Part of the Problem (children and books about death)

July 5th, 2011 § 19 comments

Last summer I wrote the following piece about an upsetting interaction I had with a bookseller. It remains one of the posts that readers mention and still ask me about. The topic of children and death must be a touchy subject for most. I guess because I grew up with a mother who was a psychologist specializing in these topics I have never felt uncomfortable talking about them. Let me know what you think.


June 23, 2010

School is out for my three children. At ages 11, 8, and 4, the days are a hodgepodge of activities to allow them relaxing time at home with each other and some physical activity each day. No matter what their summer plans hold (sleepaway camp for 2 of them later this summer), I always make sure they each have a stack of books they are excited to read. Each night they go up to their rooms for at least 30 minutes before bedtime to read.

Yesterday we took a trip to my favorite independent bookstore. The tiny, jam-packed store has many employees who know and love books working there (all women, it seems). The children’s section is brimming with wonderful books for all ages. My favorite thing to do is bring the older children there and let them chat with a bookseller, telling what they’ve just read and whether they liked it or not. The clerks then can make suggestions about what the kids might like to buy/read next.

When we walked in it was apparent my favorite person was not there to help us. Another woman offered, and off we went to the back room. “What have you just read that you liked?” she asked my 11 year-old daughter. “Elsewhere,” (by Gabrielle Zevin) she answered. The woman immediately snapped, “That’s too old for you. It has death in it,” she said. She looked at me quizzically, silently chastising me for my daughter’s book choice.

“I don’t mind that she reads about death,” I said.

“I loved that book… it was so good!” Paige implored.

“It’s not appropriate for a 7th grader,” the woman persisted.

“I think it’s how the subject is handled,” I said. “We talk openly about death and illness in our house, and my daughter is obviously comfortable reading about it,” I pushed.

The subject was over. She was not going to recommend any books that had to do with the death of a teenager or what happens to that character after she dies. And so, she moved on to other books and topics. Eventually, we found a lovely stack for Paige to dive into.

As soon as we left I talked to Paige about what had happened: how the bookseller had steered her away from reading about death and pushed her to “lighter fare.” I told her that I disagreed with this tactic, and fundamentally think it reinforces a fear of death and discomfort with talking about the subject.

While I believe that a teenager’s obsession with death can be a signal of some larger emotional problem, I do not think that reading novels where the main character dies is inherently a bad idea for a mature reader. After all, so many of even young children’s favorite characters in television and movies have absent/dead parents; Bambi, Max and Ruby, and countless others have significant adults missing from their lives.

I don’t believe in forcing children to deal with the topic of death in reading until they are ready. I do believe parents are the best arbiters of what information and topics are appropriate for their children. But if a child is comfortable in reading books where a character dies, I believe it’s healthy for the child to do so. As a springboard for an honest conversation about death, it can even be extremely useful in beginning to have conversations at home about it.

Paige’s grandmother was killed instantly in a car crash in the fall of 2009. She learned that the death of a loved one can greet us at any time, whether we are prepared for it or not. By trying to steer my mature child away from the topic, the salesperson contributed to the emotional shielding that makes death a topic that so many individuals (including children) have difficulty thinking and talking about.

A step

March 6th, 2011 § 0 comments

Written September 19, 2009

I put makeup on for the first time in days.
I don’t know why.
I know the tears will wash it away.
But it’s a step.

Today, with complex fractures still unset in his right leg,
My father-in-law got out of bed and hopped with a walker.
I don’t quite know how.
But that’s the kind of guy he is.
He will have more surgeries on Monday.
He’s going to have at least twelve weeks without weight-bearing.
His wrist is set, with a plate.
His knee fracture will get repaired on Monday, too.
He’ll need months of physical therapy.
But it’s a step.

Colin, age 7, was just sitting at the kitchen table.
He had a plastic bone-shaped toy and
Had placed a piece of paper inside.
I asked what it said.
“Grandma 2009” he said.
And he wrapped Scotch tape around and around the bone to make
Sure the sides didn’t come apart.
“It’s like a memory box.”
“Oh,” I said, trying to hold back the tears.
“I think that’s nice.”

Paige is making a “Get Well Soon” card for Clarke to take to his
Father tomorrow when he goes to see him.
I am sitting in the other room and the thought of it
Brings me to tears.
I’m almost scared to go and look at it.
I just know it’s going to be so special.
So wonderful.
So filled with love
and innocence
and childish adoration
that it will be happy and sad
all wrapped up in one.
It will be painful for him to read I bet.

Being half of “Grandma and Pops”
is going to be like limping along…

I keep
reminding myself:
a limp
is a step.

