When I was 28 years old, I briefly dated a surgical resident. Perhaps like all surgeons, he was smart, decisive, and pleased with himself. I thought we were going somewhere. But after a few weeks, he suddenly dumped me, refusing to explain why.
I felt heartbroken, even though the relationship was new and, truth be told, I had liked others more than him. (Remember that “pleased with himself” part?) But being 28, single and a burn survivor, my chances at finding love seemed increasingly remote.
That week, I showed up for my psychology supervision, barely holding myself together. My clinical supervisor, a kind man named Byron, asked me what was happening. I told him my tale, weeping, while he listened attentively.
“I hear you. Breakups are so hard. Listen, I want you to buy this book. It’s called How to Survive the Loss of a Love. It will help.”
I went immediately to the bookstore and bought the book, feeling dubious that it could sooth my despair. But it did. The book, by Bloomfield, Cogrove and McWilliams, was full of brief chapters, short enough that a grief-stricken reader like me could make my way through, such as:
“YOU WILL SURVIVE
· You will get better.
· No doubt about it.
· The healing process has a beginning, a middle and an end.
· Keep in mind, at the beginning, that there is an end. It’s not that far off. You will heal.
· Nature is on your side, and nature is a powerful ally.
· Tell yourself, often, ‘I am alive. I will survive.’
· You are alive.
· You will survive.”
Since that breakup, 30 years ago, I have frequently recommended this little book to others who are grieving. I sent it to my own daughter when she suffered a painful loss. She read it too, taking it on the subway, bringing it to picnics, feeling its comfort.
Then there was The Year of Magical Thinking. Joan Didion wrote this heart-searing memoir of her sudden death of her husband. This book captured the crush of grief, the shock of loss, the thinking that can verge toward psychosis. In Didion’s words:
“This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.”
Didion’s book articulates the experience of grief with grit and depth, more truly than any book I have read before or since.
When I work with widows, I often recommend Didion's book. “Be warned, this is not a feel-good book. But it will help you feel less alone. It will put words to the deep pain you are feeling.”
Often the next session, the widow comes back into my office, smiling a bit and shaking her head. “That book… that book. That’s exactly how it is.”
Good writers capture the experience of living, the depth of our pain and joy. They verbalize our moments of anguish, and articulate our silent experiences. Good writers connect us with humanity, even when we feel profoundly alone.
When I wrote my memoir, Flashback Girl, I hoped that my words could reach others who suffer. My book is about burns, disfigurement, parental dysfunction, suicide, bullying… My book is also about love, hope, recovery, and resilience. I wrote it for myself. I wrote it for the world. (I know that sounds grandiose and I’m sorry, but honestly that’s the truth). I hoped to reach as many readers as possible to say, yes, life can devastate us, but we can recover too.
Keep going. Have hope. Look for the light.
My hope for Flashback Girl is that it can serve a similar purpose to How to Survive the Loss of a Love, or The Year of Magical Thinking. Perhaps it will be a book that people read when they are in pain. Or perhaps it can be the book that others give to those who suffer, the way I sent How to Survive to my daughter.
Maybe a sad person, grieving a loss, might open their door to find an unexpected package at their entryway. Opening it, a bright yellow book seems to fly out, with a flower on the front. But look, the flower stem is made of a burnt matchstick. And look, the book is about surviving and resilience. The sad person opens the book and begins to read about a little girl who survived a horrific series of events, who now lives a beautiful life.
Hope. Love. Light.
Flashback Girl has been out for one year today. It has already traveled around the world, to readers from Canada, England, Romania, Tanzania, New Zealand, and Australia. I know this because I have heard from readers in every one of these countries. I received emails from people who told me that the book got them through their two year old burned child’s intensive care.
Or helped them decide to be a psychologist.
Or helped them (finally!) understand their mother’s destructive narcissism.
Or helped them resolve to stay alive and not kill themselves.
The book is its own entity now and no longer mine. This reminds me of having babies. My daughters both started as cells inside my body. They grew there, living on my breath and my meals. I gave birth to them and cared for them tenderly. But at some point, those little babies became their own people. They grew up, gained their own character and purpose, and left to fulfill their own destiny.
That is what it feels like to have written this book. It came through me. I nurtured it, I birthed it, I cared for it. I nurture it still, but now it has its own entity, separate from me. My great hope is that Flashback Girl will be a healer in the world, having a place on people’s shelves next to How to Survive the Loss of a Love and The Year of Magical Thinking. That would be an honor. Yes, it’s a big dream, but I have learned to shoot big.
Today is my third baby's birthday. Happy birthday, Flashback Girl.
Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader
Bloomfield, H, Colgrove, M and McWilliams, P: How to Survive the Loss of a Love. Algonac: Mary Books/Prelude Press, 1976.
Didion, J. The Year of Magical Thinking. New York: Knopf, 2005.