December 16, 2008

The Alchemy of Loss

The Alchemy of Loss: A Young Widow's Transformation by Abigail Carter
Nonfiction - Memoir/Grief
2008 Health Communications, Inc.
Finished on 11/24/08
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific)
TLC Book Tour Participant

Publisher's Blurb:

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Abigail Carter received an urgent phone call from her husband, Arron: "Ab, Ab! There's an emergency. I'm in the World Trade Center and there's been a bomb." He never came home.

Abby had it all—a full life with a successful career and a loving husband, and a beautiful two-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter. But in a horrifying instant watched by the world, it was gone, and her family's lives were changed irreparably. The Alchemy of Loss chronicles the tumultuous four years Abby spent trying to come to terms with her loss that day. Honest, raw, and even humorous, this is a book she wished she could have found after Arron died.

During those challenging years, Abby came to realize that she had to turn everything she knew upside down in order to earn to live again—and that there is no one-size-fits-all path through grief. She gradually began to build a new life for herself and to see opportunities in her situation. She developed new skills as a single parent, started dating again, and eventually moved across the country for a fresh start in Seattle. Those years were powerfully transformative, and Abby now likens them to alchemy: from them she emerged a new person—wiser, more independent, more sure of herself.

A compelling, moving memoir and a loving portrait of a marriage, The Alchemy of Loss will prove a comfort for anyone who is dealing with unimaginable loss—and serve as an inspiration to us all.

Where were you when the world stopped turning that September day... (Alan Jackson)

I remember exactly where I was when I first heard the news. Someone had called the store (I was working at Borders in Fort Worth), telling us to turn on the TV right away. I stood with my co-workers, watching in disbelief and confusion as the reporters were discussing the first plane crash when the second plane hit the towers. I continued to watch during the morning and saw the reports about the Pentagon, as well as the crash of United Flight #93. I stood in stunned silence for what seemed like hours watching as the two towers collapsed. I stood horrified with sadness, anger, shock and bewilderment. I watched countless hours of CNN when I got home from work, unable to stop the tears. I worried about my parents who were vacationing in Germany and panicked as I heard fighter jets flying low overhead, later to learn that they were escorting a DFW American Airlines jet filled with grief counselors and staff to the East coast.

But Abigail's book and loss is not just about 9/11.

It's about the death of her husband, the death of her children's father, and the death of her in-laws' son.

And yet, her loss is a shared loss not simply with her family, or even the people of the United States, but rather with the entire world. We were all deeply affected by the events of that awful morning, most of us knowing someone who knew someone who died that day.

I knew that Abigail Carter's memoir was going to be a difficult read. What I didn't know was how I was going to react to the opening chapter; a chapter filled with all the horrific details of September 11th. I've only read one other book that focuses specifically on that day's events (Joyce Maynard's The Usual Rules), and as I did then, I found myself literally gripping the pages of the book, practically holding my breath with anticipation of reading the unfolding details. Carter's opening paragraph slams the reader right back into the intensity of that day. And yet, I couldn't stop reading in spite of the blinding tears in my eyes.

Why do I continue to read books filled with grief and sadness? Why am I so drawn to them?

In her preface, Carter writes:

Driven to write my story despite never having written before, I sat down at my computer shortly after the second anniversary of Arron's death and simply wrote "September 11, 2001." Words spilled onto the pages. I told myself I wanted to record the events for my children, who would someday ask for details, but I also secretly hoped my story would be more—something that could help others to cope with their own losses. I wanted to write the book I had not found, the one that would give me hope that my grief would not be permanent and that a whole new life might emerge from the ashes of loss.

Perhaps I'm searching for that perfect explanation and answer to why? Or maybe I'm simply looking to validate my thoughts and feelings about how to move through this process of grieving. I, too, sat down and wrote endless pages (on a steno pad, nonetheless), trying to sort through my thoughts and feelings. These vignettes eventually transpired into my blog of letters to my stepdaughter.