Just a sandwich

March 6th, 2011 § 0 comments

Written September 18, 2009

I had a lot of breakdowns today.
At Starbucks talking to my friend Brenda.
In my car.
Talking to the director at nursery school.
The most embarrassing?
At the deli counter.
Looking at tuna salad.
The sight of tuna salad made me cry.

Two weeks ago I asked for a small container of tuna salad.
The way I always did when my in-laws came to visit.
Tuna salad from Palmer’s Market.
It was my mother-in-law’s favorite.
Nineteen days ago she sat at my kitchen table.
Twenty days ago I asked for tuna salad.
I just want to ask for tuna salad again.
I just want to say to my favorite deli counter man,
“My mother-in-law is coming to visit,
So I need to get more tuna salad…
You know how much she loves it!”
I just want to say those words.
I just want to make her a tuna sandwich.
That’s all.
Just a little thing really.
Just a sandwich.
Is that too much to ask?

Does that truck driver know that?
That I just want to share a sandwich with my mother-in-law?
I just want to hug her,
Hear her voice,
The way she liltingly said my name when I answered the phone.
The way she said “hello” in a special
Sing-songy way when I called her.
I think of the cotton nightgowns she loved so much.
The way she hated the last haircut she got in Jackson Hole.
How she wondered if they were still wearing linen in
Connecticut in August and if she could wear a linen blazer for
David and Bronwen’s wedding.
How she loved the note paper I got her for her birthday last year.
How she played Webkinz games on the computer
Just to be able to have something to talk to the grandkids about.
How she was jealous I got to hold Baby Owen the day after
He was born this week.
How she was making plans to come and see him.

Does that truck driver know that?
Does he know she had a brand new grandson two days old that
She didn’t get to hold?
Does he know he killed her on her son David’s birthday?
Does he know he killed the mother of six children?
Nine grandchildren?
Many more to come?
Does he?

I bet not.

I haven’t been able to eat more than a few bites since Barbara was killed.
I wonder if the truck driver has.
I wonder what he’s having for dinner in jail.
I wonder if he’s going to have tuna salad.
Because right now,
When I think of it,
All I can do is cry.

Children are different

March 6th, 2011 § 0 comments

Written September 18, 2009

Children are different.
From adults.
From each other.

I had to give two of my children different directives this morning:
One I told, “It’s okay to be sad.”
One I told, “It’s okay to be happy.”

I needed to tell my 7 year-old son that it was okay to cry, to be sad, to miss his grandmother.
I miss her too.
And it’s okay to let your emotions show.
It doesn’t make you a sissy or a wimp.
What it does make you is a loving grandson.
A grieving boy.
A bereaved family member.

But my ten year-old daughter needed a different kind of permission slip today.
I sensed she needed permission to smile.
To laugh.
To be happy.
I needed to tell her that it was okay to forget for a moment.
Or two.
To forget for a few moments that Grandma died.
It’s okay to still enjoy life.
The life we have.
Grandma would want that.
I told her that Grandma loved her so much.
And was so proud of the person that she is.
I reminded her how Grandma’s last phone call here last Sunday was specifically to tell Paige how proud she was of her for walking in the Komen Race for the Cure with me.
It’s okay to still feel happiness.
And joy.
It’s okay to let that break through the sadness.

Children are different.
But they take their cues from us.
I know my children.
I know that this morning what they needed from me was a sign that it was okay for them to feel a range of emotions.
It’s healthy.
Because what we are living right now is tragic.
And confusing.
And sad.
And infuriating.

If it is all of those things for me,
It can only be all of those things and more
To my children.

The Box

March 6th, 2011 § 4 comments

Written September 17, 2009

She went up to bed tonight,
Still pink-eyed and shaky.
Finally calmed enough to hopefully get some rest.
And as she walked into her room,
From beneath her bed,
The bright kaleidoscope patterned paper
Caught her eye.

I heard the sobs,
The wails,
The primal,

“My birthday present.
From Grandma.
The one she gave me early.”
She stood pointing at it,
Gaze averted,
Like a child pointing at a dead
Animal in the middle of the road.

Together we looked.
And then all at once it hit me.
I knew what she was talking about.

Two weeks ago,
When my in-laws were visiting,
Paige’s grandmother had given her a wrapped box
And said,
“This is for your birthday.
Put it somewhere safe.
Don’t open it until October 28th.
I know it’s something you’ll like,
But you have to wait until then,

And so,
Because that’s the kind of 10-year old she is,
Paige didn’t peek,
Or lift the corner of the paper,
Or ask her brother what was in it.

