Content warning: infant death, suicide, alcoholism
In the middle of my own present stress and grief, I am the kind of person who needs a dispatch from someone who has been in the same place and can report on the lay of the land. Even if we are not on the same path or in the same terrain, I need to know that someone else has traversed a similar course. I need to hear that it is possible to keep putting one foot in front of the other, one breath after another, and that eventually you will have gone farther than it seemed possible. I need to know that there are those who have gone before who counted on the rhythms of the earth to testify the presence of God when their experience said otherwise.
So it is with The Night Lake: A Young Priest Maps the Topography of Grief by Liz Tichenor.
It is not a spoiler to tell you that this is the story of her journey following the death of her infant son, which closely followed her mother’s suicide. You can learn that from the book jacket or an online blurb. What those cannot tell you is that this book’s writing mirrors the rhythm of grief. The beginning, about Fritz’s death, is in short bursts, like breathing in shock or like one’s abilities in a time of crisis. Momentary clarity. Then pause. Clarity again. The pause.
Slowly the sections of writing become longer, but those shorter sections return- just as the fresh feeling of grief’s gut punch can comeback in a moment. Tichenor does a magnificent job of explaining her own world of feelings, thoughts, and actions. She narrates from within herself. I felt grateful as a reader that, while I wanted to know more about the feelings of her husband or others, she does not give them except as she experienced them through her own lens. It is a gift to have a writer speak only for herself from out of the deep like this.
She owns her visions, her numbness, her desires to make things happen, and her helpless feelings when they do not. If we are to preach from our scars and not our open wounds, this priest has crafted a book about grief and trauma that says my wounds cannot hurt you and you can learn from them, even while they are still tender.
I felt grateful for her description of her return to work after the death and the unhelpful things that people said. “For this day, this first day back, I decided that not punching anyone defined the metric of success.” (118f) I have used that same phrase and metric in the past month for myself and I commend it to anyone who is struggling.
Tichenor writes about the rituals of funerals and “arrangements”- for her son and for her mother. Her descriptions of her own response to the movement of liturgy or people around her is helpful for anyone who might be working with grieving people. It is also helpful to read along with her journey and realize how many things can be triggering, can cause memories to conflate, and even what it’s like when adults in a household grieve differently, not to mention how children process grief.
This book underscores, again and again, that there are no neat stages of grief, no timeline, no end to how things ache, and no defined shape to healing. Tichenor’s truth is her own, but her map of grief helps others to know they are not lost.
This is not a book to buy and give to someone when you hear they’ve had a loss. That’s the time to show up, to avoid saying unhelpful things, to listen and do the tasks that have to be done.
Later, later, late, when someone wonders how they can go on. When they have accepted that the sun continues to rise and that their breath keeps coming, yet the pain continues, then- maybe- this is the time for this book.
If you are a person who works with grieving people, who can use resources in how people grieve, who wants to know about layers of trauma, then read this book now and treasure its lessons.
If you are like me, in the middle of your own travel, still holding the message of your own night lake, then this book can help you remember: you’re not alone.
Link above goes to bookshop.org to purchase the book from an independent bookseller.
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The Reverend Julia Seymour serves Big Timber Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Big Timber, MT. She blogs at lutheranjulia.blogspot.com and readsallthethings.com. She contributed to There’s A Woman in the Pulpit and is President of the board of RevGalBlogPals, Inc.
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