Finding a new purpose after unspeakable loss
A work of narrative nonfiction by Ken Brack
I needed to weave their stories together in order to make some meaning of my own.
Annotated TOC of the book’s main sections:
In the predawn hours of November 15, 2002, every parent’s worst nightmare strikes the author and his wife, who learn that their son has died in a car crash along with a friend. Restless and sometimes combative, loved by his buds and family, Mike was just eighteen and beginning to figure things out. As the author, a longtime journalist and aspiring teacher, reaches the state police, his gut tells him that their lives will never be the same. The couple has joined a club that no one signs up for.
Why me? What do I do now? How do I heal this hole in my heart? The questions are ageless and yet raw whenever catastrophe or tragedy strikes.
While this book weaves together striking accounts of staggering loss, it is more about what comes next. Less concerned with why many of us finally get off the couch, the focus is on how we may find a new purpose while wrestling with those stubborn existential questions.
During an age when resiliency is often celebrated—frequently in the aftermath of mass shootings and terror attacks—less well understood is how people actually make something positive from their trials, and how this differs from perseverance. As relatives and friends of lost loved ones plunge back into the same forces that ripped open their lives, this response often exacts an extraordinary cost involving paradoxical setbacks. Sparked by one of his high school student’s questions to a Holocaust survivor, the author sets out interviewing a select group of families, seeking inspiration from how they attempted to move forward from sudden loss and other trauma. The breadth of the work is introduced, addressing primarily adults looking for answers to painful ordeals and ways to support friends and loved ones, and a more general audience intrigued by transformative accounts in a hybrid of narrative, reportorial, and creative nonfiction.
What inspired me most were those who found a way forward by giving back.
Part I: Wrenched open
What do you do when your daughter has been raped and murdered in her freshman dormitory bed? As the world turned upside down for Jeanne Clery’s parents in 1986, they discovered that her university had hid many earlier violent campus crimes. Hoping to prevent other families from suffering the same, the Clerys began advocating for greater accountability and campus safety protocols, forming a nonprofit group to help enact reforms across the country.
While struggling to reconcile Jeanne’s death and reclaim their faith, her parents joined with other families and advocates to become vanguards advancing the rights of student crime victims. More than a quarter century later, Jeanne’s mother continued to lay down the challenge after setting a foundation for today’s survivors of campus sexual assaults, some of whom continue to break the silence for others.
Part II. Live the questions
No norms apply in the death of a child, and the capriciousness embedded in this truism applies mightily to parents who experience sudden unexplained infant death. Joel and Susan Hollander, a sharp and hard-working New Jersey couple, stepped from their pain to help spread SIDS and SUID education and support for other stricken families. After losing their four-month-old daughter Carly in 1996, the Hollanders formed the country’s foremost SUID prevention and advocacy group, sustaining networks of other grassroots efforts in many states to help spearhead better practices and awareness to reduce risks while supporting promising research.
Mounting this fight was never easy. Amidst the complexities of trying to help parents understand what cannot always be explained, the couple felt themselves tacking into the wind at times for a disarming if not unpopular cause. Despite having to pare back their activities during a recession and in an era of research funding cutbacks, a network of families persevered to educate the unknowing.
Many Americans recall exactly where they were during the 2001 terrorist attacks. Iconic images of our initial responses periodically rekindle national unity and shared resolve. Yet while 9/11 families have not been forgotten, their trials including those of first responders’ relatives often went unnoticed as more than a decade passed. Some of the victims’ relatives and friends took steps forward from their loss by doing acts of service while paying tribute to the fallen.
This section chronicles the responses of two people and their families, both of whom connected with like-minded individuals striving to sustain the compassion that some contend was the most endearing result of 9/11. First, a volunteer firefighter who rushed into the South Tower to do triage inspired his brother and a friend to encourage millions of others to give back. This led to the creation of the September 11th National Day of Service and Remembrance. Second is the story of a widow’s resolve to “pay it forward” along with caring for her traumatized sons after their dad was killed at work in the North Tower. The experiences of other families and friends of the firefighter are woven through.
Part IV. The depths of healing
Sam, Nathan, and Bernard Offen lost almost everything during the Second World War: their family, neighborhood, and country. Their humanity was severely tested in Nazi-occupied Kraków and various concentration camps. Eventually each one decided to become a witness to the world after taking disparate paths to face his past.
As this section begins, oldest brother Sam hugs an Army veteran from Detroit, one of his liberators at Mauthausen; middle brother Nathan goes skydiving in Florida for his ninetieth birthday; while younger Bernard completes a walking tour of Auschwitz and Kraków, where he spends each summer guiding people through the former camp and ghetto in what he calls a self-determination process of healing. While very different–Sam bubbles with optimism, Nathan is reticent and hard-boiled, and Bernard veers from being caustic to mystical–the arcs of their lives, and their contributions, are singular. Their survival is less a testament to idealized resilience than to the complex struggle to reconcile harrowing trauma.
