This post is about a book I never wanted to write, but one I needed to write. It is a book about grief, my own heart-rendering, spirit-crushing journey through the valley of tears. Why would I be so transparent about something so intrinsically personal? Here’s the story behind the book.
In 2005, I lost my dad. Knowing dad was going downhill health-wise, my mom and dad had moved into our home the previous year. Having them live with us made the caretaker’s role more manageable. Following his death, I witnessed my mom grieve. She did not handle it well. The sorrow enveloped her, and its relentless grip never wavered. Despite our best efforts, she quietly withdrew and never seemed to get beyond it until she passed in 2009. I had now seen grief up close, and it wasn’t pretty.
When my wife Mary (aka Tootie) received a cancer diagnosis in September of 2010, we agreed to use one of those online support networks as a way to keep friends and family informed during what we expected to be a long and successful battle. I took on the role of writing and posting the weekly updates. Serving my wife in this way had a surprising effect. For lack of a better term, it simply made me feel useful. Unfortunately, the cancer battle was a shockingly short one, and she passed away on January 28, 2011.
Stunned, my family and I, overwhelmed once again with grief, found it hard to accept that the life of this graceful woman of faith ended at age 59. Tootie and I had already begun to make retirement plans. It seemed that in a flash, I went from knowing what we were going to do for the rest of our lives to not knowing what I was going to do the next day. Grief descended upon me like a thick fog. The one word that most described how I was feeling — disoriented. The phrase that summed up where I was — in the valley of tears. I finally understood why my mom acted the way she did after my dad passed away. With the memory of her grief still fresh in my mind, I determined not to be sucked into the same pit of despair.
A couple of weeks after the funeral, I knew I needed to find a way to vent my pain, to give a voice to the lament within. Remembering how helpful it was for me to do a blog during my wife’s illness, I thought it might also prove beneficial to begin a personal journal, writing down my thoughts, my prayers. I soon discovered a strange comfort in seeing my feelings in print. It validated my emotions while somehow dulling the sting if only a little. It was therapy by composition. I kept writing off and on for most of the next year. I never planned for anyone to read my journal; it was merely a means to give expression to all the turmoil and pain within.
For the previous few years, I had belonged to a writer’s group, and in 2012, they held a Writer’s Conference. All participants were encouraged to enter manuscripts in the Conference’s writing contest. I hesitated. Who wants to read a grief journal? Besides, sharing MY grief journey wasn’t just sharing some work of fiction. This was real life, my life. Was I willing to allow the world to see me at my most vulnerable moments? After much thought and prayer, I decided to enter the contest, and to my utter surprise, I won first place and a publishing contract. Then a new fear emerged. Walking through the Valley of Tears went from being a private journal to a very public published book.
I selected this title because I thought grief was much like standing in a valley of thick fog and unceasing rain. Dealing with grief meant I had to walk through it and not allow myself to remain in that tear-drenched valley. My mom had never left it; I was determined to walk through it. It didn’t mean the pain would ever really go away, but I knew I had to keep moving. I reasoned, I hoped, I prayed, that God was not finished with me yet.
Since the book’s publication, I have received countless thank-you’s from people who appreciated being able to read about someone else’s journey. They were encouraged to know that what they were experiencing was normal…and that they were not alone. Ironically, the most common feedback from readers was that they felt the book was more of a love story.
To illustrate that perspective, let me close with this retrospection. In 2014, I hired a young man, an acquaintance of one of my daughters, to do some work for me. I mentioned to my daughter that I planned to meet him the next week and, for some reason, felt led to give him a copy of my book, Walking through the Valley of Tears. She cautioned me that he was a man of strong convictions and opinions and was not shy about verbalizing them.
When the opportunity came to give him a copy of the book, he hesitated, only briefly, to accept it. But not before telling me that he was very discriminating about what he reads. And if he read my book, I should be prepared for a serious book review and no holds barred feedback. “Fair enough,” I told him.
A few weeks later I saw him again. After some friendly small talk, I ventured to ask the question, “Well, what did you think about my book?” He got very quiet. His eyes looked down at his feet. He took a deep breath, sighed, and said: “I think I need to love my wife more.”
Hearing his remarks humbled me and reminded me that grief is indeed the price you pay for loving someone. Only then did it occur to me that my willingness to be transparent about my grief also served to pay homage to the love I had for my wife. And while some readers might gain insights on how to handle the grief process, others might garner a fresh perspective on what it means to love until death do us part.
…And now you know the rest of the story.
Author’s Note: I want to extend my appreciation to my wife for her encouragement and support. Not many women, having only been married for six months, would be supportive of a husband writing about his late wife. But as a paralegal, Patrice has given copies of the book to clients and seen first hand the positive impact it has had on those who are grieving. Therefore, not only has she urged me to continue writing about insights gained throughout my life, she also willingly serves as my editor-in-chief.