Episode #010

Loss of a young son: Anna Whiston-Donaldson




Anna: Whiston-Donaldson: My name is Anna Whiston-Donaldson and 10 years ago I lost my 12-year-old son Jack, in a freak accident.

Claire Sandys: Out of all the losses we’re exploring, some might say this is the greatest loss anyone could face. We know many people live in fear of it too. But what does someone say who’s been through it?

Chris Sandys: Welcome to The Silent Why - a podcast mission to find 101 different types of loss and to hear from those who’ve experienced them. I’m Chris.

Claire: And I’m Claire and this is episode 10, where Anna Whiston-Donaldson, from Virgina in the US, walks us through grieving the loss of her 12-year-old son Jack, in a tragic flood accident that killed four people.

Anna: I think people with grief, I think they talk about closure a lot, ‘oh have you found closure’, right? And it’s like three days after something happened. And I think the key for me was not anything about closure, it was about being more open.

Chris: Well, in the next hour you’ll hear Anna being very open, debunking certain myths about grief, and explaining how she felt some people's attempts to connect actually risked pushing her further away. For example, 'I just can't imagine what you're going through'

Anna: When someone does say ‘I can’t imagine’ it also somehow creates distance between you and that person that’s trying to reach out and help you, and when they say they can’t imagine, I think really they can imagine, but they don’t want to imagine.

Claire: And can joy be found again after the death of your child? Anna shares what she needed to heal and grow in the 10 years since the accident

Anna: Time and wisdom and experiences and opening up to joy and processing your feelings, in my case it was through writing, and just talking to a few friends, those things can all lead towards, almost going to say the word ‘acceptance’, but I’m gonna say hope and healing.

Chris: Anna’s a wife, mother, author, speaker and cicada supporter, ‘or cicada’ as it’s pronounced over the pond, and we began by asking what topics tend to dominate her speaking and writing.

Anna: My writing tends to be about grief and loss, and so does the speaking. It's interesting because during you know 2020 and I guess 2021, which is almost over surprisingly so,I haven't done as much speaking as usual, and it's given me time to pause and reflect on going forward on whether I want to keep speaking about loss and so I'm still thinking about it. But when I do start my own podcast, it's really going to be much more broad than that, and I think that's because of sort of where I am in my life. And whereas I think a few years ago everything I wrote and spoke about was about grief and loss and demystifying grief for others, because I was sort of bringing grief out in the open, if that makes sense, but now I tend to write about other things as well, and I'm hoping to speak about other things as well. Who knows, maybe this conversation could help lead me to what some of those topics might be.

Chris: We'll keep our fingers crossed, there just to pick up on something. I always find really interesting because quite often we might meet individuals who are really experienced in a particular area, and obviously, we're going to speak to you about grief and loss, and particularly around the story with Jack and more of that to come. But quite often there's this balance of - I don't want to spend my entire life just talking about this thing, there's more to me than that. So yeah, how do you get that balance right of knowing that, well, I have an area to talk about with passion with experience, but I have more as well?

Anna: Yeah, I think that's very interesting. I think that you know I'm 52 years old, and so I feel like I have a whole breadth of experience in my life and I'd like to sort of explore some of the other parts of my life, not just grief. And I think that we become unintended experts in different topics and so just because my own story, which we're going to talk about in a little bit, I think I have sort of become a, you know, an unintended expert on grief and that helps in individual conversations where I'm talking to just people out and about because I think everyone has experienced some sort of loss, everyone will experience loss just by being on planet Earth, but I want to explore other things too. Just I don't know if you've read much of my writing, but I like to write with humour and so sometimes it felt like is that going to mesh with the whole grief part or not? I don't know sort of exploring kind of some of the ridiculous things in life. I like to sort of turn the lens back myself and some of the you know, ridiculous things that I do or. You know, kind of just not being a perfect person, which is all of us, but I think not everyone is willing to sort of let that curtain down and show people that we're all kind of a mess sometimes.

Claire: What was your sort of earliest experience of loss and grief? When did that sort of start in your life?

Anna: Well, Claire, when I was 18, so I had just come back from my first year of college, my mother suffered a brain aneurysm and she ended up dying right in front of me. And uhm, that was sudden loss where things were just so normal and right and seeming to go along perfectly one minute, and then the next minute everything has changed. So that was my first experience with loss and then it wasn't until many years later when my son died that I had my second experience with loss, which was actually also a sudden loss.

Claire: Yeah, it's and it's the story with Jack that kind of brought you to our attention and I think it's an interesting one because of all the losses we're doing and we're looking to find these 101, I think for most people, if you stopped them in the street and said, ‘What do you think the greatest loss?’ What's the worst loss you could go through? I think your loss is going to be one of the ones that comes to mind the quickest, the loss of a child, and even when we've been speaking to people already, it's come up alongside other losses and people sort of almost comparing to it. And I've heard people, and parents live in fear of that loss. It's such a big one on the scale of things. So first of all, thank you for talking to us, and I think you know we're aware of how important this subject is because it is something that I think a lot of people kind of think about. So why don't you tell us a little bit about what happened and what that loss was and who Jack was? Tell us a bit about him.

