The Angel in My Pocket
Having surviving children, the only thing worse than losing one child, would be to have the other two lose their childhood. I felt a really powerful desire to make sure that didn’t happen.
Interview by Heidi Legg
Ten years ago, Sukey Forbes lost her six year old daughter, Charlotte, to a rare genetic disorder and her life felt shattered forever. But she had two other children who gave her a reason to live. Rather than fall into some “Gothic meltdown” as she calls it, she decided to try alternative routes combined with the tenacity and stoicism of her privileged upbringing as a Forbes and the great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In his life, Emerson also lost a child at a very young age. Sukey clung to some of her ancestral strengths such as self-reliance and nature as God while rejecting others. A yearning for new ways to pull herself out she explains, led her to mediums, an openness to communicating with the afterlife, and, finally, joy. I loved interviewing Sukey. My heart as a mother of two young children was blown open in this interview and reading her book was an experience of extremes, from the seducing stories of her privileged life, the transcendentalist movement, the traditions and eccentricities (wackiness) of New England families, to the painstaking moments Sukey describes around losing Charlotte. Ten years later, Sukey to me is a testament that those who grieve and experience great loss, and work to swim through it, are lit from within.
You lost your daughter ten years ago, why did you decide to write this book now?
I was not willing to accept what seemed to me the conventional wisdom about how to move through the process of losing a child, and so I felt I needed to forge my own trail.
Background family so informs who we are, all of us, and there was nothing there (in my family background) that I could hold onto that could help me find my way.
You recall moments in the book when the decision to do things differently became so clear. Can you talk about this?
Early on I felt I had very few choices: I could die, I could exist, or I could live. Those choices really were the foundation for the whole book. I couldn't die even though I wanted to; I was merely existing. It seemed as though that would be a really painful place to stay for the rest of my life and it seemed as though a lot of other people I experienced in my grief-counseling group, who had lost children, were stuck in that space.
One of the things I discovered along the way is that the presence of the grief fills up a lot of the space that the affection for the deceased person has occupied, and letting go of that pain, in a strange way, is also letting go of the loved one. I understand why we choose to hold onto that sorrow because it's holding onto a person, but I was determined not to stay there.
Those moments of releasing did create more emptiness that needed to be filled, and that required stepping out of myself into places that may or may not have been comfortable.
Henry James has a great quote about stepping outside of oneself in order to find comfort.
“True happiness, we are told, consists in getting out of one's self; but the point is not only to get out - you must stay out; and to stay out you must have some absorbing errand.”
You really have to step outside and experience many different things, be open to other ideas, try on belief systems until you find what resonates with you.
I didn't set out with the knowledge that something like nature, or children, or researching my family history, or becoming observed in mediums would be places of comfort, but I was open to almost anything.
How did your family react to your explorations?
They were extraordinarily supportive. Not all of them share my personal belief system but there is a great multi-generational love in our family. There was great caring and desire to see me, my surviving children, and my husband come back to some level of comfort.
You explain early in the book that Ralph Waldo Emerson, your great-great-great-grandfather, also lost a child at a very young age. Can you tell us about this exploration?
I came sideways into Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was very helpful in my grief process, and his writings and words about God, nature, and self-reliance. His teachings about thinking for your own self were very much a through-line in my childhood, and so I come from a family that, while very emotionally buttoned up, tended to be very supportive of expansive thinking and charting one’s own path: intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally through the world.
What they don't do is talk about it much, and they certainly do not express these beliefs in public, but this was part of the way that I was raised.
You tell of incredible moments where you connect with your daughter in the afterlife and about running into people you don’t know but who bring you messages. What would he think of your spiritual guides?
Well, I've wondered that myself. I have two thoughts on the matter. Emerson’s first wife, Lydian, who is my great-great-great-grandmother had some clairvoyant ability. My belief is we all have it if we're open to it on some level. She had some visions and it is my belief that he would be open to at least my process. During his era, Swedenborg and séances were all of the rage. There was much discussion about that and his wife did attend some so I would guess that spiritual guidance was not an unknown to him.
Which of his written work or beliefs resonate most with you?
Self-reliance has been a through-line to my entire upbringing so I would say certainly that. The Over-Soul, which I can't truly get my arms around, offers me an intuitive connection to his thoughts and I'm particularly fond of his essay Waldeinsamkeit, partially because it was written on Naushon Island while he was staying in the house that I now share with my sister and where I grew up, and partially because of the beauty of the words and it's reverence for nature.
It starts out, 'I do not count the hours I spend
In wandering by the sea. The forest is my loyal friend,
Like God she useth me.'
You write a great deal about your early-childhood and the stoicism bred throughout generations. You see it as a failing when your daughter passes on. Do you see an irony in that the stoicism that you tried to move away from actually helped to sustain you?
Oh, absolutely. It was almost crippling in the beginning. I was raised very much in a ‘stiff upper lip, just march boldly forward in the face of anything’ manner, and that both served and did me a huge disservice early on.
I was highly functional to the point of probably looking pathological to the outside world. And yet I have a great sense of pride of how I parented my children and how I at least showed up in life. I was definitely an empty shell, but that stoicism really allowed me to keep moving forward. Having surviving children, the only thing worse than losing one child, would be to have the other two lose their childhood. I felt a really powerful desire to make sure that didn’t happen.
