Today we're talking with Sandy Peckinpah, author of How to Survive the Worst That Can Happen: A Parent's Step by Step Guide to Healing After the Loss of a Child
FQ: Thinking about the death of one’s child is extremely difficult, let alone writing about it. What spurred you to go beyond your personal journaling experience to create a self-help experience for others via short Stepping Stones?
PECKINPAH: I first discovered the power of storytelling when my daughter was born with a facial cleft, she taught me everything about the beauty of imperfection. I was inspired to write my first book, Rosey, the Imperfect Angel. I wrote the fairy tale to help all children who felt different. I had a profound purpose...to pave the way for my child and others like her.
But my life challenges didn’t end there. Not even close...when my 16 year old son woke up with fever, and was dead the next morning I realized I had just experienced the worst that can happen.
The steps to healing aren’t easy. In the course of my bereavement I realized, however, there’s a responsibility to humanity in every life event, even the loss of a child. Because I’m a writer, I healed in words, and I began to record my story and the steps I took to heal. And, I became aware that in this master plan of life, my story could help other bereaved parents. It started with my journal, then my blog, www.BreakthroughToHappy.com. I was so grateful for the impact and reaction it was having and decided I was ready to move forward with my book. I had to resurrect a purpose from my most painful life experience.
FQ: You talk about the importance of utilizing the service of a therapist and support groups. At what point in the grieving process should outside help be considered?
PECKINPAH: I highly recommend a therapist or support group in the very beginning stages. I think it awakens people to the thought that healing will, in fact, take place. Many are resistant to therapy for various reasons, so a support group might be more feasible. If not in the beginning, my recommendation is to seek professional help at the first sign of feeling out of control with grief. That can manifest in many ways like not sleeping or sleeping too much, feelings of hopelessness, poor personal care, addictive behaviors with food, drugs, alcohol. The list is long, but for me, I detail in the book how it caused me to have obsessive behaviors and fears. I was compulsively organizing and overly worried about my children’s well-being. I needed professional help to get through this.
FQ: I was impressed that you actually didn’t make the grieving process appear to be seamless as so many writers attempt to do. When did you actually realize that you were indeed going to heal?
PECKINPAH: Thank you for acknowledging that. I think people need to know the truth. Losing a child is the hardest loss of all and it takes commitment and perseverance to get through it. The first few years are extremely difficult. In that time, you’re learning to establish a whole new relationship with your child and with life in general. It’s a process in learning to live with loss. I think my first realization that I might really feel spontaneous joy again was with my best friend, Melissa. We went to a spa for a week and I remember we were playing water volleyball. I slammed the ball down in the water and it knocked her over and into the water. She came up from the water with this look on her face like “where the heck did that come from?” I burst into laughter and at first I didn’t know who was laughing because I hadn’t heard the sound of my own uninhibited laughter in so long. It felt so good, but most of all it awakened me to the possibility that my life could really be happy again.
FQ: Fortunately you realized your living children began to show “signs of despair.” Briefly describe how you were able to help Trevor and Julianne cope with the loss of their brother, Garrett.
PECKINPAH: I had to diligently pay attention. I have a quote in my book from David Kessler saying “children are the forgotten grievers.” That was profound for me because if you think about it, children live in a fantasy world during much of the early years. They can appear all right because they still play on the playground or dance to music. However, their little hearts are wounded, frightened, and lost. They don’t understand why mommy and daddy are sad, and where the heck did their brother go? Much of my children’s healing came through consistency.
I worked with a group of bereaved children in the school system here, and frequently they said the first thing to go when their family member died was the family dinner...and they missed it. I think family dinners, rituals and connections are the most important tools of all. I also took my children to a ceramic art studio with me. We would sit and paint for hours and it was a time they could sit in silence, or they could express what they were thinking while they were painting. For some reason, that was very soothing to them. I also planted a garden. They would get out in the sunshine with me and get their hands in the dirt, all in the name of planting a garden for their brother Garrett. “Garrett’s Garden” still lives today.
FQ: It’s so very obvious that without the loving friendship of your best friend, Melissa, you may not have made it, so to speak. Do you have something to say to her that you may not have said before?
PECKINPAH: Words could never adequately express the love I have for Melissa. We’ve experienced so much life together...and so much loss. She was my lifeline, and within our friendship I feel safe. She says we’re soul sisters. It’s true. I know she is always there for me and I for her. That’s the way it’s always been, and will always be. Together we celebrate the joys and weather the sorrows. Our next big event is the upcoming wedding of my daughter...Melissa’s Goddaughter. Now that’s joy.
FQ: You admit that you struggle with the innocent question, “How many children do you have?” You do talk about being prepared for when people ask you questions. What do you say and are you becoming more comfortable answering it?
PECKINPAH: To this day, it’s the hardest question of all. I had a radio interview last week by a woman who’d lost a daughter (many years ago). She said the same thing! It’s the one question that still makes me pause. So here goes: “I have four children. One is in heaven.”
FQ: Your book is obviously a tribute to Garrett on one level, but how do you keep him close to your heart on a day-to-day basis?
PECKINPAH: My beautiful boy is in every breath I take. He is my inspiration to love harder, be a better mother, friend, co-worker, and humanitarian. In the loss of Garrett, I learned to create a new relationship with my son, one that honored him. He died leaving me the tremendous task of his legacy...making his life and his death matter. Because I’m a writer, I simply had no choice but to write this book for other parents like me. I wanted to share that healing doesn’t mean you’ll never feel sad again. Healing means you’ll come to a place of acceptance where you can incorporate the memory of your child into your present life and truly be happy. I’m committed to honoring my son by healing and living a joyful life again. It’s his memory that lights the fire of possibility. It’s the gift my son gives me every day. And for that...I will be forever grateful.
To learn more about How to Survive the Worst That Can Happen: A Parent's Step by Step Guide to Healing After the Loss of a Child please read the review at: Feathered Quill Book Reviews.