Anna: Sure, and I will preface this just by saying that it is easy for me to talk about now with the gift of time that has passed since the events that I'm going to tell you about. And I just say that because I think early on it would have been really, really almost impossible for me to talk about this, and so I know that everyone is at a different place in, you know in their lives, and also in their experience of loss and death. So, in 2011, I was a suburban mom, with two kids, aged 10 and 12, and I was working at a bookstore and just sort of living this regular suburban life. And then one day it was my kids second day of school, we were experiencing a strange weather event. It was a very balmy warm day because at the beginning of September it's still almost like summer here. But there was also this this heavy soaking rain coming down. And that paired with it being the beginning of school, just sort of created this almost celebratory atmosphere in our neighbourhood. So, there were just kids out playing in the rain and mom sitting in their garages and just everyone kind of having fun, but also almost transitioning to this idea that fall is here. So my kids had come home from school and were doing their homework, but then the lights went out in the house. I don't know if this happens to you all a lot, but in our town almost any weather event, we lose power and so we got out the candles and it was darker inside the house and outside. And so, it was kind of a fun thing for the kids to do their homework and have their snack by candlelight. Well, other kids who went to a different school got home off their bus and they were soaking wet from walking through the neighbourhood. So, they came pounding on our door, asking if my kids Jack and Margaret could go out and play. And so, I said absolutely because I just remembered how fun things like that were and how memory making they were as a kid. So, I said, sure, and they ran out down our long driveway to the cul-de-sac below. And I could just see this group of kids just having so much fun and the last view I saw of my son Jack was he was just raising his arms to the sky and laughing and spinning in a full circle. And then the kids sort of went out of my view. A little bit later, and I was just relaxing I was happy to have the time to myself after my first day at work, having had schools starting and I was just putting on my comfy clothes and relaxing and enjoying the quiet. And a little bit later I went out to retrieve the kids because I had heard thunder. And so, I knew then that it wasn't safe anymore. So, I hopped in my car because, even if they were just two houses down, I was not in the mood to get wet, so I hopped in my minivan and drove just down to the cul-de-sac and I saw my little daughter walking towards me, Margaret, and I told her to get in the car and she did, and I said where's Jack and she said, well, he's in so-and-so's backyard, which was just one more house up. And so, I parked the car and got out and walked into the backyard to look for Jack and tell him to come home. And as I did that, the mother who lived in the house leaned out the back window and said he's not down there. And I knew he was down there because Margaret had just been playing there and had just left. And I said ‘Yes, he is’. So, I went down and it turns out there is a creek in this backyard, my kids had never played there before, but they did on this day, and the creek was normally a very benign empty creek bed. But on this day, because of this crazy weather event, which turned out to be a tropical storm that none of us knew about, had turned that tiny little dry Creek into a raging, raging, almost river. And so, I walked down to the banks of this creek, and I saw two children, when there should have been three children. And Jack was gone. So, it turns out somehow he ended up in the water and was swept away that day. And you can imagine the moments after that, just the terror and trying to find him and not knowing what to do. And I had an inward battle with myself because I'm a very, I wouldn't say buttoned up, but I'm sort of a calm person and you know, I didn't know, am I supposed to be screaming? What? What is a mom doing supposed to be doing right now while this earth is shifting on its axis? I knew this was the most important thing that would ever happen in my life and the most tragic and I knew it as it was unfolding. And I was not sure what to do and not sure you know how to act and how to try to find my son. And then a couple hours later they did locate him and he had died. So that really thrust me into a, you know darker, more intimate acquaintance with grief than I'd ever imagined.

Claire: Yeah, what was your sort of overriding memory of that time in between finding out and not knowing what? Do you remember that? Or was it a bit of a blur?

Anna: It was a blur, but I was a little bit like just going through motions. I remember thinking; Am I a mother? Or am I a robot? Why am I not screaming? Why am I not throwing myself into the into the water? Why am I calmly sitting here while they search? So, it was very, very strange. Made more surreal because by that time that it was starting to get dark outside by the time they found his body, and just to have people sitting with me in my kitchen and I'm wondering, do I give them cheese and crackers? Do I chit chat? What does one do during this very strange time so it was? It was very odd and I do write about that in my first book because it deals with the minute by minute of early grief. And so, I record a lot of that in that book.

Claire: And I guess it's not like maybe you would see on the TV. Maybe that's what… I was just thinking, where does the expectation come from that you should be different and maybe it's because you see grief on TV and it's people screaming and falling apart? It's not having to get on with should I give these people some foods? It's kind of, you know, a very different opinion. I guess you've got that conflict in you. How different was that situation compared to losing your mum? What was the different kind of process there?

Anna: Well, I think with losing my mom, I think a mom is really a heart of a home, and I think that if when she died, we pretty much didn't talk about it, which was so weird because she'd been there one moment and then gone the next. And I feel like having a mom, I kind of needed my mom to shepherd me through the grief, if that makes sense. But in this instance, I was the mom and I knew I had to shepherd my family through it. I knew it was going to have to be me that was going to be the one to really figure out what my daughter needed and the one to really help accept my husband even though he was grieving so differently than I was. And so, I think in this case I saw a completely different role for myself.