Like Abigail and her children, I have moved forward with my life. I've found happiness in the beauty of nature, books, friendships and work. My photography has brought me great joy. Yet, I haven't forgotten, nor will I ever forget, Rachel's beautiful smile or contagious laugh. And the pain of losing her will never completely diminish.

It's not unusual to share similar thoughts about grief with those who have been down the same road, but I was completely stunned when I read the following passage:

My first day back at work was a strange foray into public life... After being tucked away for two long months in my house with only minimal contact with people other than my family and closest friends, I feared how people at work were going to treat me. I still felt the weight, whenever I stepped in public, of what felt like others' reverence toward me, or pity, or fear. I found I could classify people into three categories: Those who empathized with me and who always managed to say just the right thing; those who didn't really understand, but tried anyway—they were usually the ones who said, "I'm sorry for your loss"; and those who didn't get it at all and just tried to avoid me altogether. How was I supposed to respond to "How are you?" That look of desperation in someone's eyes, willing me to tell them everything was fine. But it was not fine and it would never be fine. Could they see it in the dullness in my eyes?

And now a passage from my husband's blog (posted 12/11/05):

I did learn, though, that the division amongst friends and their ability to handle what’s happened is about the same at a party, proportionally, as it is at work and amongst our non-work circle of friends.

In other words, the 80/20 rule applies. In business, the 80/20 rule states that roughly 20% of your product line will generate roughly 80% of your revenue. The goal, then, is to determine what products constitute that valuable 20% and concentrate more on those than on the rest; if you can do that, you’ll drive revenue up and costs down. Or so I’ve been told by businessmen, sales reps, etc.

In terms of grief, the 80/20 rule works a little differently. It seems that a small number—about 20%, in fact—of your friends will fall into one of two camps: About half of that 20% will be able to talk about what happened. They’ll confront the issue head-on, they’ll attempt to be supportive; they’ll come to you and put their arms around you and say, “Are you doing OK? I’m so sorry. I know the holiday season must be very difficult for you. Can I do anything? Would you like to just sit down and talk?” And then they do sit down and talk, or listen to us as we talk.

These folks are very brave. We can’t be much fun to be around, especially when the conversation turns to your murder and to how we’re all holding up.

The other half of the 20% won’t talk to you at all. They simply cannot deal with what’s happened—perhaps they have their own losses to deal with, or they can’t bear to consider the possibility of such a loss. It’s a pain that’s not only too great to discuss, it’s too great to even imagine.

To these people, the bottom half of the 20%, the grieving are like lepers of old: We must be avoided, shunned, ignored; if we do travel amongst the non-grieving, we should be required to wear distinctive clothing, our gloomy passage marked by a lamp-bearer who rings a bell and shouts, “Unclean! Unclean!” as we pass by. It would be best, one feels, if there were colonies where the grief-stricken gathered, forced to huddle in amongst themselves; perhaps grief ghettos would serve to protect the normal folk as they go about their lives.

The remaining 80% of one’s friends and acquaintances can and do speak to us, but not about what’s happened. They try to pretend that everything is normal. We’re up and about, after all; we seem to be able to function—and besides, it’s been several months now, time to “get over it.” They can talk to you about just about anything, usually with a bright, chipper smile and a perky lilt to their voices. (Some of them are marketing people, so they can’t help this, of course; “perk” is part of their job description. It might be an inbred thing, I’m not sure.)

Sometimes, though, someone in the 80% group accidentally asks a dangerous question. He may look up and smile as I stand at the office coffeepot. “So,” he says, “how are you doing?” He doesn’t really want to know the answer. You can tell by his furtive, hangdog look that he didn’t really mean to ask that and that he regrets that it slipped out. Like a store clerk muttering “Have a nice day” after she finishes bagging the groceries, it was just something to say, words to fill a conversational void; it was meaningless chatter that was meant to remain meaningless. You can almost hear him thinking, “Oh, crap! Please don’t let him really answer that. I just want to talk about volleyball, or this terrible coffee, or the dress code at work.”