It also crippled me because the only thing worse than this numbness and stoicism would be to allow this absolutely gutting grief to force me to have the gothic meltdowns that I assumed I would have if I let all of it wash over me. That was a very powerful tension in the early months of my grieving process.
When I read An Angel in My Pocket, it felt as though you were punishing yourself for not going deep enough into the grief. Why?
I think we as women are always looking for ways to beat ourselves up. Unfortunately, it seems that no matter what we do, whether we choose to work or choose to be at home, there are so many different conversations. We're always busy finding ways to make ourselves wrong.
I want to be very careful to say that most of the world out there is very supportive of a grieving person and will say, 'there is no right or wrong way to grieve', but the most obvious presentation of grief is the drawn face, the deep sorrow, the lack of ability to function cognitively and emotionally. I didn't have a lot of that and I thought if I didn't have that, it must mean there is something wrong with me, it must mean I have an inability to love and to process emotions. Maybe I didn't love my daughter enough? Maybe I had a complicated relationship with her? All of these thoughts consumed me early on and I spent a lot of time beating myself up, really for years.
No, I don't beat myself up for that now. In hindsight though, as much as I say I didn't come unglued, I was very unhinged in ways that I wasn't able to see at the time. Now, I have certainly learned a much greater ability to access emotions, to process them, to feel and deepen as a person, and I still feel very connected to my daughter.
In the last six months I have discovered much more research on resilience and how we as human beings are programmed to actually deal with loss and that the five stages of grief, originally outlined by Elizabeth Kuebler-Ross back in the '60s, have become the gold standard for the way in which the Western world moves through grief: the denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance. And in fact, one moves through them not necessarily in a linear way. But those aren't necessarily the only way, and they don't take into account our ability to be resilient. And many more of us, myself included, don't go to the deep depths and stay in the deep depths that those stages might imply, and some move through them more quickly.
I will say that having discovered this research, my next phase is going to try to be a voice in the conversation about resilience and grief because of how I really struggled early on with my resilience, and I felt wrong for being that way. Grief is gutting enough on its own. We shouldn't add on the concern that we are being judged or that there is something psychologically wrong with us if we decide we want to live.
Others I know who have lost people at an early age and processed through it, and given up anger, are lit from within like you. One might call it grace.
Thank you. Of course I'd give all of that back in a nanosecond if I could have my daughter back, but that is one of the gifts that we get from this process if we're open to it. It opens us up to our capacity to love and to grow and to care more about human beings. I write in the book, 'grief never leaves us and there will always be a hole in my heart'. And yes, there's a big, black hole in my heart, but I feel my heart has grown larger in its capacity to be human and to give and to nurture, and I know that gift is available to everybody else if they're open to it.
Who do you hope to touch with this book?
I think it’s an obvious audience but, honestly, I think anyone who has had a loss, who has had a game-changing moment in their life when they've had to dig deep and find the reserves and decide how to move forward, will connect with the book. Sorrow is an inherently human condition. We all face it and what we do with what comes to us is what makes us human beings, and there are gifts in everything if we choose to see them.
As a Western society we are raised to be navel gazers and that's great - it gives us the power of introspection - but it may do us a disservice as well because we may spend more time there than we ought to, rather than looking outward and spending time focusing on the outside world.
Were the Transcendentalists navel gazers or did they look out?
That’s a great question. I think they were both. I think the Transcendentalists were very aware of and relied very heavily on the goodness inherent in each of us in those great Old World words like fidelity and integrity. They had a strong moral ‘Golden Rule’ code of ethics that comes from deep inside of you, but they were also very focused on God in nature, focusing outward on the environment, and the gifts that one can receive from the natural world.
I think that we all need to be both. If we are too much inside of ourselves, it does us and the world a disservice. If we are too busy looking outward and never considering that which goes on inside of us, I think we also run the risk of not being true to our own selves.
Naushon appears as your spiritual home. What is it about that place?
I think everybody needs a place like a Naushon. Naushon for me is just a part of my family history. It's a nature preserve and family property that's been preserved largely in its same state for the last three hundred years. It's been in my family for 150 years and it has been a place of community, a place of worship, and a place of healing for me.
Not everybody has a Naushon per se, but you can find a Naushon in your backyard or in the Adirondacks or the Black Hills or in Yosemite. It's a place that one can go to be quiet, to feel cared for, to be reflective, to look outward, and to be aware of the awesomeness of the beauty of this world.
For me that is God, and you don't need to believe that God is in nature to get those gifts. I think everybody needs a place like that in terms of a sanctuary and a place of comfort and a place of connection.
Did it carry you through this decade of grief?
Naushon represents to me family and connection, stewardship to the land, and a sense of responsibility, both to my immediate family, my extended family, and to the land. It's an expectation that you are just one small piece of something bigger and a sense of connection. It was hugely important in my book and in my process, and it's a place I don't talk about with great regularity, but it would have been impossible to move through this process and to write about it without including it as a main character.
Are you ready for what this book will bring forth?
I struggled so much in my process about feeling that it wasn't okay to move through it and to want to live, and so I wrote this book for two purposes: one was for my children because I wanted them to have a record of their sister's death and the aftermath. The other was that I really wanted to help just one person; if through this book I could help them feel good about the path that they were taking and to decide to want to live and make that be OK. And now, I have.