She carefully put it under her bed
To wait until October.

We had no way of knowing we’d never see Grandma
No way of knowing that was the last present that would be
No way of knowing that a truck which had no business
Trying to pass anyone,
Much less several vehicles at once,
Would slam head-on into my in-laws’ car and kill our
Loved one.

The very sight of the box,
And the thought of its giver,
Brought her to tears,
Racked her with sobs,
Riddled her with grief,
Filled her with anger,
And sadness,
And loss,
And pain,
And confusion,
And did the very same
To me.

Barbara, I miss you

March 6th, 2011 § 1 comment

written September 17, 2009

I didn’t even recognize his voice when
I answered the phone last night.
It was my husband.
And through the sobs
He told me there had been an accident.
A car crash.
His parents.
Driving from their home in Jackson Hole
To their home in Scottsdale.
A truck had tried to pass some other vehicles
Around a slight bend.
The truck only got alongside an oversized load
when they collided,
at highway speed,
Head on.
In their lane.
The passenger side took the impact.
My beloved mother-in-law,
Killed instantly.

Mother to six,
Grandmother to nine,
Including newest grandson Owen born only two days ago.
Truly beloved woman.
We all grieve her loss.
We ache.
We are stunned.

Clarke’s father, airlifted to Salt Lake City.
Awaits surgeries for his injuries.
Already surrounded by relatives.
More scramble and scurry to be at his side.

We cry and mourn and try to make sense.
There is none to be made.
No reason,
No explanation.

Or maybe there is:
A stupid decision
By a stupid driver.

A moment’s impatience
Let to a
A split second acceleration
But a miscalculation
Let to a

Wrong person died.
Wrong person paid the price.

Don’t tell me any logic.
Don’t tell me any cause.
Don’t tell me any plan.
Don’t tell me she’s in a better place.
Don’t tell me she’s looking down on me.
Don’t tell me anything good.
Don’t tell me anything about anything.

Right now
All I feel is pain.
All I know is hurt.

And now?
Now we have to tell our children.
Grandma’s dead.

Barbara, always in my heart

March 6th, 2011 § 0 comments

I’m going to be bringing over many of the posts I made when Barbara Smith Adams died on September 16, 2009. I find myself crying reading my words again… reliving those confusing, tragic, raw feelings that I had when I first got the news. I want to have those posts here on the new site; eventually the old website will be taken down. These pieces are some of the ones I am most proud of. Perhaps that sounds odd to say about writing that came from grief. However, to me they are a documentation of my love for a woman I was privileged to call my mother-in-law. I had nineteen years of knowing her, and they weren’t enough.

Every day something makes me think of her.
It might be the necklace I wear that was hers.
It might be my daughter’s round face which looks so much like Barbara’s.
A milestone for Tristan,
a family gathering,
any holiday,
my spring garden,
a pretty set of linens,
a family vacation,
Colin’s essay about making snow ice cream with her…
it’s anything.
I think of her all the time,
and I cry.

Through the front door

December 26th, 2010 § 6 comments

I don’t know what it’s going to feel like to walk into the house.

Her house.

It’s been 14 months since my mother-in-law died and in a few hours I’m going to walk into the house that was the last place she slept before she died. The bed she slept in will be there. All of her Christmas decorations. Her towels. Her dishes. All of her things are going to be there.

Christmas has been strange already.

I didn’t send her my itinerary, of course.

I didn’t call her on Christmas Day to thank her for a bounty of presents for the children.

I didn’t call her to tell her about the bracelet Clarke bought for me that I know she would have loved.

There are so many things I didn’t do—and then there are the things I am doing:

I think about what it will be like to walk over the threshold and into the foyer and know she isn’t going to be there to welcome me.

I think about the Christmases past and can’t decide whether to laugh or cry.

I can’t imagine what it’s going to feel like to be in her house without her. There will be nineteen of us together this year. One of my nephews was two days old when she died. One of my nieces wasn’t even born yet. And I know that every time I hold those babies part of me will be treasuring that feeling for Barbara, wishing she were there with us, doing what she loved most: being with her family and snuggling with her grandchildren.

I miss you, Barbara. I don’t cry every day anymore. But I still cry often. And this time of year, perhaps more than any other, just feels empty without you.

I was in Wyoming this past Spring at the court hearing for the man who was driving the truck that hit Barbara’s car and killed her. On a cold Spring dayI was in a car when I went over the exact place she died. It was a spot on a highway, a piece of asphalt in the midst of expansive vistas filled with mule deer and brown grasses. When I passed over that spot, identifiable by the mile marker on the side of the road I waited for it—something. I waited for a shift, a tingling, a sign that it was special. I wanted there to be something so that everyone who passed that mile marker knew that right there, at that spot, one of the most special people in my world died.

