The beginning of the school year can be emotional for any parent, but it is particularly wrenching for Anna Whiston-Donaldson. In 2011, on his second day of 7th grade, her 12-year-old son, Jack, drowned in a flooded and raging creek near their home in Vienna, Va.
Whiston-Donaldson worked out her feelings in real time on her blog, An Inch of Gray, a place where she had previously posted funny things her kids said, quips about her marriage, her thrift-store finds and, of course, pictures of her kids on their first day of school.
Now, nearly three years after Jack died, she is about to publish a book: “Rare Bird,” a memoir about his death and her slow emergence from a cloud of shock and grief.
“I’d much rather have Jack than a book,” says Whiston-Donaldson in an interview at her home. “But if I’m going to have a book, I want something good to come out of it.”
Perhaps, she says, her story will offer help and hope to those in mourning and “soften the hearts” of those who cross their paths. Her message, she says, is universal: “Everyone grieves. Everyone in life is going to experience profound disappointment. We all have the opportunity to walk beside someone in crisis.”
Sitting at the table in her sunny kitchen, Whiston-Donaldson is candid and self-deprecating. “I try to be real and honest,” she says of herself and her book, “But I’m not an expert on grief. It’s just my experience.”
She turns more tender, her voice softens, when asked about Jack. “He would have been awesome in high school,” she says. In recent months she has found it especially difficult to watch his friends grow older while Jack stays locked at age 12. In their house, reminders of her son are everywhere. A dresser with his clothes sits in her bedroom; his baseball bat and helmet are in the garage. Her home office offers a snapshot of a creative, nature-loving child — on a table stands a Taj Mahal Lego set he built, on a shelf is a spaghetti jar filled with the cicada shells he collected in 2004. The next time the Brood X cicadas return, Whiston-Donaldson says, “I’m going to leave the country.”
Her book is filled with anecdotes about Jack, but she did not intend it to be a tribute to him. “That wouldn’t be helpful,” she says — to herself, or to her readers. She also understands that some people will be afraid to read her memoir. “Once I had kids, I stopped reading Oprah books, because I just didn’t want to be sad.”
Her book is sad. But it is also eloquent and affecting in its self-awareness. This is a “story of a woman who has suffered profound, crushing disappointment, whose plan didn’t pan out, whose heart has been broken by life, and who is wondering if she’s alone in her pain,” Whiston-Donaldson writes in the introduction.
The portrait Whiston-Donaldson, 44, draws of her life before the event is one of suburban idyll — a happy marriage to Tim, a patent lawyer; two healthy children who said their prayers before bed; a fulfilling part-time job at her church bookstore. The day her son died, with the power out from a storm, her children were happily doing their homework by candlelight — a scene so “Little House on the Prairie” that she felt compelled to share it on Facebook.
Then came a knock on the door. Did Jack and his sister, Margaret, then 10, want to come out in the rain and play? They got a “quick ‘Go for it!’ from me,” Whiston-Donaldson writes, and ran outside. “I don’t know how many times I’d told them of the crazy fun my sister and I had tromping through the flooded dips and valleys of our own yard as kids, but I do know I had told them,” she writes. “I wish I had never told them.”
The last time she saw them together, her children were walking down their driveway, Jack “still in his school uniform of navy polo and long khaki shorts, arms raised to the sky.” Margaret returned less than an hour later, alone.
Whiston-Donaldson says she still doesn’t know exactly what happened. Some of the book’s most harrowing scenes describe her frantic efforts to find her son, racing along the side of the creek in her car with Margaret crying in the back seat, and the immediate aftermath of his death. Even more brutal is her chronicle of the two years following the accident, as she tries to accept her loss.
She is unsparing, not least on herself. “I feel a loss of credibility as a mother,” she writes, “a sense of shame and despair hangs over me. Can I still weigh in on parenthood, as a friend and a ‘mommy blogger,’ when I’ve lost my child?” There’s also the realization that tragedy doesn’t undo petty anger — “The sound of Tim’s chewing his cereal makes me want to crawl out of my skin as it always has” — and the acknowledgment that she can’t stay this way — “Can’t I show him the grace in the little things when he has shown me the grace in the biggest things of all, by not blaming me for letting the kids play in the rain?” She describes the challenges faced by her daughter, who is simultaneously bereft and brave, and the shift in her relationships with her friends and neighbors.
A year after finishing the book, Whiston-Donaldson continues to struggle with these issues, but has come to see them as a natural outgrowth of loss. She has found comfort reading books about grief — she keeps a “grief library” in her home office and finds particular solace in Jerry L. Sittser’s “A Grace Disguised” — and catharsis in writing one. A former English teacher at her alma mater, George C. Marshall High School in Falls Church, Va., she has only recently become comfortable identifying herself as a writer. When she began her blog in 2008, she wrote under a pseudonym, Anna See, and made up names for her family. The anonymity wasn’t just professional shyness but protectiveness, which she now looks on ruefully: “Here I was keeping them from the big bad Internet and my son was swept away in a creek on our street.”
After the accident, people began putting together the news reports with the photos and stories on her blog, and Whiston-Donaldson’s two lives — online and off — merged. The comments and condolences poured in from around the world; page views on her blog spiked to nearly half a million during the month of the accident. The online community “gave me a lot of support” and connected her with others who had experienced similar losses; some have since come to her seeking empathy and counsel. There has even been some unexpected joy. When readers saw Margaret’s request to meet Justin Bieber, they began an online campaign to make it happen and, amazingly, it did.
Whiston-Donaldson was content to limit her writing to the Internet, even when she was approached by book agents and publishers several months after the accident. Before her son’s death, she didn’t imagine herself as a memoirist; if anything, she said, she always thought her first book would be about restoring furniture, a hobby she wrote about on her blog. But about a year after Jack died, the encouragement began to take root. She hired an agent, and without a proposal, got a contract with Convergent, a religion imprint at Crown. The choice of publisher reflects the book’s spiritual content. “I play with the idea that our son’s death is not a random accident, not just the result of free will and bad judgment and freak weather,” she writes, “but somehow part of a larger plan. And a loving God, who holds all the pieces in his hands, can see the plan that we cannot.”
Whiston-Donaldson wrote much of the book at a Panera in a strip mall on Route 7 in Tysons Corner. She finished in November 2013, a few months after the family moved into a new house about two miles from the spot where Jack’s body was found. “I feel lighter here,” she says, away from Jack’s old friends and the house he grew up in.
With the book’s publication comes the realization, she says, tearfully, that “I’m one year farther from being with Jack.” She’s still grieving, she says, but “I feel increasingly less stricken.”
For his part, Tim recognizes how valuable writing — both the blog and the book — has been for his wife. “I can be there for her as a husband,” he says, “but I can’t fulfill the role of 1,000 anonymous supporters being there for her on a daily basis.” He has been reading her blog from the start and says it has helped him understand what his wife is going through, even before the accident. As for the book, he says, he has read it once, alone.
“Is it hard?” he asks. “Yes.” But, he adds, “the more I go back there, it becomes less hard to talk about.”
His wife draws comfort not only from her writing, her faith and her community — online and off — but also from her experience and that of her family. “I was raised as a free-range kid and I survived,” she writes in her book, and she is trying to instill that sense of adventure in her daughter, who has gone whitewater rafting with the Girl Scouts. And despite it all, Whiston-Donaldson says, “I still like rain.”