Fist to the heart–Five Months Later

It has been five months since a midnight phone call pulled us into the emergency of our 33-year-old son’s dying. We were on our way to the airport by 3:00 AM, and by 6:00 AM I had sent an email to extended family and friends asking for prayers and articulating what was happening as it unfolded. We flew to Denver. His sister arrived. His father arrived. Friends surrounded him. He hung onto the thread of life with a ventilator, and after this day of being loved by many who knew him, his heart stopped at 8:07 PM, all his organs in failure due to prescription drug interactions and post-surgical complications.

For the next two weeks I continued to send emails that communicated the complex information and heartfulness of these first days. Exactly a week after his death I had four hours alone on a plane and I wrote in my journal, “The story shatters…” I then documented moment by moment that 24-hour passage from the phone call to the strange, exhausted slumber in a Denver motel. I have hardly written since.

The story really did shatter—and the hardest question of the whole winter has been people’s inquiry, “How are you doing?”

How should we know how we’re doing? By what measurement does one respond?

In my book, Storycatcher, I say, “Words are how we think, story is how we link.” Life story is developed by attaching a new experience to an old one, like putting two children in line together and saying, “Hold hands. Don’t let go. Help each other cross the street.” A previous experience, which we have already transformed through the narrative function of the mind into meaning , serves as a tutor to help us absorb a new experience and begin to integrate it.

But when the new experience is extreme in some way—we can’t link it. This is called shock. The world right now is full of shocks. And what observers call “news”—a missing jetliner, a deadly mudslide, a sinking ferry with hundreds of teenagers on-board, Sherpas carrying their dead off Everest, etc. etc.—is individual, familial, and community survivors experiencing breakdowns in their capacity to integrate what just happened into what has happened before: shock on a massive scale.

Narrative is our life-line. The psyche goes into free-fall when our attachment to meaning is broken. I had my hand on Brian’s chest when I saw the heart monitor go flat. For most of the past five months, when people ask, “How are you?” I have internally re-experienced that moment, and realized that in many ways “I” am still in that room where we took an emotional fist to the heart that will influence our lives forever.

I have started to blog a dozen times these months, and not had the energy to complete my thought process. This entry signals me that linkage is starting: I am beginning to hold hands with Brian’s death in words as well as in raw experience. Because restoring narrative is essential for wholeness and well-being, I will write more about this as I learn my way into language.

Brian and his nephew Jaden

Brian and his nephew Jaden

Meanwhile, I pray for all those I see grieving on the news, and for patience from the rest of us who do not understand why they are so fixated on the downed plane, the mudslide, the tipped ferry, and millions more private traumas. How are they? They don’t know. Just don’t abandon us—however you come across people in the aftermath of sorrow, trauma, and travail—hold our hands until we can hold the hand of story.



“Grandma, I want to be a superhero with super powers,” said our 9-year-old grandson as we headed outdoors to play baseball.




The previous night we had watched “How to Train Your Dragon”, a DreamWorks animation film which features a young Viking boy (Hiccup) who defies convention by training, rather than killing dragons.

“It would be so cool to have a super power,” Jaden said.

“What kind of super power would you like?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t know, something that helps me do good things for people’” And in the way of 9-year-old boys, moved quickly into the task of setting up bases in the middle of our dirt road.

I thought about all the Superhero movies I’ve watched with Jaden—Astro Boy, Frozen, Spiderman, Batman. Superheroes are important to him. They help shape dreams of who he might become and what he might do for the world.

One of the things Jaden was required to do with us during his spring break was read aloud every day. One of the books he read to us was Rachel Carson, Friend of Nature.

I told him she is my Superhero, that she never gave up trying to educate people about the dangers of pesticides. She truly inspired me to use my scientific training to educate people about the importance of protecting the beauty of nature.

Fifty years ago this month Rachel Carson published Silent Spring and launched the modern day environmental movement. With her carefully honed ability to explain science to ordinary people, she helped us understand that the unquestioned, widespread use of pesticides was not necessarily the good thing we in the 1950’s and 1960’s were led to believe.

I was a high school student when that book was published in 1964—six years older than Jaden. I read newspaper criticisms and watched television interviews. And I have since read nearly every biography that has been written about her.

Just like Jaden’s superheroes, she met with furious resistance from powerful foes—chiefly big chemical companies and their scientists. And also like Jaden’s superheroes, she had to bring to bear great skill and determination to “save” people.

Our dear grandson has returned to his third grade classroom in Los Angeles now. He is probably not thinking much about Rachel Carson, but he is still thinking about superheroes. And maybe, just maybe, he has a little deeper understanding of how he might use his fine young life to become a super hero.