So, at work and at parties and in the world at large, the 80/20 rule seems to hold true. The vast majority of our friends and acquaintances need—for their own peace of mind—to pretend that all is well, that life is normal, that things can go on as they are, that the world isn’t falling apart.

Pretty much the same thoughts as Abigail's!

On grief and noise:

All the noises in the house were too loud to me. A Thomas the Tank Engine video, seemingly played on a loop, provided a constant background noise. The dog barked and I flinched.

What is it about grief and noise? I recall several instances when we happened to be in a restaurant and it was all we could do to get through our meal and rush out, throwing our money on the table. The sound of people enjoying themselves, laughing and talking to their friends, grated on our nerves, bringing us close to tears. We were so fragile back then, angry that the world continued to turn, annoyed that everyone else was enjoying life while we ours was shattered.

On public image:

My nervousness was also rooted in my fear of the unknown: this was my first public outing as a widow. I was certain that I must look different. Perhaps it was possible to see in my eyes that not only was I a widow but I was a 9/11 widow. I felt I had to act a special way, be demure, or red-eyed, or wear a black band around my arm, or carry a folded flag. I wished I could wear something that might explain my strange slow gait, and, what I felt must be, my vacant look.

I remember going for my afternoon walks on the bike path, listening to my music on my iPod, with tears streaming down my face. I saw the sidelong glances from those walking past me with their dogs or children and I found myself wishing I could explain that I had just returned from my stepdaughter's funeral and that I was just so horribly sad. I wanted the entire world to know of my pain.

Abigail shared my feelings:

"I'm numb. I don't really know how I feel. I was walking the dog today and met a couple of old ladies in the park. They were making a fuss over Harley and I blurted out that Harley had just lost her master in the World Trade Center. I shocked them and then felt terrible because I hated seeing the pity in their eyes. Yet I seemed to need to tell every stranger I met about my tragedy."


On the roller-coaster of grief:

"Have a nice day!" the cashier sang at me.

I ran the cart to the car and threw the bags into the back and got in quickly before the full flood of tears began. I sat for several minutes, letting the tears come, and then let out a scream of frustration. Just when things seemed to be feeling normal, I was ricocheted back into grief. I drove home through my tears and put away the groceries, seeing that I had bought too much. The apples would rot in the bowl. The chicken would remain frozen for months. I looked at the empty space on top of the fridge where the chips used to reside, the only perceivable indication that my life had changed forever.

On grief support groups:

And yet I longed to connect to the community that these widows represented. They supported each other and had become friends. I still knew none of the 9/11 widows, other than Kimmy from the consulate. I wanted to know if their anger helped them, if their common mission to address the lack of policies and inadequacies that had conspired to create the buildings' collapse was a good outlet for their grief. I wondered if they felt as guilty as I did receiving money from charities. I wondered if they knew how to act when someone cried on their shoulder and they heard the words "Sorry for your loss" for the hundredth time. Did they tell their tragedies to strangers in the park? Kick the lawn mower? Did they fall asleep feeling the hole of their missing loved ones in the pits of their stomachs?

My husband and I joined a support group (Community of Friends - a spin-off of Compassionate Friends) for parents who have lost a child. (That's one euphemism I really came to hate. We didn't lose her. She was taken from us.) As painful as those meetings were, hearing all those parents share their sad stories, we both found it beneficial to talk to others who had similar thoughts and feelings about the death of their child. And, it was good for us to see that those who'd been grieving for several years (even decades) were able to laugh and joke and eventually enjoy life once again. It gave us hope and comfort.

On overcoming fear:

As I read the book [Awakening from Grief: Finding the Way Back to Joy by John Welshons], I realized that Arron's death had weakened my own fear. Perhaps my so-called communications with him were all in my head, but I was surviving his death. I was learning to live without him. I now knew that all of us had the ability to cope with loss in our lives, and that we learned from our losses.