Claire: How and how do you do? How many? How do you do that in a marriage when you're both grieving so differently? And how do you support a child who's grieving while you're grieving?

Anna: Well, the sad part is I've learned so much more about it as I. become more informed about grief, than at the time, I'm like well shoot, you know I don't know how to do this. I didn't know if there were any resources. I actually would have needed someone. I really feel like it'd be nice if there were like a, I know there are death doulas but if there were like a grief doula who could sort of shepherd you through it would be really nice, just walk along with you because I've been able to be that person for others, but I really didn't know how to do this well. My only modelling had been the way I'd handled it 20 something years before, which was; just go back to school, just go back to work, act like everything is normal and then you know cry in my car and my shower. This time I had more of a public persona for a couple reasons. One was that having a child die in these tragic circumstances became a news story in our in our area, so that made my grief more public. The other thing was that I had been blogging for years before Jack's accident, so I had this online support system, and because of those two things, my grief was much more public. That actually played a large part in how I processed it. I don't know if that makes sense, but through the blog I started showing up in real time for my blog community to show them hey, I'm still breathing right? And then they would show up to help me keep showing up. And that later helped other people, but at the beginning it was just there to help. It was just there to help me, and so I was able to process things a lot more than I had with my mom because I had people who were willing to go there with me, even if it was just commenting on my blog, reaching out through Facebook, I didn't have that, you know, in 1988 when my mom died and I just went right back to college and parties and everything else.

Another difference was acknowledgement and I think when I was in college my peers were eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old and they didn't know how to acknowledge so we just forged ahead, right? But with this, because of what you said, Claire, people considering this, you know, quote, unquote, the greatest loss, right? And having a child die in such a freak accident where people could actually sort of maybe put their kid into that position in their mind and think about all this, this could have happened to us. It helped people really acknowledge our family’s loss and I believe that acknowledgement is the paver, it is the path to healing because when people are willing to acknowledge your loss that you feel validated and then you can sort of open yourself up to processing it and open yourself up to the possibility of hope sometime in the future. But when people don't acknowledge it, that can make you focus more on your anger at the world for not getting it and your sense of isolation and lack of connection. So in the case of my son's death, we received enough acknowledgement that I felt like that, sort of emboldened me and lifted me up and helped me process and heal. Whereas I think a lot of losses and you're probably experiencing this with all of your different interviews. A lot of losses are not acknowledged. And I think that's that can be really harmful.

Chris: I'm really interested to ask about the new story element because I've experienced being the other side of that being the journalist and reporting on such tragic stories. But when you talk about acknowledging the loss you know does the news story I'm going to speed that up beyond your control or you've you know you've got strangers saying things or police officers wanting statements, tributes, you know, sometimes that could maybe take it out of your control. Would that… does that ring true in any way?

Anna: You know, it really does, and I'm really fortunate that nothing harmful came back to hurt our family more at the time where we were already hurting so much. But I do know that in some cases when your family has become a news story and it sort of spins out and people hiding behind a computer screen will say anything and I think it can be really harmful. Fortunately, in our situation things didn't get back to me like; You know comments on news stories. You know? Why did the mom let him do that? Or things that could have really hurt me. I don't know whether those things weren't there or somehow I was like sheltered from them, but I'm really grateful because I've you know helped other people through grief who are also dealing with that judgement part of it too and the nastiness part of it too. And that's so hard.

Claire: That's tough. What's the sort of the most common reaction or question that you get asked?

Anna: Something people say a lot is ‘I can't imagine’, but I feel like when people say I can't imagine I understand where the intent is and there is acknowledgement in it because it is saying, ‘wow, this is so huge’, it's not diminishing what's happened to you, but when someone does say ‘I can't imagine’ it also somehow creates distance between you and that person who's trying to reach out and help you. And when they say I can't imagine, I think, really they can imagine, but they don't want to imagine. And so there might be better ways of expressing that in saying that.

Claire: Yeah, we've found with childlessness sometimes if you want to help other people and talk about it, some people just don't want to talk about it because they don't want to imagine that they might have to go through it and they'd rather not know that it's OK on the other side, because that would mean they would have to endure it, so they'd rather just not go there. Do you find a similar thing that people don't want to imagine where you are? So, they just don't want to go there with even talking about it. Or do you find that people are quite open about it?

Anna: I think it becomes apparent kind of early on like in your sphere of influence and friends like who can't even go there. And those are people that separate themselves from you and have to maintain distance. And then it's up to you to decide whether you want to pursue a relationship, continue to pursue a relationship with those people and it's OK if the answer is yes, if you want to maintain a relationship more on a surface level, right? And it's OK if the answer is no, because you really need someone who is willing to go there with you? I personally don't think it's asking too much for friends to acknowledge your situation with childlessness and to acknowledge that it's painful. It's not like that's the sum of who you are. And with my grief, having Jack die is not the sum of who I am either, but it is a part of me and I want to be in relationship with people who get that. The other side is when you're talking about finding hope and joy afterwards is that I have a lot of hope in my life and my life isn't all about grief and child loss, although at the beginning it certainly was, and I would not have believed anyone if they had said that would be otherwise ever. But because I do, you know there is more to me than that, there's more to my life than that. I also don't want people to think that it's just all gloom and doom all the time.

