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Monday, May 20, 2024

10 REASONS TO KEEP LIVING AFTER YOUR CHILD DIES

 I originally published this post on Medium, but after speaking today to a fellow grieving mother, I realized it should live on my website/blog, too. I hope you never need this list, but just in case...


1) Your child deserves to be remembered and to have his memory and too-short life honored, and no one is going to do that like you can.

2) Your surviving children (or spouse or friends) are going to be looking to you to see how a person goes on after the most tragic blow life can deliver, and you don’t want to show anyone a coward’s way out. Your life and death are the legacy you leave the people who love you; don’t let them down.

3) If your child died by suicide, you are doubly needed to set a survivor’s example for your loved ones. Please don’t ever do to anyone what your child did to you in his disordered need to escape his own pain. Where there is life, there is always another way forward.

4) You are now immune to all the petty bullshit life doles out. You can now focus what energy you have left on the important things. You are going to be amazed, after the brain fog of early grief lifts, how much more clear you are about what you need.

5) If you hang in there long enough to experience Post-Traumatic Growth, this horrible loss is going to help you grow into a more compassionate, open-hearted person, more capable of love and grace than you ever were before.

6) According to grief expert David Kessler, who lost his 21-year-old son to an overdose, the sixth stage of grief is finding meaning. Most of us need several years to get to that stage, so you need time to make meaning of your child’s life and loss. Perhaps you’ll create a scholarship or work with a non-profit or host an annual fund-raising event, or maybe, like me, you’ll write a book. (I wrote a poetry collection, What I Should Have Said: A Poetry Memoir about Losing a Child to Addiction, that includes my child’s poems, which has been hugely meaningful for me.)

7) If you were meant to die now, you could die of broken-heart syndrome, a real disorder that does kill a few grieving mothers and widows by choking off a chamber of the heart and causing blood to back up in it. If you are still breathing, you still have a purpose to fulfill and an obligation to figure out what that purpose is.

8) Your child is sending you signs meant only for you, and you need to be here to receive them. Tremendous grief tears back the veil between the spirit world and our own, causing your devices to malfunction, your lights to flicker, feathers and coins to fall in your path, and songs to play when you most need to hear them. Pay attention and choose to believe your child’s spirit is near you. Maybe it is, and believing will bring you greater peace.

9) Your life has intrinsic worth and value.

10) Your child would want you to figure out how to live and be happy.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Here are my favorite novels for 2023, with links to my reviews!

Here are my favorite 23 novels from 2023:   


Count The Ways is an extraordinarily moving, heartfelt, epic novel about a woman's life, loves, and losses as a mother of three. One of my favorite novels of all time -- and a sequel is coming this year!

Cara Romero is one of the greatest characters of all time, and I highly recommend you get to know her via the audiobook version of this fantastic novel, as whoever does her voice does it with humor and pathos in a way that avoids mockery. So, so good!
https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/5063556967

I listened to the audiobook version of this gorgeous family novel, which is magnificently read by Meryl Streep, who starts off telling a story about the one who got away, but winds up telling us about the more meaningful loves that endure and sustain us.

This was my first Dennis Lehane book, but it certainly won't be my last. It's a mob story with a little bit more violence than I like, but it's also a mother's story about figuring out what matters and fighting to protect your children. I especially recommend this as an audiobook for the pitch-perfect Boston accents, but it's an extraordinary novel however you consume it. 
https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/5695316052

I loved this book! Both a historical novel and a critique of racism in the rarified halls of classical music, this is also a suspenseful, gripping mystery that will keep you turning the pages.

What a sensational novel-- so funny and delightful and feminist, with a main character I adored who is raising a spunky, spirited daughter I loved even more.

This is somehow the third, five-star book I read this year about children of WWII taken from their homes and placed with other families (the first two being The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah and Beyond That, The Sea, also reviewed here), but it's a tribute to the author that everything about her novel felt fresh, immediate, and deeply moving. This book was the only one of the three told from the Jewish children's perspective, and it's powerful, poignant, and thought-provoking. 

