unique, no one grieves the same. Another thing to avoid is making the griever feel like you know when it’s time to move on. If the griever didn’t ask for your opinion, it’s best to keep it to yourself. It helps to have some empathy in the situation. How long would it take you to “get over” the death of a child? Just say you care.
  8. Be sensitive – but not too sensitive. That sounds contradictory, but the “bull in the china shop” mentality doesn’t work. Don’t come marching in with your own agenda. You may think you have a great idea and just want to do it right then! But don’t mow over the griever in your enthusiasm to do something you think would help. Do something, but be gentle. Take time early on to listen, notice, observe, interact. The time to do something or say something is right away when the need is so great. Later may be too late. As time goes by, it gets harder and more awkward to do or say something. On the other hand, don’t be offended. If something you would like to do seems not to be readily accepted, try again another time or try something else. Don’t quit trying, just try again later. Be open. No two people grieve the same or have the same needs. It’s okay to say, “I’d like to help and was thinking about doing _________. Is that okay or would something else (or another time) be better?” Or “I’d like to stop by to see you or to help. You don’t entertain me, and feel free to tell me if you’d like me to go.” Don’t be offended if we don’t act or react the way we used to. We are no longer the same person we were. We don’t mean to be rude. We may have just been having a particularly hard day. Grief is exhausting on every level you could possibly imagine.
  9. Don’t forget the siblings. Encourage your children to include the siblings in “regular” things they used to do. Children and young adults don’t like to be treated differently and may act as if everything’s fine (emphasis on the word ACT). They need break from the grief, though, and hanging out with friends doing normal activities is a good thing. The best way to encourage your children is by your own example – by doing something yourself, by including the siblings in what you do, by encouraging your children to include the sibling.
  10. Further reading: When There Are No Words by Charlie Walton; How Can I Help by June Cerza Kolf; After the Death of a Child by Ann K. Finkbeiner; When the Bough Breaks by Judith R. Bernstein; The Compassionate Friends website.

I could probably illustrate a few more points, such as “Motives matter (don’t make us a project); “Even small kindnesses count” or “Don’t worry that your crying will make us sad; we’re sad anyway.” But, suffice it to say, I understand it’s difficult to know what to do or say when someone’s loved one dies, particularly when it’s a child. It’s uncharted territory for many people – even for the grieving family – and it makes things awkward and uncomfortable. I do encourage those around the grieving family to step outside their comfort zone, though. Support helps, encourages, and comforts. Lake of support creates the exact opposite.

© 2011 Rebecca R. Carney

“Inserting” People Back in Our Lives

From my journal dated December 16, 2002:

I don’t know if it’s Christmastime that makes it “safe” for people to call – people we haven’t heard from in months and months – but we have had more calls than usual lately. Maybe they feel like they’re on “safer” ground to call now that some time has passed. Maybe they think of us and feel they should call since it’s Christmas. Maybe it’s that they feel enough time has gone by that we should be “okay” or “better” by now. Some days it feels like I’ll never be “okay” ever again. I’ll probably reach a point of being functional, but I’ll never be the same.

I feel like it would be hard to just “insert” people back into our lives now, especially the ones we depended on, the ones we felt so abandoned us when we needed them most. Honestly, do people think they can just pop back into our lives after disappearing and being no support for so long, and everything will be the same?

I know in my head it’s true what I’ve been reading, especially in the Ann Finkbeiner book, After the Death of a Child. People don’t want to look at mortality when it comes to the death of a child. They don’t want to “catch” it for their own kids. It’s a hard thing to look at and to think about. It’s easier to look away, pretend like it never happened, wait until things are “better.” My head knows all that; I can reason it and maybe even understand it. But my heart doesn’t. My heart hurts. It hurt my heart when they all disappeared. It hurt my heart to see my family struggle alone.

The thing about people trying to reconnect with us now is that they want to reconnect the person they are – and have continued on the same path to be – with me (or Joe or Jenna), the person they think they know, the person they used to know, the person we used to be before the accident. They have been waiting for me to “come back” to them (as someone recently said to me) as the same person I was. They’ve been waiting for me to get over or get better so we can pick up the relationship we had as it once was.

The problem is that, while they may be the same person they were, I’m not the same person I was. For the most part, she’s gone; she’s changed. We’ve been devastated by the death of our precious son. Our world turned upside down. Nothing is the same. We, as a family, have had to walk alone through so many, many things. I’ve been crushed. I’m hurt. I’m still struggling. My heart has been broken. I’m less trusting of relationships. I’m so much more guarded.

When we go to Tulsa to visit my sister, we usually hang out with her friends. Her friends feel like they know me, because my sister has talked a lot about me. They know LOTS about me; my sister is quite the talker and shares nearly everything! The problem is that it’s one-sided. I don’t know them at all. I know hardly anything about them other than a name. I’ll start to tell some story – and they’ll say, “Oh, yeah! Doris told us about that! That was so funny!” They feel a connection with me and my life (through my sister) that I don’t feel for them. It’s not equal; it’s not reciprocal. They feel like they know me, but they are total strangers to me. I have to take the time to get to know them; they have to take the time to get to know the real me, instead their interpretation of my sister’s version of me. It’s an artificial relationship in that it’s not equal. It’s not real.

The flip side is true for me now. I know these people; I know quite a bit about them. I’ve known some of them for a long time. But they don’t know the person I am now. Do they want to take the time to get to know the “new” me? Can they accept the “new” me for who I am? Or do they just want to pick up where we left off before Jason died and just ignore or skip over the past 9+ months? They expect me to be the same. I may look like the same Becky, sound like the same Becky, act like the same Becky, but I’m not the same Becky I was on March 2nd.

It’s like we have to start all over again with our relationships. True relationships and friendships take time and energy. They take concerted commitment over time by both parties. I don’t think I have the energy right now. Sometimes I think it would be easier to start over with people I don’t know. We’d start on an even playing field. That way I wouldn’t have my own abandonment issues to deal with; we could start with a clean slate. Sometimes I wish people would just say they were sorry they left us alone. That way I would know they realize and acknowledge what they had done and how much it hurt us, so I could forgive them and move on. Maybe that would help. I don’t know.

The issues are mine. I bring them along with me whenever I see the people I know. I’m trying really hard to deal with them, to get rid of the hard feelings, and keep my heart right. But it makes it hard to just “insert” people back in my life. I can’t do it. It takes all the energy I have to do what I need to do. It takes a lot of energy to grieve, to keep on keeping on, to go to school, to take care of my family.

© 2011 Rebecca R. Carney