Claire: I heard you say on another podcast: ‘you don't have to feel this bad forever that you can find joy again and then over time the grief softens and that you can feel the love of the relationship.’ So just talk us through how you actually go from that agonising grief stage to the point where you can say that you found joy in it. What does that look like?

Anna: Well, it certainly doesn't look like rushing right. I think with my mom. I just basically shut down and didn't let myself feel the really hard feelings. Over time, I've let myself feel those at my wedding, at the birth of my children, to say this is harder because my mom is not here physically with me now, with Jack dying and because we had the acknowledgement of just how awful it was, I think I let myself, Uhm, I let myself feel those feelings. It wasn't in a screaming throw myself in the creek kind of way, but it was in letting myself feel OK, this is terrible, this is the most painful, painfully excruciating, disorienting, isolating experience anyone could imagine. Letting myself feel those things and then also opening myself up to the possibility of hope somewhere in the future. Not ‘oh, it's going to get better, my life is going to be hopeful, I will feel joy again’, but it was opening myself up to the teeny tiny possibility that there could be joy sometime in the distant future, and that little opening up I think allowed me to appreciate those small pockets of peace when they came moments of laughter, ridiculous, you know, cursing, laughing, crazy things that happened, opening myself up to sort the spiritual side, when you know, wacky things would happen, and I was like, is this a coincidence or is this not? Because I think people with grief, I think they talk about closure a lot. Oh, have you found closure, right? And it's like 3 days after something happened and I think the key for me was not anything about closure. It was about being more open to that very distant possibility of hope sometime in the future. Open to not living this life condemned to misery. Open to the possibility that for some reason 12 years was enough for Jack to live on this earth. Like that was a hard, hard thing to accept. So those are ways that I've tried to be more open and then what I have found is that that allows more room for love to come in - and it's the love that I have for him, the love he has for me, there's just more room in there. There have been times when I've been so angry that the anger has just bound me up inside and that that didn't leave a lot of room for love. But you know, but I couldn't have said, well, I'm just not going to be angry. I had to be angry and then let that eventually pass.

Claire: Do you ever find that people confuse sort of finding joy and finding hope for just ‘getting over it’?

Anna: Yeah, I think all the time and I think that's why grieving people really dig in their heels and say it's never going to get better. I'm never going to heal. They say that because they're tired of people wanting them to get over it. But it's better for them to be open to healing, but I completely understand not wanting to even say that it's possible because you're so sick of people acting like you should be over it. I have people writing to me all the time; ‘I'm so concerned about my friend because she's not over her miscarriage yet, or he's she's not over this or over that.’ And I want to be like just go be with your friend, quit trying to get your friend over this help your friend through it by just being there with your friend.

Chris: In that experience, you know from the male perspective and your husband, Tim, you know as men liked to fix things a bit like maybe the friends you were describing. What was his experience of being in this situation that he couldn't fix?

Anna: Oh gosh. It's so interesting because I think we have really done the whole stereotypical gender roles on this one and he really didn't talk about it. So, thank God I had my writing because he and I couldn't talk about it together. We'd both experienced the most unbelievable loss, yet we couldn't talk to each other about it. So, I had my writing and then he did have a few friends that he could relate to. He actually made some really close friends through this loss, but we were so different in the way we handled things and I feel like my experience having had my mom die and then having my dad, my sister, and my brother, react completely differently than I did, grieved differently than I did. I think that really prepared me for having my husband grieve so differently than I did because I'm you know, pretty critical and we've been married a long time and it's so easy to find fault but when it came to this I was able to really see that he was just doing it a whole different way. He couldn't fix it. He didn't try to fix it, but what he did was, he plotted ahead going to work. Which was a huge blessing because he has a very intense job as far as using his brain and I'm just really happy that he was able to do that because then that did not throw us into financial ruin, which was a real possibility. He did find new friends. He started to get really active, which was strange for me because he had been a high-level introvert, and we've known each other for 30 years. But after Jack died, he seemed to be much more outgoing. He really liked to go to parties. He joined a soccer team and if there was any sort of activity he would do it. And that was the opposite of the way I was doing it. So, Chris, I would say he wasn't trying to fix things, but he was trying to sort of stay busy. And there were times within that busyness that he was having real human connection with people who could acknowledge when he'd gone through, so I didn't feel like he was running away from it, I didn't feel like he was trying to fix it, but I just feel like the way he was sort of handling it was very different than me.



Chris: I think we've found in our marriage that we try and regularly make sure that we're aligned in in where we are, what we're thinking, what we're feeling, and often as well what we say in response to people because we, we get asked the same questions individually when we're together at social events or at workplaces, whatever it may be. Did the two of you have an agreed response to someone who said to you, do you have children and how you replied to that?