Whoo, what a wild ride! I love that this book drew me in by seeming to be historical fiction about a black woman laying claim to territory in the West at a time when doing so was one of the few paths allowed to Black women trying to achieve financial independence. And THEN the novel turns out to be a horror story rich with metaphors about love and family acceptance. I don't love horror as a genre, but this was a great book.

Absolutely brilliant, heart-wrenching novel about a Black, enslaved jockey captured in an oil painting that becomes an object of scholarship and study in the 21st century. The novel moves back and forth in time between then and now, when a black academic finds himself reluctantly falling for a white woman who's been studying this painting. The obvious and subtle ways racism constricts Black lives runs like a poison thread through both stories, and the novel's operatic climax haunts me still, six months after I finished the book. The writing is extraordinary; Brooks is a genius. 

I can't believe I used to think I didn't like historical fiction! (Anyone else who feels that way should read some Kristin Hannah.) Beyond that, The Sea is a lovely, moving story about a London girl sent to live with an American family to protect her from the bombs falling during WWII. This engrossing novel explores how the complicated feelings this raises for everyone affects the rest of all their lives. 

This is a late-bloomer, coming-of-age story in which Maddy, raised in London by Ghanaian parents, must learn to be less mature and responsible to find her own voice. I love how particular and yet universal Maddy's story is. Obviously I am not a young, Black, English woman struggling to get a foothold in my career, dealing with a disabled father, dating for the first time--yet I thoroughly related to Maddy's guilt, anxiety, inner critical voice, work frustrations, and sexual yearnings--while at the same time feeling grateful I was being given a window into a life so different from my own. Maddy is a vulnerable human you cannot help but root for--a bit like Bridget Jones but with Google and deeper thoughts. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/5266916355

The smartest romance I've ever read. Razor sharp in its wittiness, deeply affecting in its portrayal of the protagonist, a bit biting in its revelations about celebrity culture. I couldn't believe the writer wasn't a former comedy writer for SNL; she nails the backstage humor of working on a show like that hilariously well. When you need something fun, pick this book up. 

I love speculative fiction, and this is a great showcase of why.  A mother witnesses something horrible happen to her only child -- and then, miraculously, wakes up the next day and discovers it's the day before, and the horrible thing hasn't happened yet. I loved following this character back in time, and so will you.

Every woman who has (or ever will have) turned 30 will laugh, cry and feel more self-compassion after reading this novel, which I cannot recommend highly enough. I gave this as a gift to several young women in my life, and please let my rave review encourage you to gift this to yourself. 
https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/5038392885

This is an incredible novel about an almost unbelievable (but tragically true) horror story. In New York, The Willowbrook State School, meant to provide education and enrichment to children with developmental disabilities, instead became an overcrowded hellscape of abuse and terror. This novel imagines twin sisters, one of whom is committed to the "school," and the other of whom is mistaken for her sister when she tries to find her there. I would have found this novel gripping and deeply disturbing even if my younger sister hadn't died in Willowbrook, but knowing how true-to-life this book was broke my heart. The story is fast-paced and gripping, too. 

What starts as a humorous romance turns out to be a fantastic, complex story that will give you an education about the history of Puerto Rico. The central character is a high-end wedding planner with (of course) no interest in getting married herself. Her gay brother is a politician being blackmailed into voting against his conscience. Their addict father is dead, and their political activist mother ran away when they were young. These main characters are joined by many entertaining side characters in an  ambitious novel that is so entertaining, you may not even realize you are being educated about the U.S. role in Puerto Rico's colonization as you read it. 

This is a beautiful novel about women sent to a Catholic home for unwed mothers and forced to sign away their babies in the early 1960s. This book deserves a wide readership, but I think the not-great title and cover art might have doomed it. The story tackles lots of hard issues (racism, sexual assault) while telling an engaging, heart-wrenching story involving richly drawn, authentic characters. Please read it!
https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/4595991190

This is a multi-layered family story about a wealthy man who makes a terrible mistake in his youth, which convinces him he never deserves love or happiness, and the hapless woman who tries to emotionally rescue him. This doomed couple have triplets, and their engaging story is told by a mystery narrator whose relationship to everyone is revealed in the book's final third. I found the novel nuanced and haunting and fantastically well-written.
https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/4750762024

