Our past - the good and the bad -makes us who are today. The people who have been in our lives - shape us and our character. This is particularly true of parents. Losing a parent regardless of age, is a life changing experience. It makes a person feel alone and question the meaning of life. It leads many to seek solace with God. I had a chance to interview noted author Sharon Brown Keith who, in her newly released book, “Mockingbird Moments,” discusses how the death of a parent, affects a person, and how it changes a person’s life leading them to seek out answers to the mystery of life.
How did you decide to write the book?
Originally, I had a completely different idea for a book when I began this journey in 2015. I was planning on writing about my childhood, and growing up years, as well as my experiences in public education. I sent several chapters to a memoir editor, and when I received her initial response, I was devastated. She thought the stories about my childhood were “charming,” but what I had written didn’t qualify as a memoir. A memoir focuses on a pivotal event that changed/transformed the author’s life. She asked me if I had such an event to write about. I quickly responded with a “no,” and sadly thought my dream of writing a memoir had died. I decided to look back through what I had written, and discovered that I never once mentioned that my father died in 1992. This event completely changed my life, and I still, after 23 years, thought about my dad every day. Three days after the first email from the editor, I wrote her back and said, “I have my story.”
Once I began writing the memoir, I felt as Michelangelo did when he said, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” Writing about my father’s death was extremely cathartic, and gave me a freedom I didn’t think was possible. It provided much needed closure, and gave me a story that I could share and hopefully help others learn from my experience.
Grief is very different and personal to everyone, but can you share what effect it has had on your religious beliefs?
I don’t know how people who don’t believe in God can survive the death of a loved one. Knowing that my dad was in heaven is one of the few things that made it possible for me to go on from day to day. When Dad first died, I was angry at God. Angry that he didn’t answer my prayers. I didn’t understand why my dad had to die. He was a wonderful, Christian man, and still had so much to give. I felt terrible and guilty for these thoughts, and it took me years to understand that this line of thinking isn’t uncommon when faithful people lose a loved one.
After grieving for many years, I have discovered that great grief comes from great love. I am keenly aware that there is a plan for each of us that is bigger than anything we can understand. Looking back, I clearly see God’s work in all of this. In Chapter 18 of the book, I talk about two experiences that were clearly from God. The first happened Christmas 1992, the first Christmas without Dad. I had just given birth to my second son (two weeks earlier). I was an emotional and physical wreck. I went to bed early that night, and while I was alone, prayed to God for some sort of sign of message from my dad. I cried out for help, as I felt broken, defeated, and so very sad. The next morning when I woke up, all I could think about was a Christmas scarf I had dreamed about. It was white with a border of green holly and had a nutcracker on it. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t stop thinking about the dream and the scarf. I decided to look in my dresser drawer where I kept my scarves. I emptied it out and couldn’t find such a thing. I was about to close the drawer, when stuck in between the drawer and the back of the dresser, I saw a scarf. I pulled it out, and it was exactly like the one I dreamed about. And then it hit me! My dad had given me this scarf our last Christmas together! It truly was a Christmas miracle and an answered prayer.
Several months later, my 3 year old son, Christopher, came in from outside and said, “Boompa was in the backyard watching me play.” I was so shocked, I asked him to repeat what he said, and then added, “You were probably just thinking about him and thought you saw him.” Christopher was adamant about seeing Boompa, and added, “He was standing by that tree like he always does when he watches me play.” At this point, I was thinking I needed to get him to a counselor! As the years passed, and as I’ve read more about death and experiences people have, I believe that Christopher did see Boompa. I think God gives us these special moments all the time, but we are not always willing to see them. Many times we discount them as a coincidence, or some other man-made event. Two weeks before my dad died, I had a weird feeling the last time I saw him. I felt like something was going to happen to him, but then told myself I was crazy for that thought, and didn’t tell him I loved him because I knew we still had time. I believe that feeling was from God. Again, there are things around us all the time. Our hearts need to be open and aware and then we will be able to experience the many blessings God gives us.
How has it changed your perspective?
I’ve learned to take nothing for granted. We aren’t promised tomorrow. I make goodbyes meaningful, whether it’s when I end a phone call, or leave someone. I always tell people I love them, and try to always end each day peacefully, and positively. I was completely unprepared at my father’s sudden death, but it taught me to value people and time.
What are some tips for how people can help those who have gone through a very personal loss?
The first and most important thing people should understand about those who are grieving the loss of a loved one, is that there is no expiration date for grief. Everyone handles it differently and there is no perfect timeline for healing.
People should be supportive, without being judgmental. I found that these two phrases made me feel worse, “I know how you feel,” and “It was God’s will.” No one can ever know exactly how you feel, so please don’t tell a grieving person that. As far as it being God’s will, believers know that, but it doesn’t make sense in the first days of loss. You begin to think that God wanted your loved one to die. That phrase should be said in the later stages, when the person accepts that this is all a part of a plan.
It helps to talk about the person who died. Many times people avoid this because they are afraid it may be upsetting to the person who is grieving. However, when the person isn’t mentioned, it’s as if they have been forgotten, and this is much worse. Keep the person’s memory alive. Share stories and remembrances of that person. It’s been 25 years since Dad died, and I love it when people remember something about him and tell me. Treasure those memories!
The first days of grieving are extremely difficult, with the plans, visitation, funeral, but in reality, this is when the family is most supported. It is in the days, months and even years that follow where people really need support. It is heartwarming and special to receive “thinking about you” notes at random times. Always remember that the anniversary of a death is a particularly difficult time, too.
Finally, just listen. Many times people who are overwhelmed with grief simply want to talk about their experience and feelings. You don’t have to be an expert to know what to say. Simply let them know you care and that you are there for them and are willing to listen. You may even ask, “What can I do for you?” Knowing people care is an essential part in healing after a loss.Sharon Brown Keith is the author of the new book, Mockingbird Moments. Additional information may be obtained at https://www.sharonbrownkeith.com