Oh, I know this feeling so well. I'm quite a worrier. Or, I used to be. Not so much anymore. I used to be afraid of flying. I worried about foundations cracking. I panicked when our basement flooded. I imagined termites slowly demolishing our creaky-old floors. Yet after the death of our daughter, I realized I wasn't worrying quite as much as I used to. I wasn't afraid of dying. I wasn't anxious about black mold or carpenter ants. I had experienced a tragic death of a loved one and survived the emotional wreckage. Anything else is truly insignificant (well, with the exception of losing our younger daughter!). So I stopped worrying. Not completely, but enough to gain a sense of perspective and know what's really worth worrying about and what's simply a waste of time.

I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say, "I don't know how you do it. How you go on." I'm sure Abigail has heard those same words. And I would be willing to bet she thought the same thoughts as I: You just do. What other choice do you have? You just get up and put one foot in front of the other and eventually it gets a little bit easier. It's been a long, long time since I looked at the clock on a Saturday morning, remembering where I was when we got the phone call. I still know how many years (and how many Christmases) have passed without her, but I no longer count the weeks or months. And I smile when I hear her daddy play his guitar, because there was a long period of time when he couldn't even sing.

Thank you, Abby, for sharing such a tender account of your passage through grief with this reader. We may not know each other, but I think we know and understand one another's pain and suffering. It's good to know we've both reached a happier place in our lives. Here's to finding that "real, actual, wind-in-my-hair exuberance for something" once again.

TLC Book Tour Details

Be sure to visit Abby's website and blog. You may also read an excerpt here.

I'd like to send a big thank you to Lisa for inviting me to participate in this TLC Book Tour! Now that I've posted my review, I'm anxious to read all the others.

Abigail Carter’s TLC Book Tour Stops:

Monday, December 1st: Crash Course Widow

Wednesday, December 3rd: Solomother

Thursday, December 4th: The Tome Traveler

Monday, December 8th: Widows Quest

Tuesday, December 9th: A Novel Menagerie

Wednesday, December 10th: Anniegirl1138

Thursday, December 11th: Learning To Live

Monday, December 15th: Wormbook

Tuesday, December 16th: My Friend Amy

Wednesday, December 17th: Lesley’s Book Nook

Thursday, December 18th: Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books

Monday, December 22nd: Single Mom Finding Herself


  1. Thank you for a most thoughtful and amazing review. You gave me the tiniest inkling of understanding for something I am lucky enough not to have needed to learn. I don't quite know what else to say, but I wanted you to know your words had touched me.

  2. Anonymous4:24 AM

    Really wonderful review, Les! I'll definitely look for this book. Thanks for sharing it and thanks to Abigail for sharing her life with us. How brave. How wonderful.

  3. So much pain in our world, so many broken hearts, I can only say, I'm so sorry, as I read your post and books from those who have learned of hell on earth and have found the strenght to write and share it. There's so little to say except I'm sorry and hug a lot. I'm sorry Les, and I'm sorry Abigail and I hug you both!

  4. Anonymous9:05 AM

    Leslie, your review brought tears to my eyes. You and Abby share an intimate knowledge of grief and it's clear this book portrays those feelings and emotions so accurately. Thank you for doing this, for participating in the tour. I hope it wasn't too difficult for you.

    Now I'm thinking about the 80/20 rule and wondering what kind of friend I am!

  5. Les, your beautiful, heartfelt review brought tears this morning. The book sounds amazing, and I would really like to read it.

  6. Lesley:

    Thank you so much for the thoughtful review. Amazing the parallels in grief that we share. I think it has something to do with finding those universal experiences. I can't think of a more universal experience than grief.