This dystopian novel is set in a horrifying but all too realistic near-future when anti-Asian sentiment and an economic crisis has left society in chaos and allowed for the formation of a police state. A "patriotic" bill strips citizens of many rights and allows for children to be removed from parents considered "anti-American." Our protagonist is an Asian-American mom labeled a subversive when one of her poems is used in a protest. She runs away to avoid her child being taken--and this lyrical, fairy-tale-like novel begins several years later when her son tries to find her. I found the whole book terrifying and the ending deeply moving. 
https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/5304505883

We are all lucky this book found its way to print. This is a first-hand account of life inside Angola Prison told from the perspective of a young inmate sentenced to life there. How he finds meaning in a life behind bars, how any of the men there do, is a story worth hearing. I recommend the audiobook, as reading the Black dialect in print makes for a slow read, but the voices will move and transport you.

OMG, if this novel doesn't turn you on, see a doctor. A divorced 40-something mom takes her teen daughter and her daughter's friends to see a boy band, and one of the boys in the band falls hard for the mom, a slim, youthful-looking art-gallery owner. Of course she resists him; she cannot have an affair with a 20-year-old! But this 20 yo is unbelievably mature and smooth and HOT and he slowly, so deliciously slowly, wins her over. The book is full of  exquisite sex scenes that revolve entirely around the woman's pleasure. The whole book is one long, languorous, yearning buildup. Five throbbing stars! 

What a unique, sweet, touching, intelligent book. The main character (the one who helps connect all the others) is an octopus imprisoned in an aquarium. The novel is full of quirky small-town characters who all long for or show love in unusual ways, and by novel's end, you will be rooting for all of them to find it.
https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/4850667205


Some books deserve more than five stars, and this book is one of them. It's a rarity to have a novelist who can weave together language that reads like poetry *and* write a compelling story *and* create characters in whom the reader feels deeply invested *and* write a book so damned good you never want it to end (yet also so good you can't stop turning the pages). This novel is all those things. Do not let its length deter you. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/5776703086

Monday, February 28, 2022

Have you got family issues? Join me in this series of workshops

Updated for 2023:

In my relative youth, I focused on how to have more fun. But over the past year or two, I’ve been focusing my energy on how to be a better person, studying psychological theories, family dynamics, my own behaviors, spiritual principles, and how to fit all these elements together to feel, be and do better each day. 

I've come to realize being kinder and more self-aware will lead me to greater peace and contentment than any amount of fun will (not that there’s anything wrong with fun; I try to incorporate plenty of that in my life, too, as evidenced by this shot of me and my mother going to a live show of The Price is Right!).

But this is the first time in my life when I have actively sought out and studied tools to help me be more present, more self-aware, more open, less judgmental, softer, more patient. I had family therapy with my daughter. I saw my own personal therapist. My wife and I took a 40-day meditation challenge together. I joined online support groups. My mother and I are taking a 10-week intuition and spirituality course together. And I’ve taken several online courses on how to cope with family estrangement as I continue to figure out how to live with my grief over losing my son and then having my granddaughter (above right)  disappeared from my life.

Next month, there’s a free, four-day summit of 30 workshops being offered for those whose family relationships are causing them pain: "Moving Beyond Family Struggles." The workshops start airing each day at noon EST.  

You can learn more about or register for this event here:

The catch to it being free is that you have only 24 hours to watch all the presentations each day – though for the early bird price of $97, you can have lifetime access to all these workshops plus audio files, meditations, and other healing tools. I might be more skeptical of these offerings, but I have already taken and benefited from online courses from several of the presenters, so I know this is a high-quality group.

Since my wife and I rearranged our budget to allow me to stay home, I have a finite amount of discretionary income, $200 a month for what we call my “fun money.” So when I see an offering like this, I have to decide if it’s worth spending half my fun money on it. In this case, I think it might be. 

I’ve read the book The Rules of Estrangement by the first presenter, Dr. Josh Coleman and have taken a helpful eight-week set of workshops with him.  

