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I was at the local aiport one beautiful October morning almost 30 years ago to pick up my parents who were piloting their own plane. I was showing my 16 month old son how the planes were landing. We were going to take my parents to our house where I had prepared dinner for my family.

Out of nowhere, a small plane fell from the sky in front of us. I saw a huge tornado of swirling black smoke and a small child started yelling “a plane crashed! A plane crashed!” I looked at my watch. This was the exact moment that my parents were supposed to land. It just could not be them. But my father, the scientist, was always on time. It was, indeed, their plane.

I cried and screamed for my parents. No one could console me, not even my husband. I do not know how I made it home.

I walked into the house. Sitting in the kitchen, before the table which was set for dinner, my mother-in-law looked at me and said (and I quote) “If you’re looking for another mother, don’t come to me. I won’t do it. I was not a good mother to my own children, and I will not be a good mother to you”.

Even writing these words 30 years later makes me want to curl up into a little ball and cry. Who could possibly utter those words to me? The crash site was still smoldering, and my parents’ bodies were not yet even identified. Have I ever really forgiven those words? Not really. But I think I do understand that she was speaking of her own failings and limitations.

Several years later, my husband died suddenly of a heart attack. Pregnant with my third child, I did not know how I would ever survive. And I certainly had no idea what to expect when my neighbor’s daughter suggested a grief support group at a local convent. My own faith had been badly shaken; why not try something new?

I was greeted at the door by a wonderful nun, Sister Mary. She held my hand and said “I am not able to be a mother and I know that you lost yours. Let me be your mother and let me help you.” She pressed a prayer card into my hand which I still cherish.  Sister Mary helped me in every way that she could, and brought me through a very, very terrible time.

Family can come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes family is blood, sometimes not, but who would have thought that a mother would come to me in the form of a beautiful, wise 80 year old nun?

Death Barged In

The most profound poem I have ever read on grief was written by Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno in her book Slamming Open the Door.  She wrote this after her daughter was brutally murdered.  For many years, our loss takes over every waking and sleeping moment.  Nothing seems to exist but the pain and anguish of loss.

Death Barged In

In his Russian greatcoat,
slamming open the door
with an unpardonable bang,
and he has been here ever since.

He changes everything,
rearranges the furniture,
his hand hovers
by the phone;
he will answer now, he says;
he will be the answer.

Tonight he sits down to dinner
at the head of the table
as we eat, mute;
later, he climbs into bed
between us.

Even as I sit here,
he stands behind me
clamping two
colossal hands on my shoulders
and bends down
and whispers to my neck:
from now on,
you write about me.


My long awaited letter came in the mail one beautiful, sunny spring day. I was accepted into a Ph.D. program at Temple University. I felt no joy. My husband had suddenly died two months earlier, I was left with two toddlers, and was pregnant with my third.   I made a call to my advisor who agreed that I would need to delay school for a good year. She suggested that I call another student whose young husband had died two years earlier.

I made the call. I introduced myself as a new, young widow, and explained the unimaginable pain that I was feeling for myself and for my children. The woman said these exact words to me: “Debby, do you know how you feel that you have nothing to live for? You are correct. There is absolutely no reason for you to even get out of bed in the morning”.

I was absolutely certain that she was right.   Of course my life was over! There was only one answer. I went back to bed!! I took out the wool Hudson Bay blanket that my mother gave me in high school , the white one with the stripes at the bottom, and crawled under it. I stayed there for a long time. But then, the thought occurred to me that I was only in my 30’s, and that I would need to lie under that blanket for a very long time. Soon, the boys starting making noise in the kitchen, I was getting overheated, the blanket started itching, and I had to use the bathroom. I did the only thing I could; I called my sister who told me the wisest words I could have heard at that time.   “One day this will be your past,” she said, although I did not believe her then. I could not see past my anguish, and could not consider that I would have any kind of future at all. My sister, as always, was right.

I threw off my blanket and decided to begin. Begin to breathe. Begin to try to see possibilities that I would survive. Begin to think that I could do whatever was needed. I did not know how I would do it, but I remember this exact moment; the one where I decided to begin to figure it out.