Part V. The cost
What is the cost of not simply letting go, and plunging yourself into the very forces that ripped open your life? Or the opposite: running away from and numbing that place of pain? How do people to find balance between the two, and begin to reconcile the past while moving forward?
Spurred by the poor decisions that his son Mike and friends made in 2002—and fueled by his anger while uncovering the seedy, underage drinking scene in Providence, Rhode Island, where the four indulged one mid-November night—the author attempts to confront the cause of tragedy and channel his wrath. The fatal crash is recalled, along with the criminal case against the driver, one of his son’s buddies. The author and his wife form a parents group urging safe driving and drunk-driving prevention in their school district, hoping to prevent another family from suffering the same. Contemplating the limits of forgiveness and seeking redemption, the Bracks attempt to reconcile with the driver, believing that is what their son would want. Also included are the voices of two parents who lost their only son in Iraq in 2005 and struggle to hold him close amidst a custody battle for their grandson, and a FDNY veteran who fled New York, knowing his fallen brothers “are with me every day.”
The author’s wife Denise envisions opening a bereavement center to support other families going through similar crises, which necessitates a huge shift and difficult balance in their lives. Opening a nonprofit requires them to step beyond their anguish to lift others in their grief. After setting out in 2008, Denise Brack builds key partnerships and formalizes facilitator training for support groups while seeking space to replenish her emotional energy. Approaching the tenth anniversary of their son’s death, the author returns to Providence to check the status of underage drinking enforcement, finding that little has changed, which remains the case again in 2015.
As their nonprofit grows, pressures mount to continue Hope Floats Healing & Wellness Center’s operations. Expecting to expand this outreach to a wider community, the Bracks realize they must keep their hearts open to intuition and a life of service, while recognizing that facing one’s pain rather than shuttering it is a lifelong trek towards reclamation. Their family experiences luminous moments of remembrance and solidarity, receiving signs from Mike and recognizing his ongoing connection to them. Mike’s core friends also demonstrate the strength of their own bonds, which along with the contributions of Denise’s colleagues and friends, are an unspeakable gift.
Here is an excerpt from Closer By The Mile, the story of the Pan-Mass Challenge bike-a-thon for cancer research, published in 2013:
One day Sandy Fitzgerald was out walking with her amber-eyed granddaughter. She asked Hannah: “Do you think we’ll ever take life for granted again?”
“Grandma, never,” she said. “Never, ever.”
When she was seven, right around Thanksgiving Hannah Hughes just wasn’t herself. She was stuffed up and felt tired. A pain in her legs brought complaints, which was unusual. That Friday, when Sandy and her husband had Hannah and younger sister, Fiona, overnight, which is their tradition after the holiday, Hannah barely wanted to hang popcorn strings on the fresh Christmas tree. She’d recently asked Sandy to carry her bags in school. Her parents thought it might be a nagging sinus infection. Dark circles seemed to brood under her eyes, and her eyelids were a strange red. Hannah had black and blue marks all over. Tears rolled down her eyes as Hannah slept beside her grandmother.
When Jeff Hughes took his oldest child to the doctor the next Monday, they found an enlarged spleen and a white blood cell count that was through the roof. Her mom Rana was teaching a third grade class when the principal walked in. Your husband, he said, needs you to call.
Hannah was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. In just a few hours she was admitted to Albany Medical Center and began chemotherapy.
She has a rare genetic abnormality called the Philadelphia Chromosome-positive ALL. Having the chromosome makes one more susceptible to uncontrolled division of white blood cells that cause the disease. While not everyone with the Philadelphia Chromosome has positive ALL, children with positive ALL face an even higher risk of dying than those with some other forms of leukemia.
She endured three rounds of treatments through that first winter. Then she underwent a successful bone marrow transplant with a donation from Fiona, who was five at the time. As Hannah’s health inched forward there were months of near isolation, starting with 40 days in her room at Boston Children’s Hospital, to avert any virus that might attack her depleted immune system. Then came a long rotation of checkups with her oncologist close to home in upstate New York, and sometimes driving to the clinic at Dana-Farber.
Hannah endured other trials similar to what many children with cancer face: a grueling rotation of immunizations and intravenous antibiotics, cut off from friends and school life, all while facing the unknown.
A knot still tightens within Jeff and Rana as they await a blood cell count, though not quite so taut as in those early months. At one time they dreaded any infection that might compromise her transfusion line. And putting in the double-lumen catheter line during that first week was harrowing. Their brown-haired daughter was emaciated at less than 50 pounds. The surgeon doubted he could do it, as Hannah’s blood vessels were so tiny. He took off his mask, his face exhausted and creased. For an instant Rana thought the worst, the oncologist demanding, “You have to get it in.” Twenty minutes took four hours. Yet the line held. “We owe him a huge debt of gratitude,” her mom now declares.