A mentee of his, Barbra Drizin (https://barbradrizin.com/), leads her own workshops, which I’ve enjoyed even more, in which she brilliantly breaks down into bite-sized lessons big concepts on everything from attachment theory to coping with emotional triggers (and then delightfully delivers these lessons in a New-York accented voice that reminds me of Fran Drescher in The Nanny.) Barbra's down-to-earth encouragement greatly enhances the lessons she offers.  

And Laura Davis, whose most recent memoir The Burning Light of Two Stars: A Mother Daughter Story is being given away free to all participants, is a brilliant writer whose work I have long admired.

I learn better when I am learning with someone, though, rather than on my own, so I am hoping some of you will go through this program with me.  (I am happy to have persuaded my grown foster daughter Amy to take one of Barbra’s courses with me, a weekly Wednesday life-enrichment program that we started last week.) 

Are there any of you out there who’d like to sign up to discuss some of these concepts with me? Although the workshop focuses on family estrangement and how to live your best life in spite of it, there are also courses on co-dependency, anxiety, divorce, communication, trauma, and a host of other issues that affect most of us, particularly in this historical moment. 

I’ll be trying to watch the workshops at warp speed but will then sign up if, as seems likely, I can't watch them all within one day. I hope I hear from some of you that you’ve joined me. 

Discussions deepen learning, so I hope there are at least a few of you who will do this work and have these conversations with me.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

I doubled my reading! Here are the books I loved during the pandemic.

Like many of us, I’ve found the pandemic greatly enhanced my reading life, allowing me to attend many more online book groups and author readings than I ever could have in person and to read more than 200 books over the past two years, with more and more of them being “read” as audiobooks. Some of these books were so fantastic I wanted to take a moment to recommend them. And I wanted to share what I’ve learned about my reading habits and how I hope that will affect my reading goals for 2022.

I counted up and categorized everything I read by genre and author, by gender and race and topic, and discovered, no surprise, that I read mostly literary fiction and thrillers by white women – but few, if any, of those books made my list of favorites. So I was happy to see that I’ve increased the number of books I read by Black authors and other POC by 5 percent over the past two years from 24 percent in 2020 to 29 percent in 2021, and I hope to continue hitting about a 70/30 split in my reading this year. Having this as a goal can help guide my choices as I’m deciding between two books. Since I’ve now joined Netgalley, become a regular user of my library app Libby, and am an avid user of the amazing app Scrib’d, having to be judicious in my reading choices is a daily concern. 

Deciding to read more books by authors of color is not an act of altruism; it’s a direct benefit to me. Turns out my favorite novels tackle issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, and/or or the environmental crisis, and in my experience, authors of color are more likely to include these subjects as part of their storylines. It’s not that I love reading about depressing topics, but books about something bigger than navel gazing (e.g., infidelity, murder solving, family secrets) are just more compelling and make for a better read. Plus in deft authorial hands, these subjects are not depressing; seeing brave characters confront challenges and overcome them is inspiring.

I used to think I didn’t like non-fiction, but as I’m aging, I’m coming to enjoy more memoirs, plus reading more poetry and discovering several excellent books about how to be more anti-racist have increased the number of non-fiction books I’ve read, too. I also am surprised to see how many of the books I’ve enjoyed have been speculative or sci-fi books, as I hadn’t previously thought of myself as a fan of sci-fi; this is probably because of the surging popularity of near-future dystopias. 

I am a high grader on Goodreads, giving most books I finish a four or a five, but that’s because I don’t finish a lot of crappy books. (Life’s too short.) But of all the five-star reviews I’ve given, only a dozen or so novels are still sharp in my mind, all books I would definitely highly recommend if you’re looking for a good read. Here they are, starting with the most recently read. Each one links back to my Goodreads review. 

Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby – a fantastic crime thriller about two fathers, one black and one white, who reluctantly team up to find out who killed their sons, who were married to one another. The fathers were homophobes who missed the chance to accept their sons when they were alive, so they are driven after the murders by a potent mix of guilt and regret.
The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chen – a deeply disturbing near-future dystopia that creates for-profit mother-training centers. If you’ve ever seen family court in action, this chilling book is all too believable. 
DetransitionBaby by Torrey Peters – a wholly original, funny, moving novel about three individuals contemplating parenthood: a trans woman, a detransitioned man, and a cis hetero woman.