Anna: We didn't, and we gave each other permission and our daughter, who was only ten at the time, permission to answer that however we wanted at in that moment. That's a really, really hard question, and because Jack's death was so public, I didn't encounter it for quite a while, so I didn't get practise and saying it. And then when it did start to happen, I realised what a panicky feeling it was. So, I gave, Margaret permission to say, when they say, ‘Do you have any brothers and sisters?’ No. You know what I mean? Because in that moment it's not a betrayal of Jack, it's just you're just trying to get through that moment, usually without crying. Nothing wrong with tears, but sometimes you just don't want to cry in the grocery store or for me the first time I had to say something was in the dental hygienist chair. And so that was, you know how you go every six months, twice a year or whatever, so it had been a while, and the hygienist just kept asking me about Jack. I haven't seen Jack. How's Jack and it was the first time I had to say what happened. So, there I am in that awkward position, very vulnerable, my mouth is open and you know instruments in my mouth and I had to tell her and that was so hard. Speaking the words are hard and speaking the words when people are making assumptions about your fertility and what they think is right for you to do next, and things like that, it's very difficult. So, I just gave us permission, not that I'm like the great arbiter, but I gave myself permission and shared this with Tim and Margaret. No answer would be a betrayal. If that makes sense?

Chris: It does, and it's so unfair of dentists and hygienists to ask you questions while you have your mouth wide open. What do they expect?

Anna: [laughs] Right! It's tough. I would just like to relax, yes.

Well, you my husband Tim did encounter the question in the doctor's office. And the thing is, is that he had gone to this doctor, and the doctor every single time: ‘Do you have kids?’ and Tim would say when he got to that point he says ‘Yes, I have my daughter Margaret and my son Jack who died’ and he would answer it. Well then, he'd go back a year later and the same Doctor asked the same question. So, on the third time, and Tim never speaks up about things, but on the third time he said, I think it would be helpful if you wrote that in my chart.

Claire: I think that's why it's so important, like you said that you answer how you want to answer in that moment and with that person, because it's so different. There's times when you know I found that, I just don't like said you just don't want to do it. The other thing is you just what you don't know is how they're going to respond to it. And I mean not so much with not having children. But definitely if you've lost a child. I feel like at that point you've then got to be strong enough yourself to cope with whatever they do to react, because some people will get very heartbroken by that statement and you don't want to be looking after them at that point, so it's kind of their reaction as well. So, if it's someone you don't know very well and they ask I find that a really good test ground for testing answers and working out what I feel like saying and see how. It goes and then with people I know really well I can choose to do. I want to get into this now or not, and you can give the amount of detail you need, so I think that's really wise to just have that freedom to just say whatever you want to say in the moment, because it depends how you're filming.

Anna: I love that idea of testing it out because these words are hard as I'm talking about Jack. I'm saying my son died. Right? Things like that. But years ago, I couldn't do that. I could not, and I also used different words for the experience. Now it makes the most sense for me to say my child died, I used to say I lost my son and that doesn't really ring true for me right now because I don't feel like he's lost. I feel like he's right here with me, but for a long time, that's what I said, so I think you can also try out different terminology to see what works for you and when a friend uses a certain terminology you can sort of follow their lead for their own experience. For instance, yeah, if someone says someone passed on or whatever, it is sort of follow their lead for the vocabulary that they want to use?

Claire: You said you know, so you're in a very different place now. If someone had spoken to you eight years ago, let's say, uhm, how different would that conversation have been?

Anna: Ah, that's such a good question. If I put myself back to those early days, it's actually really hard to do, and that's why I'm glad I wrote my first book in real time, because it's like so raw and it's helped so many people in early grief. Because it's so raw. I don't live there anymore. And yeah, I don't want to go back there, but if I do sort of take a little journey there in my mind. My day would be so different when I would wake up. I would remember that Jack was dead and I saw this cartoon once of a grieving person which doesn't sound very funny for a cartoon, but it was just so poignant because it just showed this man sitting at a desk. You know at work and there were these little bubbles, like thought bubbles, and it was just a name. Let's say the name was Mark. Mark, Mark, Mark, Mark, Mark, Mark, Mark, Mark, Mark, all around him. And that's really how


Those early days were; Jack Jack Jack Jack Jack Jack Jack. Whether I was driving a carpool for soccer, whether I was at my job because I went back to work very soon after this, every thought Jack, Jack, Jack Jack. Now, it might be considered sad because I don't think about him as much, but it's the pain is so greatly diminished that I think that that my experience could give someone hope. It's not that I'm forgetting him, it's just that every thought is not dominated by lack. The lack of Jack’s physical presence here, and that is a balm. Now I have said that time has facilitated that right and in my case it really has. Some people don't like to hear time heals all wounds because it seems too flippant, right? Like, tie it up with a bow. Well, that's because the jerks around them think that time means three days or time means one year when you're grieving. A calendar year means nothing, nothing in grief. Time and wisdom and experiences and opening up to joy, and processing your feelings, in my case, it was through writing and just talking to a few friends. Those things can all lead towards almost going to say the word acceptance, but I'm going to say hope and healing.

Claire: How has time helped things like being around the same area? In one of your blog articles, you've talked about having to drive over that bridge, where the water would have culminated. How have you kind of processed having to be around that and turn that into something that doesn't sort of haunt you day to day?

