One day last week, a woman in my Facebook blogging group suddenly reached out for comfort. The two year-old son of someone she knew had died in a terrible accident. In our private group she was able to share the anguish that she could not share publicly. Instantly, an outpouring of sympathy flooded the page.
The heartbreak of losing a child. Every parent’s worst nightmare. Awful. Inconceivable.
Tragically, this is exactly what happened to Sukey Forbes ten years ago when her six year-old daughter, Charlotte, died due to a rare genetic disorder. In her memoir, “The Angel in My Pocket,” Forbes describes in honest detail the unbearable grief of losing a child and the tough road that comes after.
The Angel in My Pocket
Subtitled “A Story of Love, Loss and Life After Death,” the book traces Forbes’ arduous journey through intense sorrow to finding sources for healing — some of them unconventional — that gave her strength to move forward with her life. A life forever changed, certainly, but a life still capable of finding meaning and joy.
The descendant of two renowned New England families, Forbes was raised with puritanical values of self-reliance and the suppression of emotion. In her quest to see her way through her desolation, she realized she needed to find a different path, but turned to her family legacy for guidance. She was heartened to discover examples of mysticism and alternative sources of wisdom that sustained her in her search for meaning.
She found that she could lean on family members who had experienced similar tragedies, as did her great-great-great grandfather, Ralph Waldo Emerson, with the death of his child, also six years old, the same age as Charlotte.
Though gut wrenching and sad, Forbes’ eloquently told story is one of hope. A lifeline to anyone experiencing any type of loss and struggling to find a way through it.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to chat with Sukey Forbes about her memoir.
Why did you write the book?
I needed this book on my nightstand when my daughter died. There are many books out there that describe the state of grief, but what I didn’t find was a lifeline, a resource that said yes, this is horrible, and this is probably the worst life experience you will ever go through, but If you do the following things or take these steps, you can be OK. Eventually.
I needed to hear that. Grief is so painful that the thought of living in that stage of tenderness for the rest of my life was almost more than I could bear.
You do carry this grief with you always, and you are forever changed. But the books I read said “You are forever changed” but were so heavily laden with the negative that I never considered that I also might be changed in some very positive ways, if I paid attention to that, and that is what this book is about.
How long did you think about writing the book before you actually started?
Very early on in my grief it became clear to me that I was grieving in a different way than the way I perceived others grieving. I struggled with that. As mothers, we tend to beat ourselves up in any number of different ways — the way we parent, the way we feel, the way we move through the world — and I beat myself up a lot for the way I was grieving.
I found it helpful to keep a journal and write about it. I told myself that if and when I got to that endpoint, if I reached the goal of where I wanted to be, then I would turn it into a book.
How did your upbringing influence the way you grieved?
We all carry our life experiences in our proverbial backpack as we move through life, and my experience growing up in a puritanical, stiff upper lip, self-reliant household was that we were encouraged to not be emotional.
That stoicism actually helped me initially when I needed to be there for my two other children and my husband, but it also hindered my ability to feel. Because every time I felt myself descending into sorrow I had this horrible fear that I would become completely unglued, and that would be the end of it and I would never be able to find my way to any sense of sanity.
However, what also helped me was that there were a number of family members who were thinkers and seekers, looking for something. So I also felt encouraged to find my own way.
Malignant hypothermia — the genetic disorder that took Charlotte’s life — what have you learned about it?
Ten years later, there is not much more that is known. What has changed is the awareness of the symptoms not just in hospital emergency rooms but also general medical training. Charlotte’s presentation of malignant hypothermia is still, to this day, one of a handful of cases around the world. Usually the disorder is triggered under general anesthesia. In Charlotte’s case, it was non-triggered, and we know even less about that than the triggered kind.
In the early stages of your bereavement you decided to consult a medium. What compelled you to do this?
What drove me was the maternal desire to know that my daughter was OK. This really defined much of my early grieving. I didn’t have the architecture of a belief system in the same way many religions do, so I had to find my own way in terms of what happens when we die.
I couldn’t just accept that she was in heaven. That didn’t work for me spiritually or scientifically. When we are stretched thin and desperate we become more open-minded and more willing to take that extra leap. I made finding an answer my mission, looking outside of myself, and opened myself up to anything initially.
