When a friend’s dog was left for dead in the dirt road that led to her mountain ranch last fall, I was the one who was on the phone with her when she found him. “Oh, there’s a dog in the middle of the road,” was her first comment with just a tinge of annoyance. The next thing I heard on the end of the line was, “Oh my God, I think it’s my dog?” Her second comment was more a statement of shock slightly tinged with fear. Her last comment came through tears. “Oh, no! Oh, no…my dog is dead. What am I going to tell Liam (her eight year old)? I’m going to have to call you back.” She hung up. I called her back and got her voicemail where I said that she could call me if she needed anything, for me to pick up her two kids, whatever. Then I got in my car and drove to the bookstore in town.
Books are one of the gifts that I have been grateful for in my life lately. Books say the things that, at times, we can’t seem to say.
I asked the women at the bookstore if they had any children’s books on grief. I had spent some of my days away from my own book manuscript working in this very bookstore, so I knew where the children’s books were, I just needed the recommendation. I needed a book that was as sensitive as Liam. I sat down and opened up the children’s book, Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss, written by Pat Schweibert, Chuck DeKlyen, and illustrated by Taylor Bills.
I read each page in the silence that bookstores so effortlessly provide, with only the sound of the pages turning to disturb me from the beauty of the words written on each page. When I got to this passage, I had to catch my own tears from smudging the ink.
“Grandy found that most people can tolerate only a cup of someone else’s tear soup. The giant bowl, where Grandy could repeatedly share her sadness in great detail, was left for a few willing friends.”
I paid for the book and angled it against my friend’s art studio door that she would find later to read to her son. The next day she called me and thanked me for the book, telling me that she and Liam were able to talk a lot more easily about his dog’s death once they had sat through one reading of Tear Soup. I made a mental note to buy myself a copy in case I would need it in the future.
Three months later I did.
“I feel like I’m unraveling.” Grandy cried. “I’m mad. I’m confused. I can’t make any decisions. Nobody can make me feel good. I’m a mess. I just didn’t realize it would be this hard.”
My oldest sister was fourth in line behind my other sister, my mom and my dad of who I told over the phone of my boyfriend’s suicide. She was the sister who had recognized the summer before that I may be in over my head in this relationship and spoke to me from the wisdom of her forty years. I had listened to her while we stood facing each other on the back steps of the little one room bakery in town, but I stared at my feet instead of her eyes that were the same color blue as mine.
“Amanda, you cannot be responsible for his happiness. I’m telling you, it won’t get any easier if this kind of stuff is coming up now.” She had witnessed my boyfriend blaming me for the sale of his house which he had put on the market a year before. She was right, it was hard to hear, and I loved him too much underneath the ridiculousness of his blame to leave. But a month later, when I left for a trip out of the country, I decided to voice my concern and take a break from the relationship while I traveled abroad. Then when I returned we were good again, so I stayed. This was the beginning of a year-long pattern, but really it was an extension of a pattern that was there from the beginning. He was down, I was down. He was up, I was up. I decided my emotions according to his and my gut knew it wasn’t right, but my heart was too attached. Because when it was good, it was so good, but when it was bad, I knew I deserved better.
When I left the last time, knowing that I would go down with him if I stayed, I had to do everything I could not to go back. We were mirror reflections of one another. We were soul mates. We had been placed in this lifetime to teach each other the hard lessons that might help us evolve if we were willing to work them out. But in the reflection was more pain than either of us could handle. I know this now.
When he killed himself I reached for my copy of Tear Soup.
My oldest sister was the first one to offer that after the memorial service I come be with her and her family. I booked my reservation that day. A week later over the phone she said to me, “We’re not going to tell the kids about Bryce. We’re just telling them that you guys broke up since they just went through the death of Wanda.” I understood that the kids had gone through the death of their grandmother just a month before, but I wondered what kind of lesson was being taught to their kids if they covered up the reality of life’s journey from them. I understood not telling them about suicide. I imagined there was a certain age to reach before such a conversation, but the fact was that I would have to lie if the moment presented itself. This put me over the edge, but I didn’t have the energy to take on the fact that this didn’t seem right and change it according to my wishes. How could I visit them for a week, just a month after his suicide, and pretend that Bryce had just become my ex-boyfriend? How could I turn the tears of devastation and shuffles of my tired feet into something like a break-up? But instead I kept silent and made a mental note that when I would have my own kids, we would talk about everything.
I arrived at their house after the memorial service exhausted on a snowy night. Though my sister picked me up, we talked in monotone, and it was my brother-in-law in the front doorway who asked me the one question I still crave everyday. “How are you doing?” I stood in my hat, gloves and coat and fell into his hug. I let go of the tears and lies that I felt I had needed to hide. I was learning that a good cry was a much-needed release. I started to crave a good cry as I did the very answers to the questions that would prompt it. While I cried into his shoulder, I looked over at my niece and nephews who watched me while their eyes darted back and forth in discomfort. I wondered if they now knew.
We sat down for dinner moments later and held hands for grace. My sister started. “Why don’t we each share something good that happened to us today?” I couldn’t believe the words coming from her mouth. Did she really think I would have something good to report? My eight-year old nephew was the middle child of the three, the one who always surprised us with comments to remind us of his sensitivity, so he spoke up. “I have an idea. Why don’t we say something nice?” My brother-in-law responded. “Okay, Ethan, why don’t you start?”