And yet, it was just road. Nothing happened. No one would have known.

This trip is different, though. Each and every one of us is going to feel the seismic shift when we walk through that front door this holiday season. In the same blink of an eye it took to cross the spot where she died, I will walk through the doorway and into her house.

It’s time. It’s time to feel that shift.

We keep moving on, but moving on does not mean forgetting. Moving on means weaving the feelings of grief and pain and sadness into our everyday lives.

We must keep going. We have kept going this year.

But it’s not the same. It never will be.

Empty Space

December 13th, 2010 § 4 comments

Clarke and I attended a family wedding this weekend. One of his first cousins got married and my parents stayed with the kids while we drove to the event. Four of Clarke’s brothers and sisters attended and we were able to see many family members we hadn’t seen since the memorial service for Barbara a little over a year ago.

Barbara’s three sisters were there, of course, and one of her brothers. It’s a large family and we all have a great time visiting when we have occasions to see each other. It was fantastic to have a happy reason to gather; so often as we age it seems we only see each other to mourn.

And while we were happy, while we loved seeing a young bride and groom start their lives together, we couldn’t help but ache every moment for the special one who was not there. Barbara’s absence hung over the weekend. For the first time since she died I didn’t have to distinguish one “Mrs. Clarke Adams” from the other. We’d had the same name for the last 13 years and over the weekend I missed the confusion it often gave us at check-in time or seating assignments for dinner.

It wasn’t until the groom danced with his mother (Barbara’s sister) that the emptiness became overwhelming. This particular sister resembles Barbara the most: her eyes, her expressions, her hair. And as she danced with her son we all could not help but cry: my youngest brother-in-law, still in his 20s, would not have that dance with his mother when he gets married.

I talked about Barbara a lot this weekend; I couldn’t help it.

My anger is still here: she should be here enjoying these things. It is someone else’s fault she isn’t (see here for original newspaper piece and here for my piece about the court hearing). Somehow, to me, that makes it worse. Her body didn’t fail, she didn’t get a disease. Someone made an egregious decision and she paid the price with her life.

I’m not over that anger and I don’t think I ever will be. Every happy event is one we are not sharing with her. And while no one’s life can go on forever, when it’s taken without warning and too soon it takes time to adjust to. It’s too much to swallow in one gulp, and this bitter taste is dissolving very slowly. This weekend was hard. Christmas, which has always been synonymous with Barbara, is going to be even harder. I know there are many people reading this who are grieving losses this year, and the holidays are always difficult. My heart goes out to you all.

Just a spot (the court hearing)

December 13th, 2010 § 1 comment

Originally published on on March 9, 2010

Now that I have been writing this blog, family and friends sometimes ask me to write something and speak at special occasions. Yet, earlier today in court and at Barbara’s memorial service a few months ago I remained mum.

While my love for her is obvious, my respect, my admiration, my sense of loss, I remained an observer while the truck driver who came into my in-laws’ lane and hit them head-on appeared in court today for his change of plea hearing.

Family members are allowed to read victim impact statements. Spread across the entire back row of the small Western courtroom we sat in wooden pews. Her six children, her husband, one son’s girlfriend, and me.

The nine of us sat as an army.

Wearing somber colors, we sat clutching tissues.
We cried.
We squirmed.
We jiggled our legs with nervousness and anticipation.

We stared at the back of that truck driver’s head.
We stared at the back of his sister’s head.
His mother’s. His father’s.

At some point when the judge was deliberating I couldn’t take it anymore.

And then I did something that’s become routine for me.
I picked a spot on the ceiling and I stared at it.

I’ve come to do this as my coping mechanism for pain,
for feelings of claustrophobia,
for enduring the seemingly unendurable moments
I’ve had so many of the past few years.

When I’ve been in pain,
in agony,
nauseated from chemo,
embarrassed during procedures,
I pick a spot on the ceiling.

And I don’t let it go.
I don’t let my gaze waver.

In some medical offices I visited repeatedly I used the same spot:
A sticker on the ceiling indicating a light switch,
A brown spot from water damage,
An intersection of metal latticework that if I stared hard enough
seemed to have a dot in the middle.

And so today,
when it seemed the plea bargain
would not, could not, be changed,
reconsidered, or
I picked my spot.

I picked my spot and did not let it go.

I heard the sniffles,
the sobs,
the exhales of my loved ones realizing the punishment that seems so inadequate would stand.

My brothers and sisters-in-law didn’t need my words today.
Theirs were so poignant,
so heartbreaking,
so true.

