A man I rode with on the elevator recently reminded me that something good always comes of bad. We had just met in the lobby, both of us headed up to make a condolence call at the apartment of a mutual friend. I could tell from the way he pushed the buttons that he had been to their home many times. I had not. I had been friends with George for 45 years but had never been to his apartment — or met his wife and children. His father had just died at 89. I informed this man, making small talk, that even though I lived just down the street it had taken a loss to bring me to George’s home. “Something good always comes of bad,” he offered as the elevator opened, spilling us through George’s open door and into the crowd inside.
Something good always comes of bad was this man’s way of saying that at least now I would meet George’s family. And that that was a good thing even if the reason for the call was not.
He was right. Condolence call or not, we had a lovely visit.
And that reminded me of the first time I came upon the thought — something good comes from bad — years ago, reading the I Ching.
The way I remember the phrasing was, “You can always find something positive, even in the worst thing that happens to you.” What matters is the way you look at it.
The timing for reading that book was fortunate, because shortly after, in fact, the worst thing that ever happened to me happened to me — smashing my life as I had known it. Thirty years have gone by and, with the gift of time, I can see now that even from the worst thing — the death of my husband when I was 29 and our daughter, Rachel, was four — even from that, something good has come of bad.
Yes. There was great pain during the months in the beginning, after the shock wore off, when I would pound the pillow in agony: The black hole I fell into, not sleeping, not eating, losing weight; noting but not caring much for the affairs of the world; the hard years raising my child as a single mother.
One day I found myself with a spare moment at work, a piece of paper in the typewriter, and an urge to write a few sentences. “When Rachel was four and her daddy was first gone, she was very sad inside. That year she would cry sometimes, like when it was her birthday and she remembered how he used to put the decorations on the cake. And how he wasn’t there to do it anymore.”
I put that scrap of lines into a file. From time to time I would drop other fragments into the folder. Other thoughts. One day, when Rachel was 7, I was inspired to pull the whole folder out and in a two night frenzy of writing and arranging, laid out most of a children’s story, which I titled “Rachel and the Upside Down Heart.”
It took ten years to obtain a publisher. No one wanted to hear the topic. The death of a parent in a children’s book was not an upbeat topic. But eventually, after years of trying, “Rachel and the Upside Down Heart” was published.
If Jeff’s death had been the worst thing, Rachel, my daughter, has been the best thing, followed right up there by what has come from “Rachel and the Upside Down Heart.”
When I first wrote the book, I had everything but the ending. For months I put the manuscript pages aside. Then one day the father of a boy in Rachel’s class died. Rachel came home to tell me the teacher had asked this boy if there was anyone he wanted to speak to. Yes, he answered. He wanted to talk to Rachel. She told me, and I wrote down, the words she had been spoken to him, words that helped him, words that became part of the book’s ending. Rachel had suffered a loss, but she had also learned something that she could pass along to help someone else whose loss followed hers. (As well have I.)
Time and again I experience how “Rachel and the Upside Down Heart” has produced something good from bad:
- A colleague approaches me a few days after I had announced in my job as a newscaster the murder of a Pepsi driver in a robbery. This colleague, it turns out, knew the family. There was, he told me, a young girl the father’s death left behind. My co-worker wanted the book to send to the child.
- I meet a cancer hospital therapist at a convention. We use your book, she tells me, with the children in our bereavement program. We’ve built a program around it. ‘We ask children to write to their lost parent on cut out hearts,’ was one part of their program I especially remember.
- The head of a national children’s grief counseling organization tells me, “Rachel and the Upside Down Heart is a book in our library.” It helps children, the experts tell me, to see that another child has also lost a parent. That they are not alone.
- I receive a letter from a woman in Los Angeles. Her young daughter is also a Rachel, and that Rachel’s father also has died. She wants me to know that Rachel reads the book every night before she goes to sleep. I am shocked later, when I meet this girl, to see that her copy of the book lying on her bed, is, as her mother’s description only hinted at, shredded from so much reading, with the pages loose and the cover falling off.
- A friend of mine whose sister is a teacher in Minnesota has a child in class who has just lost a father. She calls my cell phone. Where can she get the book to help the rest of the class understand what he’s going through?
Even grownups tell me stories, long locked inside. The wife of a co-worker tells me, “My mother died when I was six. At our house, the relatives took all her photographs away and never talked about her again. They thought that way I would forget. I didn’t.”. . . A hard-bitten news correspondent, now well into middle age, tells me as he holds the Rachel book in his hand, “My father died when I was nine.” (I had had no idea, although I’d known him for years.) “How was that for you,” I ask. And there is no answer. He chokes, “I still can’t talk about it.”
I have come to learn that a child who loses a parent young and then meets a wall of silence will carry a greater hurt for the rest of their life. Children need to mourn.
I Google “Rachel and the Upside Down Heart” these days and see there are pages of entries. The book appears on many recommended reading lists from hospices and libraries, bereavement centers (many more for children now than existed when my husband died), and even the website for the Bill Moyers’ PBS show “On Our Own Terms: Moyers on Dying.”
This is where, for me, something good has come from bad. Knowing that others have found and been helped by what once were a few typewritten pages of scribbles in a folder began at a time of my own grief. If sharing the pain that was in my own heart lessens their grief, that’s beyond what I could have imagined in those days when I first wrote the story, a testament to the fancy thought that “art is pain transmuted.”
Notes I was sent at the time of my husband’s death were a comfort to me. One poem in particular, I remember to this day.
Even the severed branch
And the sunken moon
Wise men who know this
Are not troubled in adversity.
That is exactly what happened in my life. Eventually, the severed branch grew again. The sunken moon returned. And I rejoined life. As did Rachel.
As I write these words, my eye falls on a new photograph I keep on my desk of Rachel with her beautiful toddler son Benjamin. For years her father’s death had been a main pillar of her existence. But today she tells me, “Mom, I’m not there anymore. I want to think about life now. Not death.”
The book “Rachel and the Upside Down Heart” ends on a hopeful note. That healing can come.
I know the pain these people are in. I’m not there anymore… That, too, is the message.
Eileen Douglas is a broadcast journalist-turned-independent documentary filmmaker. Former 1010 WINS New York anchor/reporter and correspondent for ABC TV’s “Lifetime Magazine,” she is the author of “Rachel and the Upside Down Heart,” and co-producer of the films “My Grandfather’s House” and “Luboml: My Heart Remembers.” She can be reached at www.douglas-steinman.com.
“Rachel and the Upside Down Heart” is available exclusively from New Leaf Resources 1-800-346-3087.