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Rare Bird is about every parent’s nightmare. This memoir chronicles the life and death of Anna Whiston-Donaldson’s son Jack, killed in a flash flood in Vienna, Va. It is a very religious book; it was largely the author’s faith that pulled her through a crushing tragedy. But her community helped immensely as well, not only the people in her D.C. suburb, but the international community created by her blog and Facebook. The strength of Rare Bird, however, is not its many biblical allusions or social network details. Its strength is its honesty, on display from the start, “That I will be jealous that all these other kids are alive and Jack is dead,” to the finish, where she finally starts to feel a little better and “small talk doesn’t make [her] want to scream curse words.”
Rare Bird is a harrowing read because it’s about profound, tectonically life-altering grief. “I understand now there is no way to get an A in grief,” Whiston-Donaldson writes at the end, and it makes sense: All the analysis, the rehashing of memories and events, all the religious questions, all the ghastly emotions really cannot be comprehended, even in a book—though this one comes close. “Grief isn’t linear as I had imagined. I hear somewhere that it is more of a spiral, where we have to come to the same places again and again.” Not surprisingly, it is the account of the days and months immediately after the catastrophe, of how this family felt, that is almost too painful to read. Later, when time has passed, the intensity abates, and the memoir becomes not so much an account of an agony without end as a story about how we learn to live with the unthinkable.
But it’s the mechanism, how people start to recover, that this writer analyzes so well, parsing her emotions and realizing that people who’ve adapted to grief lead life “on two tracks.” They function, they endure, they even laugh and have a life, but there’s always that other track that their minds slip along: the path of loss and abject misery. Over time, that track becomes overgrown with all of life’s demands and developments, but it remains. The what if it hadn’t happened never goes away.
Whiston-Donaldson discusses the mystery of a community of grievers, since it is her “group of scrappy women” who have each lost a child that really begins to draw her back to the world. With others, suffering in the same way, the pain becomes a bit more manageable, which is probably the most that can be hoped for after such a cataclysm because the agonized shock never really ceases to stun her. “The day after the accident I gasped to no one in particular, ‘But I loved him so much!’ incredulous that someone so beloved could go away.”