09/04/2014 03:20 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Rare Bird: Learning About Hope From a Grieving Mother

I detest the news. In fact, the news has become so frightening to me, especially now that I have a son, that I often avoid it. I know it's not the responsible, civic thing to do, but sometimes, it's the only way I stay sane. No matter what you do, news will find you if you are online, but I prefer to keep from watching TV news or any kind of video news, most of the time.

However, I do read blogs and books. And one day, a blog post straddled my news feed from several sources, heavy with grief and pain and shock. It was the story of 12-year-old Jack Donaldson's drowning in a flash flood in Virginia, in a detailed play-by-play that took my breath away. The meticulous detail captured by his mother Anna Whiston-Donaldson on her blog An Inch of Gray was so compelling and gripping that it was impossible to turn away. It ripped my heart into pieces.

I read her post about that terrible night several times, crying and rocking the first time, and then again, and again, sharing Anna's horrible loss.

I didn't know her at all. I wouldn't have recognized Anna on the street. All I knew was that she was a mother in pain; I started reading her blog on a regular basis, and commenting on her posts. It was the least I could do, I figured, to be witness to the words she was sharing about her feelings, her life, and her son.

Anna came to Austin for a conference, and I got to spend time with her at Glennon Melton's book signing; we shared a table and dinner later that night with some mutual friends. It has been my great honor to get to know Anna and call her a friend. She radiates beauty from the inside out. And yet, we are still getting to know each other. Does she really need more friends? I wondered. Should I bring up Jack? Should I ask her questions about him? How do I help her without being intrusive? I was afraid of overwhelming her, and I wanted to do the right thing.

In her new book, Rare Bird, Anna wrote:

Blog readers question whether it is appropriate to mourn a child across the country, or even halfway around the world, whom they have never met. Their confused husbands will ask them, 'Why do you do this to yourself? Who don't you just walk away from the computer if that blog always makes you cry?' But they can't. They won't. They know that writing helps me, so they miraculously commit to read whatever I write so I'll have a reason to keep showing up.

My mother is very good at this; she knows how to do the right thing. When she hears of someone who is injured or ill, she brings food to the family. When another family member is grieving, even if she doesn't know them very well, she shows up to honor their loss. When someone needs help, she is there with a sympathetic ear and a freshly-baked loaf of bread. I have learned from my mother how to be a helper.

And it is from Anna that I am learning, slowly, how to be a friend to a grieving mother.

Rare Bird is about the loss of Anna's beautiful son Jack and finding her way back to life with her husband, Tim, and her daughter, Margaret. The details are so stunningly poignant and beautiful in their completeness; the stories of old and new are woven together to create a full picture of Jack's life and death, and those he left behind. I feared that I would cry all the way through; and there is no doubt there is sadness over the loss of Anna's son. But as I learned more about Jack, there was peace and even hope. I found that I wanted to know all about him. I wanted to share this burden with Anna, and somehow, she manages to lift up her readers with the strength of one hundred mothers. Anyone feeling that they are in a hopeless or impossible situation could open this book and find something to cling to, a lighthouse in the middle of a horrendous storm.

When I finished Rare Bird, I held it in my hands and felt the energy soaring from the words into my heart. Often, I look into my son's big brown eyes, and I am reminded of Jack, the boy I have never met but have grown to mourn and love.

Don't be afraid to read Rare Bird. It will hurt, yes. But it will hurt and then heal you in the way of the best movies and the best books you have ever read. Ultimately, Anna's faith and love carried my heart past the pain, too. The glimmers of hope that start to emerge and then really shine through Anna and her family's journey is humbling, and you will understand why it's worth reading the sad things.

In the words of my friend Devon Corneal:

"I read to understand anger. I read so I'll remember not to judge. I read for perspective and to be reminded that that even in the face of loss and pain and doubt and confusion, life does not stop. We don't get to stop because things get hard -- we are supposed to save our weaknesses for the quiet hours of the night. I read to recognize bravery and to confront the fears I try to ignore.

I read because these parents endure and, somehow, in the devastation, they find laughter. And hope. I read for those moments. I read because, no matter how unfair or tragic their challenges, these families are willing to share their joy and strength with anyone who has the courage not to turn away."

I'm grateful I didn't turn away. Rare Bird is worth every bit of the pain to get to the transcendent love.

Rare Bird is available at