Finding the Words Grief at the loss of a child will not go away. But Baltimore parents Anne McCracken and Mary Semel hope their anthology can inspire the will to go on.

December 02, 1998|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Ten chairs form a circle at the Barnes & Noble bookstore downtown. Here on a breezy November evening, two Baltimore mothers, Anne McCracken and Mary Semel, will give their first reading of the anthology they've just published: "A Broken Heart Still Beats: After Your Child Dies."

Neither woman knows how tonight will go. McCracken is eerily unnervous. A glass of wine has soothed Semel's jitters.

They know what it's like to lose a child. Their book is a compilation of fiction, nonfiction and poetry by authors who know what it's like, too.

The circle fills with friends, family members and strangers. Some are here to lend support, others to find support. They, too, have lost children. No matter how many self-help groups, consoling conversations and momentary epiphanies they've experienced, they still crave a word or thought, something, to end the pain. But nothing short of bringing a child back can do that.

This is what McCracken and Semel have come to understand. McCracken's son, Jake, died nine years ago at age 5, when a driver crossed the center line and plowed into the car his mother was driving. In 1991, Semel's 16-year-old son, Allie, died in a car accident, too.

McCracken, 50, and Semel, 54, have learned that their grief will always be a part of their lives. In this ghastly revelation, they have found a kind of peace.

Peace didn't come of its own accord. Both women lived for a long time in a black hole. Counselors couldn't help. Semel, a psychotherapist, was repulsed by therapies that urged parents to overcome grief. "I knew I would never get over it, nor would I want to," she says.

Self-help books didn't help. Appalled by their callous optimism, McCracken tossed several volumes against the wall. They were "an affront to the love I held for Jake," says the journalist.

Friends, simply by listening, were of great comfort. But it was literature that extended a lifeline. Others' words pulled the two women out of their all-consuming grief and into the world once again. Editing the book gave them something more: a goal.

After being introduced by a mutual friend in 1992, McCracken and Semel, both avid readers, shared helpful passages from books. They wrote particularly useful ones on note cards.

Before long, they had more than enough for an anthology, and they realized their collection could help other bereaved parents as well.

"The book is so cathartic for us," says McCracken, who nearly died in the accident that took her son's life. "I will never heal. My heart will always be broken. But there has been healing in the last nine years and the book was a big part of it."

By articulating the women's devastation, literature was a homeopathic balm that treated their grief with the authors' own. Poring through the work of Samuel Clemens, Robert Frost, Anne Morrow Lindbergh and others, the women, who both have a surviving daughter, found peace in the knowledge that these writers used their craft to struggle with -- and become reconciled with -- their permanent wound.

Others, such as novelists Anne Tyler and Brett Lott, have not experienced the death of a child, but powerfully intuited the impact of such a loss.

In his novel, "Reed's Beach," Lott recounts the final intimate moment a couple shares with their dead son. After closing the little boy's coffin, his father reflects: "True grief, he saw with the last glimpse of his son in the oak-paneled room, was a secret that defied divulging. There was no way to know it unless it had been bestowed upon you, no way to pass it on once it had arrived."

For the uninitiated, this passage may seem cold comfort. But for grieving parents, it can validate their isolation, even while demonstrating that many before them have known the same horrible feeling.

"What I knew in the very beginning intellectually, this made me feel it: I am not alone," McCracken says. "There were many, many before me ... these people went on ... it was a 'eureka' moment for me."

To know that the same authors also remained productive, even while grieving the loss of a child for the rest of their lives, was a revelation as well. Robert Frost lost four of six children, "and he got up every morning and wrote wonderful poetry," McCracken says. "In the midst of these authors, I can't say I can't survive."

The book, divided into different aspects of the grieving and healing process, includes several essays by McCracken and Semel.

In the chapter "Legacy of Loss," McCracken reviews Jake's last full day of life and the little boy's zest as he amused a group of campers with a recitation from "Peter Pan."

"I love that memory," McCracken writes. "I love it because it's so funny, I can bear it. I love it because it epitomizes the all-boy, mischievous performer that Jake was at almost six years old. But mostly I love it because he's happy.

"He's not a little boy wondering what's happened to him and where are we and when is he going to see us again? He's happy."

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