The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr. – a poignant, powerful novel about two men who love and make a life with one another despite living under the tortures of slavery. 

The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe – Two misfit, outcast kids with no stable parents, one a gay boy and one a freakishly tall girl, become best friends and help one another through high school until their paths painfully diverge.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi – A Black woman scientist, who spent part of her girlhood in her mother’s home country of Ghana, researches a cure for addiction in the wake of a family tragedy. 

Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin – The surviving sister of a murder victim whose killer was never convicted finds her adulthood shaped by the need to placate her broken parents and find her sister’s killer. 

My Dark Vanessa by Elizabeth Kate Russell – A young woman falls in love with a teacher and lets their affair shape her future, taking decades to realize that she was groomed and victimized. 

This is How it Always Is by Laurie Frankel – A beautiful family novel featuring richly drawn parents and siblings who rally around their youngest member when she decides to transition in early childhood.. 

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid – A hilarious, affecting novel about a Black babysitter and her relationships with the white mother who hires her, the white boyfriend who courts her, and the white child she cares for and comes to love. 

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead – A dark, hard novel about a correctional facility for Black youth in the 1950s and how friendship helped some young men survive the brutal conditions. I still remember the sharp surprise of the twist at the end.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins – One of the best novels I’ve ever read, focused on the gang murder of a family and the attempt by the surviving mother and child to flee to the United States. Written with compassion and sensitivity, the determination of the mother is especially compelling when one considers how many thousands of such desperate mothers attempt this trek with their small children each year. 

I also discovered that everything Chris Bohjalian and Liane Moriarty writes is wonderful and absorbing and reaffirmed for myself that I just don't like book series.  

And here are my top 10 favorite non-fiction reads of the past two years, which I am disappointed to see doesn't include any poetry, something I will also focus on more in the year ahead: 

Educated by Tara Westover – my favorite-ever memoir, about a young woman raised on a right-wing compound by a crazy, controlling father, and how her world opened up when she got to go to school. 


Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents --
A master class in presenting a well-supported, compelling argument. Makes clear how much our society is based on an unspoken system of racial caste.

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by my hero Ronan Farrow – the shocking story not just of how Harvey Weinstein and other predators got away with sexually assaulting women for decades but also of how hard it was to get this story out after NBC tried to kill it. 

How to Be Anti-Racist by Ibram X Kendi – Foundational work that helped me understand the difference between saying “I’m not racist” and learning to live as an active anti-racist.

The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win by Maria Konnikova – This research-based memoir by a woman who learned to play championship  poker contains surprising lessons about how women’s need to please costs us in myriad ways.

I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are by Rachel Bloom -- because sometimes you just gotta laugh and navel gaze. This one must be enjoyed via the audio version because there are songs.

You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories about Racism by Amber Ruffin – the title says it all. While there is a lot of humor in this book, the cumulative effect of realizing how much shit Black people have to take in their day-to-day lives should hit white people like a brick to the head.

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence by Michael Pollan – Brilliantly researched and compelling, with startling news about how popular psychedelic drugs were becoming among researchers in the 1950s before anti-drug messaging based on racism shut that research down. Bill, the father of AA, was actually only able to get clean after having a transcendent experience while tripping on LSD, but he and his biographers felt that didn’t fit with his image, so they took that out of his story in the Big Book. Of all the stories Pollan shares, I found that one the most disturbing. How many alcoholics thought they were failures because they couldn't pray the booze away while they were denied the real story of how Bill got clean?

A Year of Lovingkindness to Myself by Brigid Lowry – a beautiful, compassionate book of essays about treating ourselves and one another more gently. 


Take some time to think about what your favorite reads have been since the start of the pandemic. What subjects stand out? Which authors? I am surprised to see that even though less than 30 percent of the novels I read were by people of color, 50 percent of my favorites were. How might studying the breakdown of what you’ve been reading affect your own reading choices for 2022? I'm excited that this  examination of my own reading has helped guide my reading for the year ahead. 

Happy reading, everybody! I love to talk about books almost as much as I love to read them, so please share your own thoughts and recommendations in the comments.