At first, It was equal parts skepticism and open mindedness. But I found it impossible to dismiss the notion that someone might be able to communicate with my daughter, and if that possibility existed, I felt that I really had to take a shot.
Remember, though, that my journey and the ways I sought comfort and found it are not necessarily the right way for everyone.
I was able to get the validation that I needed that Charlotte was OK. That was a great gift for me. It gave me enormous comfort.
Whether you’re dealing with a medium or clairvoyant or doctor or therapist or anybody else who has more knowledge in some areas than you, it’s important to keep your mind open.. I still don’t quite understand how it works. I myself have a scientific background and there is so much that we don’t know.
I like to think of it this way. There are sound frequencies we can’t hear but dogs and other animals can hear. These sounds still exist even though we can’t understand them or they don’t register with us. For some reason, there are some people who are able to see ahead, hear ahead, and have an extra ability to collect data points.
If the information they can give you is actually helpful and additive, I say why not take advantage of that.
You have such a colorful family tree. For example, there seems to be a family tradition of living and being comfortable with ghosts.
Many families, particularly those in New England who live in old houses with many generations and occupants from over the years, acknowledge and accept the existence of ghosts. In both our summer house and the home where I spent my childhood, I had personal experiences with ghosts or something that felt ghost-like to me, as did many other family members. There was certainly a family culture of “there’s more than that which we can see.”
You turned to your ancestors for answers, and they provided comfort to you through the grieving process.
There is a great tradition of looking backwards in our family and revering our antecedents, a tremendous sense of carrying ideas and thoughts through the family, not just in terms of my great-great-great grandfather, Ralph Waldo Emerson, but of the other family members as well.
When I began searching for the road map through grief, the first place I looked was to my family. We have a series of guest books that go back to the 1840s, and within days after Charlotte ‘s death I began to look for specific dates in history that involved the death of a family member. I needed information about how my family processed it publicly and privately.
So I did start to lean more heavily on those relatives who had experienced loss. Emerson had a son who died at the same age as Charlotte of a high fever, and I found a very strong kinship in him, not as Emerson the poet, but as a relative who lost a child and how that affected him.
Friends and family can be well meaning at a time like this but often say or do the wrong things. What is the best way for people to help?
Overwhelmingly, I learned how deeply kind people can be. But they often say thoughtless and cruel things without realizing it. At the top of the list is “I know exactly how you feel.” Even someone who has lost a child the same way can’t know exactly how you feel.
The best thing that anyone could say is I’m sorry, and ask about the child, not in terms of the way she died, but the way she lived.
Having people bring meals was very helpful. Also, very specific offers of tasks that they could do to help – not asking the open-ended “what can I do to help?” question that is hard to answer because bereaved people can’t think that clearly. It needs to be a specific offer of, for example, let me take your children to the park, what day works? Or, I am going to the super market, what do you need?
How do you continue to remember and honor Charlotte?
After her death, we set up a foundation in her name, with a mission statement that reads, “Through the eyes of a child, making the world a better place.” Once a year we sit down as a family and figure out, at the age Charlotte would be now, where would she want to donate this money? What would be interesting to her? It’s a way for us to think of her and keep her spirit alive as part of our family. And we have always remembered her through stories and on birthdays and holidays.
My relationship with her is different now. It has shifted from a mother-daughter relationship to more of an angel or spiritual guide. When I pray it’s less to God and more to Charlotte.
I still really struggle with the earthly bit. Her birthday is hands down the hardest day of the year for me. I still very much miss the little girl who was here, but the soul who has moved on, I feel a very strong connection to that.
What are your hopes for this book?
I believe what qualifies me to write this book is I’ve been there. I came through it. So I hope someone reading the book will think, “If she can do it, I can do it.” Sharing that part of the story of survival and resiliency is very important to me. It drove me to put pen to paper and ultimately get this book on someone’s nightstand who might benefit from it.
The book is a natural fit for people who have lost a child, but also for anyone who has struggled with any kind of loss and is trying to work through that. Through my experiences, I can share what worked for me and gave me back my life.
I am delighted to be able to give away a copy of “The Angel in My Pocket” to one of my readers. Please leave a comment below by July 15 and I will notify the winner then. Only US postal addresses are eligible.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin USA/Viking for an honest review. All opinions are my own. I did not receive any other compensation.