Anna: Well, something amazing about Jack's death is that since relatively early on, and I can't remember exactly, but let's say six months or so, I've been able to be free of rumination about what it actually was like for him, and that has been a huge gift and that would be my wish and my prayer for people who are grieving a tragic, maybe a violent loss is that they also could be free from the rumination, because that, and it's not through anything I did. It's just for some reason I don't have that, so I'm grateful. I do live in the same town. I will say that exactly two years after Jack died, we moved houses and we moved houses only about a mile and a half away and financially it wasn't the best decision because you know, it's expensive, to sell a house and move, my daughter didn't want to do it, my husband was dragging his feet, in theory, he's like OK we can move some time, but none of it was going to happen without my spearheading it, doing it and making it happen. And I felt very strongly about leaving that house. It was so tough because I loved that house and that's where all of our memories were. But it was so painful being in that neighbourhood. In our case it was exacerbated, because the people that Jack and market had been playing with at the time lived right there with us within just yards of our house. So, I was willing to leave our precious home that we loved in order to get a little bit of space from that situation. Now, interestingly enough, because the housing market was insane in our area, the only house that we could find that we could afford was actually across that bridge where Jack's body was found. So, I went from not having to drive over that bridge to having to drive by it over it multiple times in a day. Moving was a balm, it was just a balm because it just sort of coated some of those rough edges. And justice helped us. We're still in our town so we didn't have to lose our friends. We gave up our house in our neighbourhood. But, but we're still, we can still remember, oh that when Jack went to that store with us, or that restaurant, so we're still in our town. But I believed that if we left that house that there would be benefits and there also costs. It was hard to pack up Jack's room. It was hard for all those things, but the benefits outweighed the costs and thank God I had clarity on that because I had to drag the other two family members along with me and they were glad eventually.

Claire: And obviously another part of your journey has been parenting again, and in a different era of life. So how do you feel about that and how was it having another boy again? What does that process look like? Did that bring up new emotions, old emotions? What does that look like?

Anna:  Yeah, it's been so interesting, I mean, really, really interesting. I do want to say though, when I you know talk about having this surprise pregnancy at 46 that I do want to be sensitive to those who have wanted to have a child and have not been able to, this is something that just happened. We weren't expecting it and this is our story, but I don't want that to in any way diminish your story and other people who've really struggled. You know, but you know about four or five years after Jack died, we found out we were pregnant and it was super shocking. And it was funny because I think by this time in life, having had my mom died and having Jack die, I realised like ‘wow Anna you have no control over anything’. So then when I got this positive, you know dollar store pregnancy test and it's like I thought I was in menopause but I'm pregnant. I was just kind of like, well I guess I don't have control over this either, you know, and I think that the things that happened to us prior had helped. Just sort of helped us. Sort of accept this new situation. And then we found out he was a boy. And he's not just a boy, he's a boy who looks exactly like Jack, which is really interesting. But yeah, it's been challenging and just doing all of this over again when our friends have all moved on. All of our friends are empty nesters and so we're in a whole different... I can't even express how different of a state we're in than everyone else in our friend set. But it's been really redeeming. And I don't, I'm not putting that on Andrew, our little son, like I don't want to be like ‘oh Andrew’, because there is nothing more you know psychologically screwed up than having a kid be a replacement child. You know what I’m saying? And I don't consider him that. Fortunately, I always had wanted a third child, but I felt like it was pushing our luck and asking for too much, and so we'd never ever pursued that. So, the good news is that I can honestly tell Andrew you know that, gosh, I'm getting choked up, that we'd always hoped for a third child, but I don't want him to feel like he, you know our happiness, our redemption, our ability to move forward, I don't want all of that to be wrapped up in him, you know what I mean? But it has been wonderful. So before I would go to target in the five years prior and I would walk through the Little Boys section and every little pair of sweatpants was like stabbing me in the heart and I just wanted to cry, right? Or a gingerbread house or whatever it may be, and you guys may have experienced this with, you know, going through a baby section or something like that. That doesn't happen to me anymore, and that's just one gift of Andrew. It's nothing he has done; it's just he's helped reframe little boy things and big boy thing.

Chris: I think one of the things that just be lovely just to hear the meaning in it for you, that that sort of threads its way through the timeline of your life really and certainly living where you do, with all of your children, has been this 17-year sort of natural world phenomenon that happens that it's just alien to us. But why don’t you just describe something of what happens every 17 years and how that has sort of had a place in your family with Andrew with Jack, with the whole family.