While the words swirled inside my head,
this was their day to describe their pain.
While I come here and do it weekly,
it was their turn today.

I was so proud of them.
Barbara would have been so proud too.

That’s the irony, of course:
their finest moments,
their displays of character and strength,
have come to the forefront in her absence–
because of her absence.

And everywhere we go people say
that her six children are a testament to the mother she was.
And they are.
A family unit so strong,
so united,
so bereft at her loss.

Twice today we drove on the very highway where the car crash happened.
Twice today we crossed the very place where she last lived.

And as we approached the spot both times I sat in the moving car and waited.
I waited for there to be some type of shift,
some type of energy.
Some kind of

But it was just road.
Just pavement.
Just a place on a road.
And both times I could not accept it.

It did not seem real.
Our lives changed on that spot.
Her life ended on that spot.

In the middle of the expansive countryside dotted with wind turbines and packs of mule deer
dearest Barbara departed this world.

I can’t write enough words for her.
I can’t capture the ache and sadness I feel.
Not only for myself–never only for myself– but so much for my children…
for all of her grandchildren who missed years of knowing her,
many of whom will never know her.

I’ll never write much of what I want to say.
I won’t put it here where it could be painful for those who miss her and love her.
I can’t write everything I want to about the man who did this.
I don’t want to undermine any future court activity.

Sometimes the hardest thing is knowing when to keep quiet.
I’m working on it.

Tonight I fly thousands of feet in the air
as the plane shakes and trembles
with turbulence.

And while I hate to fly
I wouldn’t have been anywhere else today.

So while the plane lurches a bit
I’m going to turn off the computer,
pick my spot somewhere on the ceiling,
and I’m going to stare at it.
And I’m not going to let it go.

Because I can get through this.
I can.
I can get through this.
We can.

Bye-bye Grandma

November 21st, 2010 § 3 comments

The moments catch me off-guard,
like my brother used to do
when we were kids.

He’d lay in wait
around the corner
in the hallway upstairs,
behind the jog in the corridor
outside my bedroom.

He would leap out,
scaring me,
terrifying me,
and I would scream
and shake
and cry.

That’s what these moments do:
they make me
and shake
and cry.

Last night it was Paige,
with her round angelic face,
eyes pink with tears bursting,
coming into the kitchen while I was on the phone with my parents.

“I went to the computer…
to send some email to some friends…
and all of the emails from her are there…
there’s just a whole list of emails from her there…
it just says ‘Barbara Adams’ the whole way down…
and I just keep thinking how she’s never going to write me back…”

And so we cried.
And we talked.

I was cleaning the kitchen,
packing up backpacks,
doing things I thought were “safe.”
I thought I would be protected from
emotional assault.

I opened Colin’s green homework folder and
put in his math assignment.
A sheet was already inside the folder,
a red squiggly crayon line decorating one edge.

I pulled out the paper with reckless abandon,
expecting an innocent scribble,
a wasted silly drawing.

But instead, it was a piece of writing paper.
On it, neatly printed in his finest handwriting,
it said, “Bye-Bye Grandma”
and there was a tombstone shape in the middle
that said “Barbara Adams 2009.”

There were green zig zags on the top and bottom,
red squiggles on the left and right,
bright colors all around.

I wasn’t ready for it.
I didn’t know it was there,
in the shadows,
coiled to take advantage when I dropped my guard,
waiting for me to be vulnerable.

And so I acted just like I did when I was a
child and my brother scared me.
I screamed.
I shook.
And I cried.

I vowed not to let my guard down like that

I love you, Paige.
I love you, Colin.
I love that you loved your Grandma so much.
I loved her too.
I miss her too.

And my hurt may dull a bit,
but it’s never going to go away,
because some of my hurt is for you.

It hurts not only that I don’t have Grandma in my life,
but also that you don’t.
And that’s what makes me cry the most,
because I know how much she loved you both,
and little Tristan too.

One day
we’ll have to explain to him just how special she was
and how much she loved him
and all of the the special things she did to show it.

Thinking about the fact that she’s not going to be here to
show him for herself just breaks my heart…

It makes me want to
and shake,
and cry.

Playing it safe

September 21st, 2009 § 0 comments

Written September 21, 2009

The light turned yellow
And in that split second
When my foot came off the pedal
I had to choose its destination–
Back to speed or
To the brake.

Right or left.

Go or stop.

A moment in time.

Hesitate or act.

And in that fraction of a second
I thought of her–
Her life gone
In a crash
In a fraction of a second.

I played it safe.

Under the amber light
I stopped.


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