09/05/2014 11:09 am ET Updated Nov 05, 2014

Grief and How to Push Through

Portrait by Eric Levin

Ten years ago, Sukey Forbes lost her 6-year-old daughter, Charlotte, to a rare genetic disorder, and her life felt shattered forever. In her new book, The Angel in My Pocket, she explains that she had two other children who gave her a reason to live. Rather than fall into some "Gothic meltdown" as she calls it, she decided to try alternative routes combined with the tenacity and stoicism of her privileged upbringing as a Forbes and the great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his life, Emerson also lost a child at a very young age. Sukey clung to some of her ancestral strengths, such as self-reliance and nature as God, while rejecting others, leading her to mediums, an openness to communicating with the afterlife and joy. I loved interviewing Sukey. My heart as a mother of two young children was blown open in this interview, and reading her book was an experience of extremes, from the seducing stories of her privileged life, the transcendentalist movement, the traditions and eccentricities (read: wackiness) New England families carry on, to the painstaking moments Sukey describes around losing Charlotte. There, I wept. Ten years later, Sukey, to me, is a testament that those who grieve and experience great loss, but work to swim through it, are lit from within.

You lost your daughter 10 years ago; why did you decide to write this book now?
I was not willing to accept what seemed to me the conventional wisdom about how to move through the process of losing a child, and so I felt I needed to forge my own trail.

Background family so informs who we are, all of us, and there was nothing there (in my family background) that I could hold onto that could help me find my way.

You recall moments in the book when the decision to do things differently became so clear. Can you talk about this?
Early on, I felt I had very few choices: I could die, I could exist or I could live. Those choices really were the foundation for the whole book. I couldn't die even though I wanted to; I was merely existing. It seemed as though that would be a really painful place to stay for the rest of my life and it seemed as though a lot of other people I experienced in my grief-counseling group who had lost children were stuck in that space.

One of the things I discovered along the way is that the presence of the grief fills up a lot of the space that the affection for the deceased person has occupied, and letting go of that pain, in a strange way, is also letting go of the loved one. I understand why we choose to hold onto that sorrow, because it's holding onto a person, but I was determined not to stay there.

Those moments of releasing did create more emptiness that needed to be filled, and that required stepping out of myself into places that may or may not have been comfortable.

Henry James has a great quote about stepping outside of oneself in order to find comfort:
"True happiness, we are told, consists in getting out of one's self; but the point is not only to get out -- you must stay out; and to stay out you must have some absorbing errand."

You really have to step outside and experience many different things, be open to other ideas, try on belief systems until you find what resonates with you.

I didn't set out with the knowledge that something like nature, or children, or researching my family history, or becoming observed in mediums would be places of comfort, but I was open to almost anything.

You explain early in the book that Ralph Waldo Emerson, your great-great-great-grandfather, also lost a child at a very young age. Can you tell us about this exploration?
I came sideways into Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was very helpful in my grief process, and his writings and words about God, nature and self-reliance. His teachings about thinking for your own self were very much a through-line in my childhood, and so I come from a family that, while very emotionally buttoned up, tended to be very supportive of expansive thinking and charting one's own path intellectually, spiritually and emotionally through the world.

What they don't do is talk about it much, and they certainly do not express these beliefs in public, but the general foundation for his beliefs was part of the way that I was raised.

You tell of incredible moments where you connect with your daughter in the afterlife and about running into people you don't know, but who bring you messages. What would he think of your spiritual guides?
Well, I've wondered that myself. I have two thoughts on the matter. Emerson's first wife, Lydian, who is my great-great-great-grandmother, had some clairvoyant ability. My belief is we all have it if we're open to it on some level. She had some visions and it is my belief that he would be open to at least my process. During his era, Swedenborg and séances were all of the rage. There was much discussion about that and his wife did attend some, so I would guess that spiritual guidance was not an unknown to him.

You write a great deal about your early childhood and the stoicism bred throughout generations. You see it as a failing when your daughter passes on. Do you see an irony in that the stoicism that you tried to move away from actually helped to sustain you?
Oh, absolutely. It was almost crippling in the beginning. I was raised very much in a 'stiff upper lip, just march boldly forward in the face of anything' manner, and that both served and did me a huge disservice early on.

I was highly functional to the point of probably looking pathological to the outside world. And yet, I have a great sense of pride in how I parented my children and how I at least showed up in life. I was definitely an empty shell, but that stoicism really allowed me to keep moving forward. Having surviving children, the only thing worse than losing one child, would be to have the other two lose their childhood. I felt a really powerful desire to make sure that didn't happen.

It also crippled me because the only thing worse than this numbness and stoicism would be to allow this absolutely gutting grief to force me to have the gothic meltdowns that I assumed I would have if I let all of it wash over me. That was a very powerful tension in the early months of my grieving process.

When I read An Angel in My Pocket, it felt as though you were punishing yourself for not going deep enough into the grief. Why?
I think we as women are always looking for ways to beat ourselves up. Unfortunately, it seems that no matter what we do, whether we choose to work or choose to be at home, there are so many different conversations. We're always busy finding ways to make ourselves wrong.

I want to be very careful to say that most of the world out there is very supportive of a grieving person and will say, 'there is no right or wrong way to grieve,' but the most obvious presentation of grief is the drawn face, the deep sorrow, the lack of ability to function cognitively and emotionally. I didn't have a lot of that and I thought if I didn't have that, it must mean there is something wrong with me, it must mean I have an inability to love and to process emotions. Maybe I didn't love my daughter enough? Maybe I had a complicated relationship with her? All of these thoughts consumed me early on and I spent a lot of time beating myself up, really for years.

And today?
No, I don't beat myself up for that now. In hindsight though, as much as I say I didn't come unglued, I was very unhinged in ways that I wasn't able to see at the time. Now, I have certainly learned a much greater ability to access emotions, to process them, to feel and deepen as a person, and I still feel very connected to my daughter.

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