  7. Okay, now that I've wiped my eyes and can see the screen, again . . .

    The book sounds amazing. I'll have to look for a copy. It's rare to find a grief book that really resonates. As to this question:

    Why do I continue to read books filled with grief and sadness? Why am I so drawn to them?

    We read to know that we are not alone -- C. S. Lewis.

    So, so true. Excellent review, Les.

  8. Les, I absolutely loved your review of this book, and I am in awe of how brave you are in exposing your feelings to all. You stated it all so well...having recently lost my cousin, I can identify with a lot of what you are saying. What a terrific review and a moving tribute all in one.

  9. We've talked often about this, Les, and you know how my friend whose daughter died feels so badly when people don't talk about her or even mention her name or acknowledge what this mother is going through. She and I cry together almost every time we get together. We talk about that wonderful girl and how it will never ever be 'better.' It is the worst thing that can happen, period. Your writing was perfect giving words to your heart.

  10. Kerry - Thank you for your lovely comment. I'm glad the words in my review touched you. It's always a fine line of exposing too much about one's grief, yet if it gives some insight or comforts someone new to this "club" (one in which none of us want to join), then I'm glad I have shared from my heart.

    Kay - Thanks, dear friend. It a beautifully written book and I'm glad I was brave enough to give it a read. I started to say I hope you enjoy it, but that doesn't quite fit. It is uplifting and hopeful, toward the end, but it's also quite sad. I think I could enjoy it because I could so relate to Abby's thoughts and feelings. Not 100%, of course, as I didn't lose my husband and have to raise two small grief-stricken children, but the elements of grief tend to be similar.

    Lorraine - Yes, there is far too much pain in the world. And so much unnecessary, senseless pain that leaves one shaking one's head in confusion and disbelief. Thanks for your words and hugs. They are deeply appreciated.

    Lisamm - Thank you for inviting me to join in the book tour. Abby has written a remarkable memoir and helped validate a lot of my emotions of these past three-and-a-half years. I doubt I'll ever stop reading books about grief-stricken parents or spouses, as they always seem to help me in whatever stage I'm going through. The timing for this book worked out just right. I wasn't quite as fragile as I might have been a few years ago, but having just come back from the recent trial, it was good to sort through some thoughts and emotions.

    You know, in spite of being on this side of grief, I still wonder where I fit in the 80/20 rule. I used to be one of avoidance, but now I feel I'm better about comforting and allowing those who need to grieve, grieve. It's not easy and we certainly aren't taught how to handle death very well. I hope I'm a better friend now in this regard than I was a few years ago. I definitely know which platitudes to avoid and know to act rather than offer to help. It's far better to actually do something than just say, "Call me if you need me for anything." Most people in the best of times, aren't comfortable asking for help, so why would they feel capable of doing so when they need it the most? It's all they can do to get out of bed each morning.

    Robin - I hope you get a chance to read it. It's quite moving. Thank you for your sweet comment.

    Abby - I have so enjoyed your book and our earlier emails. I wish you and your children a good holiday season. There's always a bit of a sad cloud drifting overhead, in spite of how much healing we've weathered, but I do hope for a happy Christmas for you (and me). Be well and thank you again for your remarkable book. Keep in touch.

    Nancy - Aw, I'm sorry to have made you cry. Or maybe it wasn't me, but the passages I quoted from the book. In any event, I hope you'll enjoy it. I know you'll find some comfort in Abby's words, as did I. I'm thinking of you this week.

    Thanks for the C.S. Lewis quote. Yes, it is so true!

    Tammy - I'm touched by your comment. Thank you so much. And, I'm so very sorry about your cousin. I've gone back to your blog and left a few comments. I hope you've had a chance to read them. He sounds like a wonderful guy and the love between you two is so evident in your post. I'm thinking of you, too, this coming week. I know Christmas will be difficult for you this year, and in the coming years. Be gentle with yourself. And don't let anyone rush you through this process. It takes as long as it takes. There's no way around it and really no way over it. Just work through it at your own pace. It does get better.