We lowered our heads. “Dear God,” Ethan said as I peeked to see his eyes closed while he spoke. “Please take care of Bryce in heaven.” The tears fell down my cheeks as I squeezed Ethan’s hand hard and smiled at him. My brother-in-law whispered, “From the mouths of babes,” and looked at me with his own tears and a smile.
“She sensed that people in church believed that if she really had faith she would be spared deep sorrow, anger and loneliness. Grandy kept reminding herself to be grateful for ALL the emotions that God had given her.”
When the kids were excused from the table to do their post-dinner activities, my sister, brother-in-law and I sat at the dining room table to finally reconnect. My sister told me that they had stuck to the idea of not telling the kids until the kids had broached the subject on their own.
“On Sunday after church we told the kids that you were coming for a visit. And then Christopher (the oldest of the three kids) said, “Is Bryce coming?” That’s when we knew we couldn’t lie. So we told them.” I held my hands together at my mouth hanging on her every word, wondering if the kids had asked how he died, wondering if they had told them. “We didn’t tell them it was suicide.”
My six year old niece, Katherine, directed me in her room as we got ready for bed. “I always sleep on the top bunk, so you can sleep down there,” she pointed to her bottom bunk. “Sounds good to me,” I said to bring calm within a room that had been attacked by toys. She curled up with her stuffed animals on her top bunk, while I moved all of her pink and lavender blankets to get into the bottom bunk.
We lay still in our bunks.
“Can you talk in heaven?” Katherine said from above. “Yes,” I said. “I think you can.”
“Is dog heaven next to human heaven?” I could picture her twirling the ear on her stuffed animal bunny above me as she pondered such honest questions. “I think it is right next door,” I answered.
The week before, I had fretted about how I might answer such questions when they came, but the answers were simple when the questions asked were so real.
A few nights later, after I had had some time to bond and hug and get to know my niece and nephews outside of the few times I saw them each year, I had my laptop idling on their living room chair. Katherine and I were sitting on the floor playing the card game Memory. She giggled after beating me two times, and then she caught out of the corner of her eye a photo that flashed on the screen from my photo screensaver. It was a group shot of Bryce, me and the three kids when we had visited last spring.
She looked me right in the eye.
“You know, I cried today at school because four people who are close to me died.”
I could only account for two, her Grandma Wanda and Bryce, but I also realized that with how heavy and sad it was in the air, I, too, felt the weight of four deaths.
“I want to see more photos of us,” she said.
“Okay,” I smiled.
It was rare for anyone to ask to see my photos. I had to dig through the photos that I had separated out into my “Bryce” folder, the folder I had created in those early days after his suicide because I couldn’t handle seeing his face pop up on my screen after my laptop lay dormant for five minutes. I opened up the folder that held more of the photos from our time that visit and began talking openly about Bryce.
“Remember this walk?” I said. “When I took all of those silly pictures of you on the swing set?” Katherine giggled. “Yeah, that was fun.” Then she did that thing that I used to do at her age, ask those questions that were wiser than her years.
“Why did Bryce die?”
I wasn’t totally sure of the answer to give a six year old, or the reason as to why he died either, and I thought of one of the last things Bryce had said to me before I had left the relationship, “Promise me that you won’t ever put me into a box?” he had said. I had to tell her something other than suicide. I had to be honest, but suicide was too young for her brain to comprehend, not to mention the nightmares it might create. So I did the best with what I had.
“Bryce had a disease in his brain that made him sick.”
“What’s the disease?” she said.
“It’s called mental illness.”
As we sat back on the floor to begin our next game of Memory, I wondered if I had just put Bryce in the very box that he had asked me to keep him out of.
“There were no words that could describe the pain she was feeling. What’s more, when she looked out the window it surprised her to see how the rest of the world was going on as usual while her world had stopped.”
I left my sister’s house and realized how proud I was, how I handled the secret of suicide by being open with her children regarding death. I was taking the time to be with my feelings, and to be honest with them by sharing what felt appropriate at the time. My mom visited them last week and told me that Katherine had talked to her about our time in February.
“Aunt Amanda was really sad when she was here,” she said. My initial reaction when I heard this from my mom was to worry, but then I realized that children also need to see sadness, and how fortunate we would both be when I would see her again this coming July for my dad’s 70th birthday. Then she would see that each day since the last I had grown a little less sad.
“As soon as Grandy tasted the rich flavor of that carefully made soup, she promised herself never again to assume that quicker was better.”
When I got back home I flipped through my copy of Tear Soup. I came to the page that was just an illustration. Drawn were three pots with the words “Profound loss”, “Major tragedy” and “More than I can bear”. Above the pots were spoons hanging from the wall to stir the tear soup that Grandy had made. Above the hanging spoons was a shelf with cookbooks leaning against each other with poignant titles. The first book was entitled, “Murder,” which surprised me. As I turned my head to read the spines of all of the books, I read, “House Fire,” which I had had my freshman year in college when two guys arsoned my dorm room, then “Divorce,” which I had experienced twice in my childhood, and next was “Flunked Geometry,” which reminded me of the D grade I had received in Statistics. After reading all of the titles, I realized that grief and tears were around more often than we adults cared to admit. Then, at the tippy-top, above “Infertility” and “Spouse Died,” was the book of “Suicide”.
I shut Tear Soup and decided to keep it within arm’s reach for that day when we might have to stir our own batch of tear soup.