“Rare Bird” by Anna Whiston-Donaldson


My therapist recommended this book to me, and I thought I’d give it a try based on the glowing foreword by Glennon Doyle Melton (I thought her Love Warrior was very powerful).  This is the story of Anna, a rule-following Christian and bereaved mother, who writes about her grief journey after her 12-year-old son dies in a freak flood.

I most related to her description of the disbelief that accompanies sudden tragic death — the kind that makes absolutely no sense.  I also related to her incredulous attitude when she saw children who were doing dangerous things, or not being watched or cared for as much as she would have (aka a kid running unattended in a yard near a busy street).  It’s similar to when I hear stories of mothers who drink alcohol or use drugs when they’re pregnant and yet their children are born healthy.  It all points to a conclusion I think most loss parents arrive at pretty quickly: that life is not f*cking fair.

I was surprised she didn’t include more about the anxiety I assumed she felt over her living child Margaret’s safety after her son died (that is more likely a commentary on how high mine really is). But I really appreciated how much she incorporated Margaret’s grief journey into her own narrative.

I do wish she had talked more about the struggles in her marriage…. and how she and her husband found common ground in their grief.  It’s clear they grieved differently (as most partners do) but there is a sense of resolution about the health of their marriage at the end of the book… and I’m not sure exactly how they got there.

It was helpful for me to read a story of loss that was not specifically stillbirth or infant loss.  Although of course some of it triggered my worry about protecting my living children….

Here are some excerpts that particularly struck me:

I learned in that moment what many other people already knew: that it can all turn to shit in a heartbeat. All of it.  Our families. Our futures. Our dreams.  Even our faith.

It’s about mystery, such as why God would choose to comfort us so personally in our pain, but not choose to do the one thing we wanted Him to do, which was to save us from pain in the first place.

I don’t know how I know, standing at that water’s edge, that Jack is gone forever.

Together in the dark, we cannot know how or if we will survive.

Before fitful sleep comes, I repeat over and over in my head, Jack is dead. Jack is dead. Jack is dead. These are the same words, the same rhythmic beat, that will run through my head as I drive down the street, windshield wipers swishing back and forth on yet another rainy Thursday, or push my cart through the grocery store trying to remember how to do some of the most mundane, basic tasks of mothering.

On this night I test these harsh and unfamiliar words, trying to convince myself of the impossible reality of what just happened.  I don’t want to fall asleep until I can believe it. ..It’s like I’m speaking a strange language, trying to figure out how to shape my mouth around the bizarre words.

But maybe all deaths feel like this–improbable, strange, untimely, unnatural. Maybe every single death needs to be examined, spoken of aloud, and turned over in the mind to make it more real.  And perhaps not being able to grasp all at once what has happened is a small mercy in itself. Maybe the ‘Jack s dead’ part of our brains is in a deep freeze and needs to thaw bit by bit, with one painful realization after the other instead of all at once, so as not to kill us too.

How are we supposed to make decisions about memorializing Jack when our brains can’t even grasp what happened just hours before?

As we enter the foyer filled with people who love us, we look down, avoiding eye contact as we head to the church parlor to wait.  I feel the love surrounding us, but it is also the first time I feel diminished and utterly separate from the world.

Looking in the mirror at eyes that seem old and empty, I realize the initial shock is starting to wear off, and the horror of reality–a future without Jack–is starting to set in.

I assume that everyone who looks at us is thinking about Jack and shares in our misery, but few people say anything at all.  They just so fervently, so intensely, want us to be all right.

It is as if what we’re going through is almost too real and too raw to bring up at church.  But if you can’t bring up matters of life and death and God’s spirit here, where can you? Maybe it’s because we are accustomed to dealing with issues in tidy chunks…there is nothing tidy about a child dying.

The truth is I’m trying to settle into a new relationship with God…I’ve never felt more loved by God in my life or held so closely by Him…but I’ve never felt so disappointed and hurt either. I’m recalibrating our relationship, and the only broken body I can picture is Jack’s.

….I’ve gone from being someone who rarely thought about heaven to someone living with one foot here and the other there.  My kid is in heaven.  I don’t need to know the nitty-gritty….but I do need to know something! I’m pretty clueless about heaven, and even though I want Jack’s new home to be better than anything he could experience here, I have a hard time accepting how it could be better than life with us.

If I’d made a list of who I thought would be there with us to try to pick up the pieces after a tragedy, that list would have been off….I soon learn that prior closeness does not determine who will show up for you.

It is is the telling and retelling that we world our way through painful territory and gain insight.

Grief is my work right now, and I’m afraid to skirt it or run away from it…The closest picture I can imagine is that I want to lean toward my grief, as opposed to leaning away from it–contorting myself into painful positions as I make a futile attempt to escape from something hideous that is actually adhered to my body.

I am humbled and amazed by each person who steps into the muck.

It doesn’t seem fair that some children come out of dangerous situations unscathed, while others don’t. I guess I’m still wrestling with my erroneous belief that if I tried hard and worried enough, my kids would be safe from harm….when I get caught up trying to make life fair, it threatens to mire me in anger and bitterness.

There is a constant undercurrent of loss, a schism in our brains, which we gradually learn to adapt to, but is ever present.  It’s as if our brains are operating on two separate tracks.  One is the here and now.  The second is the parallel track of what could or should have been yet will not be.  Most days I can keep the second track hidden.  Other times, I haven’t got a prayer.

I’ve reached the point where I realize I do need spaces to do the hard work of grieving.  I need to turn over ideas in my head, hold them up to the light, and examine them as I cry out in longing for the boy who should be with me in body, not just in spirit.  My blog is one space to do this, and eventually, so is talking to other grieving mothers, aliens like me.

I’m not sure how sharing the broken, hurting pieces of our lives helps us, but it does… and in sharing our loss, we somehow gain.  That is the mystery of a community of grievers.

The look of my faith may be changing …but it seems like this is a season for me to rest in love and just keep showing up.

Grief isn’t linear as I had imagined. I hear somewhere that it is more of a spiral, where we have to come to the same places, again and again, but each time we’ve risen a little farther out of the pit.

I’m not going to tell a mother whose first grader was gunned down in a classroom that it was part of God’s plan.  I may be there with Jack’s death on more days than I’m not, but I refuse to come to these conclusions for anyone else.  And it’s tricky.  Because hurting people want to understand; we want to know why.  But we don’t want people coming to conclusions for us, feeding us neat little answers of what God’s will is and how His mind and heart work.  No thank you.

That little God isn’t the one who comforts me when I despair. No, it’s a big God, whose loving voice reminds me of my mother’s, who gently whispers to me, “I know, Anna.  I know, honey.  I know.”

Even in death, Jack continues to fill our hearts with life.  I can feel it.  It’s the love between a parent and a child that can’t be snuffed out or drowned or stolen.  It’s a hope for heaven–not a boring eternal rest, but a vibrant, purposeful existence with God that continues to affect what is going on right here, right now.

1 thought on ““Rare Bird” by Anna Whiston-Donaldson

  1. NatureOnNotice June 18, 2018 — 3:31 PM

    Beautiful. I can relate. Bless you.


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