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).


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).


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