How to continue in the world after losing a child? Young mother and priest Liz Tichenor charts the journey of her own bereavement. Read an interview with Liz here.
BY VANESSA ABLE
IN JANUARY OF 2014, Liz Tichenor and her husband Jesse lost their baby son Fritz. Fritz was only 40 days old when he slipped away with seemingly no explanation, lying in bed, just inches away from his parents.
In the months and years that followed, Tichenor, a recently-ordained Episcopal priest whose mother had commit suicide just 18 months earlier, experienced intense, debilitating grief. She went on to face the life of a bereaved parent and community leader as her loss played out, physically, psychically and spiritually.
The Night Lake is Liz Tichenor’s rigorous account of what is referred to in the book’s subtitle as ‘the topography of grief.’ She begins with the moment she finds her son has died right next to her, then presents the subsequent toil through condolences, funeral arrangements and still being a mother to her two-year-old daughter, Alice. Her telling of her story is always sparing and to the point, sharpened by the authenticity of the grief and stripped of nostalgia.
She riles against the ‘chorus of platitudes and cheap, false encouragement’ she receives in the wake of her son’s death, when sympathy is distributed clumsily and through the prism of fear. Tichenor makes it clear from the start that our efforts as a society to ‘gussy up death, to somehow render its grittiness more palatable’ are at best counter-productive.
The Night Lake is an invitation into a deeply uncomfortable place. As the author narrated her own moments of debility, I found something in myself that echoed that same frailty. Pain so intensely revealed is a devastating thing to sit with. The death of a child is not something the majority of parents even want to imagine – for the most part, we who have not been struck by that thunderbolt have zero desire to go there. In the light of this, Tichenor gives steady guidance through the morass with her honesty and no-shit outlook. Her hand is strong.
The tendency is to try to make sense of tragedy, when healing often means the patching up of a hole that has been blasted in one’s life and worldview. The merit of Tichenor’s book is that she doesn’t attempt to make meaning from devastation. Instead, she lets the tragedy of the loss of her son’s life sink into the soil and be absorbed by the lake (Tahoe) on whose edges she resides. She allows horror to be horror and patiently, resentfully, lovingly waits for it to leave the room.
The strength of Tichenor’s book is that she doesn’t attempt to make meaning from devastation. She allows horror to be horror and patiently, resentfully, lovingly waits for it to leave the room.
Motherhood and the relationship of women to the corporeal reality of life and death is a recurring theme in The Night Lake. Towards the end of the book, Tichenor cautiously allows the imagery of her faith to inform her reconstitution. She remembers Mary watching her son’s crucifixion, harking back to her own child’s body which she created and then buried—and then also to her mother. Tichenor’s mother commit suicide by jumping from the roof of a car park; one of the most poignant passages of her book is her reading of the Coroner Thomas’ report that slowly and agonizingly details her mother’s injuries:
The cause of death was simple, and obvious: blunt force trauma to the back and pelvis, due to jumping off a building. Manner of death: suicide. These rulings, these descriptions, these were not why I came here, why I opened this report. I wanted to see her, to imagine her even at her most broken, to love her even there, even like that. I wanted to tend her body.
Thomas got to touch her body, examine her wounds, ask the questions. Thomas, in the Gospel of John, is the so-called doubter, the questioner, ultimately the believer. But this body was dead, without question. It was this doctor’s job to ascertain the death, to describe it, to classify its manner and cause, to catalog it. Still, John’s story of Thomas’s reaching out for Jesus stuck with me, moved through me. He understood that Jesus’s actual body mattered, that his wounds were important even in his rising. We almost never talk like this, sharing the real details, the full truth, about our bodies—especially not when they are broken. It’s considered impolite, maybe even gruesome, shocking. I understand why: but that same arresting intimacy is the primal expression of our care, of the love I longed to offer my mother’s body one more time, to care for it, to reach out and behold it, saying that everything that happened to her body did, in fact, matter. I believed that, but now I could only share that love through words on a page.
The Night Lake does not shut out any small or unpleasant detail. It’s a testament to Liz Tichenor’s conviction that opening to vulnerability is the only way in which we can elicit true compassion from one another and yoke our common suffering. She expresses the loneliness of grief as a thick wall of glass that is only occasionally penetrated by the people not afraid to confront the truth of her situation. ‘That’s gonna fuck you up,’ one friend at the seminary tells her, in stark recognition of her mother’s alcoholism and suicide. What she gladly received here is the permission to be ‘a veritable disaster.’
As the book unfolds and Tichenor becomes more acquainted with the geography of grieving, a hope begins to emerge (‘the scandalous act of hope,’ as she puts it), couched in the transformative process of grief – namely the truth or the authenticity that is unveiled through the darkness of loss, and how that truth can be held and shared. She writes, ‘Reminding people that they’re going to die is an odd way of telling them you love them.’
About halfway through the book, Tichenor tells a beautiful story about climbing Mount Fuji in the dark with a group of students when she was 15. Waking up halfway up the mountain at 2am, the kids were shrouded in darkness and disoriented. As their eyes adjusted, they saw lights twinkling like stars up ahead:
Oh! They were people! I realized, astonished. Each carrying a small light, walking the trail ahead of us and behind us. Because others had begun the darkened journey before us, they were showing us the way forward. Others glittered on the path behind us, showing us how far we had already come. A parade of mostly silent pilgrims, climbing up and up through the dark, all managing not to get lost or hurt, even in the depth of this night. From the light of our own headlamps, we could only see a foot or two in front of us, just enough to keep from falling as we clambered over boulders and slid through ash. Together with the other pilgrims, however, we made the winding path visible, the way forward opening.
A book as resolute and grounded in the truth of experience as The Night Lake will endure as a beacon for anguish, I’m sure. In refusing to be placated or comforted by strained banalities, Liz Tichenor is reaching for a deeper mode of existence and co-existence in which the possibility of real compassion is opened by such brave and unguarded storytelling.