Anna Whiston-Donaldson’s exquisitely crafted Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love came out several months ago. I read it hot off the presses and intended to write a review much sooner than this. By now Rare Bird has become a New York Times best seller and Anna’s depiction of her early grief process following the loss of Jack, her 12-year-old son, has been praised by a slew of reviewers much more prestigious than myself.
But now Christmas is just days away and I wondered if I should wait until after the holidays. People don’t like to read sad stuff about kids dying this time of year. We like uplifting, hopeful stories to get us into the Christmas spirit. Stories about giving, faith, hope, and making others’ lives a little better.
And that’s why now is the perfect time to recommend Rare Bird.
Anna and her family live in my town. We didn’t know each other until a few months ago, even though our sons were the same age. Different schools and my family’s time overseas precluded our crossing paths with Jack, though the boys had some friends in common. Anna and I also have some friends in common.
So when the message “Pray for Jack” appeared on my Facebook feed on September 8, 2011, I had neither a face nor family to pin a prayer to.
But I was well acquainted with the creek one street over where Jack was swept away. I ran along its edge several times a week. A freak storm had transformed that normally tiny trickle of water into a raging river, for the first time in anybody’s memory.
Anna had given her two children permission to play in the rain, never expecting that the group of kids reveling in the warm downpour would find their way to the creek. Knowing the creek as I do, I wouldn’t have given it any thought myself.
But only one of Anna’s children came back that day.
Anna was already a writer with a successful blog about home improvement and funny family anecdotes. That blog, An Inch of Gray, became her venue to process her grief. Still, I refrained from reading it, feeling like a voyeur. Though I told myself it was more polite not to peek into the window of her despair, I was really just trying to protect myself from having to feel her torture.
If I had been following An Inch of Gray, I wouldn’t have been so stunned by the insightful beauty and depth of her writing when Rare Bird was released.
Anna has become a lifeline to grieving families through her raw, honest portrayal of an experience so horrific that most of us can’t even begin to imagine it.
But what about the rest of us? Why should we expose ourselves to Anna’s pain when we’ve been lucky enough to have been spared the unimaginable loss of a child?
Because Rare Bird is not about Jack’s death as much as it is about God’s (or the Universe’s or the Source of Creation’s) love during our darkest times. Loss permeates the story, but so does hope. Anguish and grief are splayed out before us on the pages, but so is the intrepid resilience of the human spirit.
Anna shows us how to support others in their grief. She teaches us not to turn away (as I did from her blog). And she teaches us to be open to broader definitions of spiritual connection.
Though her spiritual starting point at the time of Jack’s death was traditional, rules-based Christianity (which might have scared me off if the memoir had been crafted less skillfully), her heart opened to bigger possibilities as signs of Jack’s presence came in from around the world and from unlikely sources. Despite having “followed God” for decades, she realized she had been “woefully uninformed about matters of the spirit.”
I guess the only thing that is certain to me now is that the small God I followed before, the one I must secretly have believed would spare my family pain if I just didn’t ask for too much or set my sights too high, is somehow not big enough to carry me now.
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.”
This is the season where humanity across cultures and religions celebrates light. Christmas, Chanukah, Diwali, Kwaanza, all of these traditions and more are festivals of light. As I’ve written here before, light represents wisdom, rebirth, goodness, purity, hope, faith, joy, and the Holy Spirit.
Rare Bird is like a lighthouse cutting through the dense fog not only of grief, but of our own fear of death and every other perceived loss in our lives. With the help of his mother, Jack teaches us that death is not the end.
I can’t bring back Anna’s beautiful (it’s impossible to overstate this — the child was gorgeous both inside and out) Jack. But I can honor him by incorporating Rare Bird‘s lessons into my life and moving forward fearlessly. This book is a gift to all of us.
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