Anna: Oh, thank you Chris. I love that question. So, in Virginia where I live. Every 17 years there is this insurgence of Brood X cicadas. Some people will call them locusts and so they crawl out of the ground and they live for a few weeks. They mate, they die, and then the larva goes back underground for 17 years and it happens again. So, in the timeline of my life. I was born the year of the 17-year cicadas. And then 17 years later I was graduating high school when we had these swarms of cicadas. And then 17 years after that I was a young mom in this same town with these two little kids who really enjoyed the cicadas because it's really rather fun. I mean there are swarms of them everywhere. My friends were all running around hiding. They wouldn't let their kids go out and play, but I was just embracing it and Jack, my oldest, was five at the time, so he was just at that age loving bugs and we really got a huge kick out of them. Well, they went away again and I could not imagine what it would be like. When they came back again because the thought of cicadas just broke my heart because they were so LinkedIn my mind to this special time. You know, with my little pre-schooler, Jack, Margaret liked them, but she wasn't quite as obsessed. I didn't even want to think about what it would be like when I was 51. First of all, 51 seems really old, right? And then, I felt like I'd be heartbroken because I wouldn't have this young adult son to sort of reminisce about this with well. Lo and behold, another 17 years pass, and cicadas came back and I had another 5-year-old boy to experience them with. So, I mean it was just felt very cyclical. It felt very cosmic. And special too because instead of dreading the cicadas this time I was able. To remember with love. The time with Jack and Margaret before, but then also enjoy them again with Andrew and also to realise 51 is not that old. It's OK, I'm still kicking, you know.

Claire: That's amazing, I love that we'd never really even heard of them before we read your story online to do with those. I was even trying to pronounce them for a while. Like how do you pronounce these things? Like they're underground for 17 years? That's incredible.

Claire: Obviously, there will be people listening to this who do see the death of a child, as you know, horrific worst thing that they could even imagine going through. What would you say to people who are sort of maybe locked in that fear in an unhealthy way? Of what if this happens? What if I have to go through that journey? Uhm, do you have something that you would say to someone like that?

Anna: That's a great question because I do feel like it is most people's greatest fear. I think women tend to think that they can just worry enough to keep their family safe and plan enough and that they can, you know, have the best Christmases and the best birthdays and just do all of these things and it somehow if they are just like the perfect woman, the perfect mother, the perfect wife, somehow that is going to stave off heartbreak. I would say that there's freedom in realising you don't have control. So, you can try and try and try and try to keep your family safe and do all of these things, but to a certain extent, you do not have the control and not just about the loss of a child, but also, we work so hard, those of us who are mothers to raise a child a certain way, right? But then that child may go in a completely different direction. You know, I think of just the huge number of young people who have depression and who succumb to suicide and all of these things. And I'm like no mother could have worried that child to safety. And I think that we need to somehow find freedom in that we're doing the best we can, but there's a lot that we don't have control over, and maybe there's freedom in realising you don't have control over all of these things, so maybe you could let go a little bit and quit trying so hard. And that would be my advice. Instead of fearing it, maybe just take comfort in the fact that you're doing the best you can. And that some things will be in your control. But there'll be other things that are out of your control. So just try to just keep showing up to the life that you have. And the kids that you have and the family that you have and the experience that you have instead of trying to control every little bit of it.  

Claire: Did you ever get lost in the question why? Why me why this? Why now why Jack?

Anna: Uhm, not as much as I thought I would. I think one thing that really helped me early on plus, a lot of the strange spiritual stuff that happened around Jack's death, and it wasn't really stuff that was happening to me. It's like my blog readers or friends or family were sort of having these spiritual experiences where they just felt great comfort that he was OK. There'd be signs, I don't know if you're familiar with signs, but like some people, this is my second book is about, but would see birds and think of Jack or just different things like those synchronicities. And so, to me, the why kind of became, fortunately, and I'm so grateful, sort of overshadowed with ‘OK, I'm not going to understand this, but perhaps there is a why, I won't, I don't get to know the why’, but perhaps there is a why. Now, that doesn't mean I would ever, ever, ever, ever say to a grieving person, and when I say grieving, I mean all the different losses that you are covering, I wouldn't say to them everything happens for a reason. Not going to say that because all that does is separate us and it's harmful, but what I will say is that in my own life the whys, got sort of replaced by ‘I'm so small I don't understand this’. And that was more comforting to me. Then figuring out the why. Because for instance, having had my mom died when I was 18, I think a little bit of me was like, well, good, I'm glad I got the terrible thing over with, boy I missed my mom and I don't get to have a mom through all these stages of my life where my friends do, phew, my hard thing is over, right? But then I got another hard thing. That's not really the way life works, right?

Claire: So, if there are people out there that are fresh in the grief of losing a child, is there anything in particular that you would want to say to them or offer them in way of some sort of coming alongside them?

Anna: That's a great question. You know, I just feel like in early grief after Jack died. I was just so in so much agony and disbelief that it really felt like I was on a different planet than everyone else around me, you know they were just going on about their lives and the world, which is just. Just changed forever for our family and so it's just extremely isolating. I would say come may you be surrounded by people who do not say ‘at least’ when it comes to your loss, your loss is your own and it's painful and there's no ‘at least’ about it. I would also maybe share that when I was newly grieving Jack. And I met some other moms whose sons had died. A few of them were a little bit farther along than I was, and this one woman, Joan was talking about. A future boat trip that she was going to take with her husband. And I just looked at her with wide eyes and I said, ‘you sound like you're really looking forward to that’. And she said, ‘well, Anna, I am’. And I said, ‘no are you? Are you really looking forward to that?’ Because I couldn't imagine ever looking forward to anything again as long as I lived. I knew that I would have to go through the motions and pretend to care about things that the rest of the world cared about, whether it was soccer practises or politics or whatever. I was prepared to have to pretend for the rest of my life. So, for a newly grieving person I would say let me be that light on your path like Joan was for me. She showed me that at some point, not necessarily a year or six months or two years at some point, there would be things to genuinely look forward to again without having to fake it or act my way through it, and so I would just say to folks coming after me (because there are always grievers who come after us), that I promise that there is opportunity for joy in the future. On the one hand, you get more bogged down about the little stuff again because you're out of the most deep, painful, yet kind of holy place of early grief where everything is about your grief and so little things start to become important again. That's the downside, but the upside is that there can be genuine joy again, in the future, at least, that's been my experience.

