by Jerry Waxler
At the beginning of the memoir, “Here If You Need Me,” Kate Braestrup takes us into her home, sharing her romantic, mutually respectful marriage to a state trooper, their love for their children, and their plans for the future. It seems like an ideal relationship. And then bam! In an instant, her partnership is torn asunder by an auto accident. The cereal bowl from which Drew had eaten an hour earlier sits in the sink while his body lies across the front seat of his police cruiser, the life crushed out of it by a broadside collision.
Now that Drew is dead, Braestrup continues to let us into her heart, this time to cry with her, while she learns the ancient lessons of grief. In order to raise her young children and get her life back on track, she enrolls in school to become a minister in the Unitarian Universalist Church. After graduating, she works as a chaplain for the State Game Warden Service in Maine. Traipsing around the countryside, she comforts loved ones while the wardens searched for lost children, potential suicides, and accident victims. If the search ends with a death, she offers the survivors condolences, embraces, and support.
On her journey from grief back into full connection with the living, Braestrup sets her sights beyond her personal experience. Through her study to be a minister and her work with the public, she raises huge questions, and then through the magic of storytelling makes me feel that together we can understand it all. As a result, this memoir turns out to be one of the most intelligent, loving, and compassionate books about life and death that I have ever read. It is one of those rare books I feel pulled to read again, and in fact, it was only after my third time that I began to tease it apart to see how such a simple story could carry me so far.
Her job with the game wardens takes her through the woods and across streams. With them she flies through the air, drives across ice, awaits the recovery of swimmers who had fallen 70 feet over a waterfall, stands in frigid silence as divers search for a body beneath the solid surface of a river, holds a mother’s hand as the wardens search the woods for a missing child. Through Braestrup’s eyes, nature becomes a backdrop for life, and also a backdrop for death. A tree grows through the skeleton of a dead body. A bear plays with a skull as if it’s a toy. After the death of her husband, Kate Braestrup dresses his corpse with her own hands, certainly the most affection directed towards a dead body that I have ever considered. Her relationship to his earthly remains expands my notion of death, by embedding it lovingly within the natural order.
Despite her religious training, or perhaps because of it, she treats people with equal tenderness no matter what their affiliation, or even if they have no interest in religion at all. To her, religion is simply one of the ways humans have chosen to explain love. Take for example this incident in which she consoles the brother of a woman who killed herself. The brother asks Braestrup if she thinks a suicide victim can receive a Christian burial. Here’s what she says.
“The game wardens have been walking in the rain all day, walking through the woods in the freezing rain trying to find your sister. They would have walked all day tomorrow, walked in the cold rain the rest of the week, searching for Betsy, so they could bring her home to you. And if there is one thing I am sure of, one thing I am very, very sure of, Dan, it is that God is not less kind, less committed, or less merciful than a Maine game warden.”
At the center of the book lies the great theological question, “How can an all powerful compassionate God allow evil in the world?” Attempting to answer this question is known as “theodicy” and whether we know it has a name or not, many of us grapple with it. If we conclude that suffering proves God cannot exist, we cut ourselves off from a valuable source of hope. For example, after my brother died of cancer, my dad landed on the “God can’t exist” side of theodicy. His choice drained his vitality. My mother responded to Ed’s death by extending her search for truth, a decision that allowed her to become an increasingly generous and spiritual person.
Braestrup steers through the battle of good and evil with exquisite finesse and dignity and comes up with an inspirational message. After a particularly horrifying crime was committed in the woods of Maine, she quotes the devil who threatens all goodness by claiming his forces are legion. In the aftermath of that crime, the community, whose hearts had been broken, stepped forward to care for those who suffered. Through Braestrup’s eyes, I feel this outpouring, and I agree with her that the multitudes of people are basically good. After making this case she throws it back in the devil’s face, asserting that he’s wrong about which side has the real advantage. “No,” she says. “We are legion.”
Guided by her images and explanations, the theodicy problem collapses into a tribute to love. From a psychological standpoint, I suppose grieving might mean simply recovering poise. Her story shifts the focus and shows how grief can extend what it means to be human. In fact, I wonder if this is the central challenge of grieving, to return from the loss that rips apart your soul, while accepting the presence of hope and goodness in the universe.
Writing Prompt: Consider the things, people, or opportunities you have lost. Write a story about that loss, but instead of letting the story lead you towards your pain, start from where it hurts, and move forward from there. Describe how you regained sanity, confidence, and the other things you have needed in order to maintain your healthy connection with life. Take advantage of tips from the Hero’s Journey, and focus on the allies and amulets that helped you proceed on your quest.
For another memoir of grieving see Joan Didion’s “A Year of Magical Thinking” in which she describes with exquisite insight her relationship with the person who is no longer here, and how her mind works and doesn’t work during the year following her tragic loss.
See also “Losing Jonathan” by Robert and Linda Waxler about recovering from the loss of their son.
More memoir writing resources
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.
To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.