Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Book Review: "Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love" by Anna Whiston-Donaldson

I remember in September 2011 when the Washington, DC area was hit by a quickly moving and unexpected set of rainstorms that left highways flooded, creeks running far over their banks, and trees felled. While we were fortunate not to lose power, many in the area did. I remember reading that several people were killed during those storms, mainly as a result of getting caught in the floods, including a 12-year-old boy from the town next to ours, who apparently fell into one of the creeks affected by the massive amount of rainfall. I couldn't even fathom the loss his family and friends were feeling, and that boy, Jack Donaldson, remained in my mind for a few weeks as I read and watched a number of follow-up news stories about the aftermath of his death.

So several years later, when I read that his mother had written a book about coping with this loss, and struggling with her faith, I felt drawn to it. Having lost my father unexpectedly just about six months ago, I knew this book would affect me, but it did both in ways I anticipated and ways which surprised me.

Anna Whiston-Donaldson was a blogger who chronicled her family's life, their faith, and her decorating tips. She and her husband, Tim, had two children, Jack and Margaret, and they were deeply rooted in their community, their church, and in their circle of family and friends. The four of them were tremendously close-knit, and Anna was always a very protective parent, warning her children of potential dangers and trying to keep them safe at all times, an irony not lost on her after Jack's death.

Jack was an athlete, an actor, always striving to make his friends and family laugh. But he was also tremendously sensitive, complex, and very cautious—as Anna's sister said after Jack's death, "I don't get it. If there was a poster child for 'kid least likely to get swept away in a stupid creek,' Jack would be the one."

Rare Bird is as poignant and heart-wrenching as you'd imagine an account of a mother's grief after the sudden loss of a child could be. But Whiston-Donaldson is careful not to portray Jack as perfect; she paints a complete picture of a complicated, loving, intelligent, and special child, who undoubtedly would have grown into an exceptional man. And she is honest about her feelings—the blame she places on herself for letting her children go out and play in the rain that night, struggling with her belief in God after this loss, and the challenges she faced in dealing with her husband, her daughter, and others while processing her grief.

"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 seem more real. And perhaps not being able to grasp all at once what has happened is a small mercy in itself."

This is an important and powerful book for anyone dealing with grief. I identified with many of the things Whiston-Donaldson said, such as, "I soon learn that prior closeness does not determine who will show up for you." Even though I didn't lose a child, nor do I share her religious beliefs, I was moved and affected by what she had to say. Grief is, sadly, a universal emotion, but how we deal with it is so individual, yet many of her frustrations, fears, and regrets spoke to me.

For her sake and the sake of her family, I wish that Anna Whiston-Donaldson's first book, as she said she thought it would be, was about painting furniture. Yet I feel tremendously fortunate that she was willing to share her family, her grief, her faith, and most importantly, her son, with us.

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