    Nan - I can so relate to your friend, whom we've talked about these past few years. I know it's difficult for those around us to not want to bring up something sad and what's more sad than talking about someone's dead child (or spouse). But to never say their name or mention a happy memory about them is to deny their existence and that is the most painful aspect of grieving (next to the actual loss of that individual). If I've learned anything from this awful experience, it's knowing that it's ok to talk about the dead. Memories are all we have left. What a wonderful friend you've been to P. (and me!), letting us talk about our girls. Thank you.

  11. What a beautiful review, Les. I too have tears in my eyes as just a glimmer of your pain, and Abby's pain pierces my heart. This sounds like a beautiful book about a terrible event. I will definitely try to get a copy to read.

    I so love the quote someone else posted in their comment by C.S. Lewis, We read to know that we are not alone.
    How true that statement seems to be.

    I hope you have a wonderful last weekend before Christmas.
    *smiles and hugs*

  12. Anonymous12:32 PM

    Thank you for your heartfelt and honest review, Les. I agree with and can relate to alot of what you and Abby said. The 80/20 thing, the noise, wanting people to know how much pain you were in, etc. One emotion that I went through (and still do, to some degree) is guilt - I think that's another of those messy emotions that gets tied up with grief.

  13. Anonymous12:22 AM

    What a wonderful post!

  14. Les, you and your husband express your feelings and thoughts so beautifully. Your writings about this horrific experience in your life is penetrating. I often think that people hesitate to say something because they fear saying the 'wrong' thing or just aren't able to express their goodwill for your well being.

    I have bipolar disorder. Most people just don't understand the illness or how devastating it can be at times. I try not to judge them or their responses to me because I know they are dealing with their own misconceptions, lack of similar pain, and/or personal knowledge. In my case, it's mostly family members because few outside of family know. It is hard to be around those that tip-toe around me and easy to be with those that are frank, but loving. Some things about our experiences sound similar - people being afraid of what they don't "know" or understand or simply not knowing how to reach out.

    I think your writing about your grief helps the rest of us understand and, hopefully, say or do something that will be of help. A grief as monumental as yours does take my breath away and I can't think of an adequate way to express my sorrow in your behalf.

    I think the best thing I can do is to say I care and hope that in some small way that helps. And I do say prayers for you and your family.

  15. Kim - Thanks for your sweet comment. Yes, it is a beautiful book about a terrible event. Abby's love for her husband shines through on every page. I hope you get a chance to read it.

    Lesley - I was thinking of you this past week. That first Christmas without a loved one is so very hard. I'm sure your sister was in your thoughts constantly, with all sorts of memories stirred up with the season. I hope you were gentle with yourself, allowing whatever feelings might surface to come through and not worrying too much about keeping a chin up for others. And, yes, guilt. We've experienced that emotion as well. Asking all those "what if" questions that will only drive you crazy if you let them. But they are normal questions and emotions and, over time they do recede somewhat. Take care. I'm thinking of you and hope that 2009 brings you peace and happiness.

    Sheri - Thank you.

    Booklogged - Thank you for sharing such personal information with me. I think one thing I've learned from all this grief and sadness is that everyone has their own way of dealing with death (or illness). It's easy to be quick to judge them as insensitive, when really they're simply unsure of how to respond to a painful situation. I agree, it's hard to be around those who tip-toe around and much easier to be with those who are frank. Yes, I would think that some things about our situations are similar. If you're like me, you probably try to put them at ease, making the first move to bring up the subject if necessary. I think my brother might have experienced some of this when he was going through his cancer treatments.

    Writing about my grief has helped me sort through my thoughts and feelings, but I'm glad it's been beneficial to others as well. I know it's hard for people to know what to say, especially when a child dies, but simply sharing a a few words in a comment is very meaningful and deeply appreciated. Thank you for your kind words and prayers.


I may not answer your comments in a timely fashion, but I always answer. Check back soon!