A lot of books make their way to my desk. When Sukey Forbes’ new story, The Angel in My Pocket: A Story of Love, Loss, and Life After Death arrived, I picked it up, and couldn’t put it down.
Forbes writes honestly and poetically about losing her 6-year-old daughter Charlotte to a rare genetic disorder, and the path through grief that followed. What I found incredibly inspirational was that she was actually able to find a way to not just “exist” after loss, but had the courage to look for the light again, seek joy, and fully live.
I think we can all learn from her extraordinary story and the wisdom she acquired – whether we have lost a loved one, or have suffered any sort of trauma.
eH: Where did the idea come from to write this book?
Sukey Forbes: Very early on in my grief, I was asked to write a small chapter of my story for another book, This is Not the Life I Ordered. I put together an essay which described very early on in my grief that I realized I had very few options — I could die, I could exist, or I could live. I wanted to die but I didn’t get to. The other two choices were existing, which seemed to me almost like a death sentence in and of itself. The only option that really resonated for me was living, but I had no idea how to make that happen. Once I made that decision, I started focusing all of my energies in how to make that happen. It became clear to me that I was moving through grief — and there really is no “right” way — differently. Many of the people I interacted with seemed more stuck and more focused on just existing and not finding a real way out, maybe finding a place of comfort, but not necessarily fighting their way back to being better than they were before. In terms of losing a child, it almost felt sacrilegious to want to be better. It seemed totally disloyal and awful to want to live again well, so there was a lot of guilt that went along with it.
I wanted this type of book on my nightstand ten years ago when my daughter died. I wanted someone to reach out their hand to me and say, “You will be okay, you will come back better and stronger, a better human being, more loving, feeling, empathetic, a better partner, a better parent, and a better person if you move through this.” Nobody said that to me, all of the messages I got were quite the contrary actually. When I became clear that I was on the path to being that better person, I became determined to write a book. So that somebody else would have it on their nightstand, and would know that this is an example of one person out there who would make that commitment, find their way through the dark, feel it, and emerge out on the other side in a very good place.
eH: That is something that needs to be shared. What would your advice be to someone struggling with loss?
SF: The common path through involves equal parts of looking inside of ourselves and looking out as well. Look inside, sit quietly, and listen to that inner voice, because it will tell you alot. That is really important. In order to get outside of ourselves, we need to have what Henry James refers to as the absorbing errand, you have to look actively for places that might be comfortable. That differs from person to person. That could be the church, or PTA, or picking up a new hobby, or rekindling an old friendship, reading books, it could be any number of things but it involves being open to new ways of thinking and new approaches. In that dabbling, curious, seeking stage, I believe, is the key to finding the answers of what will pull us out of the trenches.
For me, that ended up being seeking (spiritual) mediums. I don’t by any measure of the word mean to say that is the answer for everybody. It’s most certainly not. For me, it shifted the tide. The important thing is looking out and being open to any place that might create comfort.
eH: The thing with the mediums, it seemed to give you comfort in knowing that your daughter is still with you in a different way, in a different spiritual place.
SF: For me, I was really stuck in wondering where she was. The maternal instinct was so strong in me, I couldn’t just accept on the surface that she was in heaven. I had to know where she was and what heaven looked like. It was so overwhelming to me that I couldn’t descend into my own grief until I had that answered. The medium for me was really important because it gave me the sense that she was gone, but still here. And it also really helped solidify my spiritual beliefs that life and death are just points on a continuum, and that made me much more comfortable in knowing that I would see my daughter again.
eH: Something we hear often when we lose loved ones is that they would want us to move on and be happy. How did it feel when people would tell you that?
SF: I knew that. But it feels so wrong. I had such a strong sense on the day she died that the world should stop, and we should not have continued on without her. I remember feeling the desire to be Superman and fly backwards around the earth and stop it from spinning. But life marches on in the most cruelly indifferent but also comforting way. Time is our friend.
eH: Let’s talk about how you coped with your eventual divorce, and what you learned from that as well.
SF: You can’t control the loss of a child, but in terms of a relationship, it’s really important to consider what your role was. Nobody likes a martyr, a cry baby, or a victim. With almost no exceptions I can think of, there’s almost always fault on both sides and something we ourselves could have improved. That is important information and a gift we get that we should be paying attention to that will make us better partners in the future. It’s important to own what role we had in our relationship.
eH: I think many people are scared to look into themselves and tap into those emotions. How did you get in touch with all of that?
SF: It was very hard and it continues to be hard for me. If I had known going into this that for sure I would really be okay at some point, If I’d know that was going to happen, it would have made it so much easier to descend into the abyss. I was terrified that if I fell into the abyss, I’d never come out. It made it that much harder to go in. If you are going to authentically process any tragedy — any kind of loss or struggle — you’ve got to go deep. I didn’t really have a choice. The only way out is through.
Early on, a grief counselor said to me that grief is like crossing a swift river, you can’t go straight across because you will get washed away. You have to go at an angle, and you do the best you can. There’s no right or wrong way, you just get there when you get there. The only way to get to the other side is through it.
Learn more about The Angel in My Pocket: A Story of Love, Loss, and Life After Death, and author Sukey Forbes.