Claire: And what is your opinion now of it being the worst loss you can go through?

Anna: Well, I think that comparing losses can be really separating. I think the worst loss is the loss that you are going through. But I will say that it's not helpful when people, and I'm just laughing, I don't think this is funny but it's just so ridiculous. OK, I don't think it is helpful when people compare the loss of a child to the loss of a dog. Like please don't hate me, I love pets. My dog is right here with me, but I think that in some cases you really should not compare a loss. In my own experience, I will say that this is the hardest thing I've ever gone through.

Chris: We're approaching Christmas, which is a huge deal in the UK. Very commercial, very much about family about gathering and I know that you have just had Thanksgiving and obviously Christmas is upcoming, in recent sort of festive seasons, have you done anything that's helped sort of honour Jack? Have you done anything with the family or any little things that you've put in place to protect yourselves to have fun, to be able to smile at Christmas while everybody is celebrating children and presents and all that sort of thing?

Anna: Holidays can be so difficult, can't they? When it seems like everyone around you is happy and you're just really, really struggling. When Jack died, we were in the fall and so we had Halloween and Thanksgiving and Christmas and it was just really, really brutal. What I did that first year was absolutely go through the motions with all of our traditions because it was very important to my 10-year-old daughter. So, I would say to really look at the needs of the family as a whole. And just do what you can, but give yourself permission to opt out of things if they're too painful. We have kept up with all of our traditions that we had when Jack was alive, but then we've also added a few things. Those first years I would have a present under the tree from Jack to his sister. Because you can imagine what it was like going from two children happily opening presents to just one and having the laser focus be on her. It was very, very painful so I would have a present from her excuse me for her from him. We changed a few other things like we a couple times we've travelled at Christmas, but because of my daughter's wishes we have really kept things the same and now she's 20 and she's in college. And I wonder, I don't know what traditions she'll keep for herself, but until then, we're just going to keep up with the traditions that we have. But for newly grieving people at the holidays, I would really for newly grieving people at the holidays, I would really hope that they give themselves grace just to make make it through. Sometimes the anticipation of the day is worse than the actual day. There's a lot of good advice online about just sort of trying to plan ahead, try to have an exit strategy if you have to leave, and things like that.

Chris: A final question from me, so what's your Herman?

Anna: A couple years ago I decided to write a children's book, and at first, I was a little hesitant because I thought, well, I am a serious writer, not a children book writer. And it's called A Hug From Heaven and it's for children. It's a picture book, but adults like to read it too. And what I love about it is, it takes different things that I've learned from about grief and it puts it into this really beautiful sort of love letter to kids from anyone in their life who has died. And I'm not trying to, you know, like pat myself on the back for this book what I love about this book is it takes the wisdom that I've learned that I didn't know at the beginning of all of this as far as healthy grieving, and it, it just gives hope to people who are who are grieving. And so, to me, I guess that's my Herman. It's something that I kind of didn't want to do, and then I put it out there in the world, and it took off on its own, and I just get this amazing feedback from it. That it's, you know, letting kids and grown-ups know that it's OK to be angry and it's OK to live a happy life and that the people that we love are, they come along with us wherever we go. And I just think that this thing that seems so simple and small has become so much bigger, especially in the past year and a half when so many people are grieving who didn't have to be grieving. These COVID deaths are additional deaths that wouldn't have happened, and so we are not just a grieving nation, we're a grieving world, and this little book helps give them tools about different things they can do to stay close to the person who died. And that's my Herman.

Chris: So much in there worth sharing and applying, whether you have children or not. Thank you, Anna, for every word you’ve written and spoken to use your experience to help others.

Claire: And you can find out more about Anna and cicadas through the links in our show notes and her website - Annawhistondonaldson.com.

Chris: And to read more about The Silent Why podcast, or hear our previous episodes, we have a website and social media presence where you’ll find all the details - just search for The Silent Why.

Claire: After we recorded this interview, we also chatted to Anna to see whether the adage, ‘it’s better to have loved and lost, than to never have loved at all’ felt true, even at the cost of such pain, she believed it was and then shared with us some words she keeps on her desk. It was the perfect quote to end our episode with.

Chris: These were written by William Wordsworth in 1812, after the death of his 6-year-old son to measles. This is what he wrote to a friend:

Claire: “For myself dear Southey I dare not say in what state of mind I am; I loved the Boy with the utmost love of which my soul is capable, and he is taken from me - yet in the agony of my spirit in surrendering such a treasure I feel a thousand times richer than if I had never possessed it.”