Invisible Tattoos

by Carole Geithner

My own grief journey began when I learned that my mother, a musician and conductor, had terminal cancer.  I was twenty-four and about to start graduate school to become a social worker.  My mom underwent debilitating treatment over the course of an incredibly difficult year while everyone in our small family struggled to find a way to communicate — or not — about the pending reality of her death.

After she died, I proceeded to stumble into a different mix of painful emotions and challenges, including the extremely awkward dance that happens when someone’s loved one dies or experiences trauma.  Do you talk about it? Do other people want to talk about it?  How on earth do we talk about it?  Who wants to listen?  Who can tolerate listening?

I was surrounded by people, but feeling very much alone.

It was a bit like I had an invisible tattoo, with the words, “My Mom Just Died” scrawled across my chest, as I walked around campus, trying to go about having a “normal” student life.  In fact, Invisible Tattoo was the title I proposed for my book, but my editor at Scholastic thought it sounded too “paranormal.”

Even before my mother’s memorial service had taken place, I was assigned as part of my graduate school internship to work one day a week with pediatric cancer patients. I couldn’t quite believe that my supervisors had asked me to spend my days with families facing life-threatening illnesses so soon after my own mother had died.  I debated asking for a different assignment, but I was worried about being seen as “that annoying, inflexible intern.”

Well, it turned out to be an amazing experience, sitting with those pediatric patients and their siblings as they expressed their feelings through art and play. They showed me how healthy coping and healing can happen when you have a safe way and a safe place to express your fears, and confusion, anger, and hopes.

I went on to work with children, teens, and adults, in various settings, but always with an ear out for losses, past and present.  I had been sensitized to listen for the different melodies of grief.  And, to listen for the silences.

I heard the stories of adults who — as kids — had been given the well-intentioned message not to mention the deceased person’s name, to get over it, to move on, who had not been allowed to come to a funeral, or who had been lied to about the cause of death.  I also heard from many adults who as children had struggled with feeling responsible for the death, who felt guilty about things they did or didn’t say or do, who never had a chance to mourn.

Eventually, I began working at The Bereavement Center of Westchester, helping to run groups for children and teens whose parent or sibling had died, from illness, accidents, violence, suicide, addiction.  The details of their losses varied, but being in the same room with other kids that got it was profoundly affirming and comforting to them.

Teens from vastly different backgrounds could share coping strategies and even laughs about the weird things that had happened at a funeral or a hospital.  They talked while creating art projects, playing “death jeopardy” or doing mock interviews with each other using an unplugged microphone and anonymous questions they’d written and placed in the question basket.  They could also discuss more mundane things, like music and sports, while knowing that all the kids in the room had one major thing in common:  the death of a loved one.

We sometimes played a fishing game with the six and seven year olds, standing in a circle, using a bamboo rod and string with a magnet for a hook.  The kids took turns fishing for questions about various memories that were written on slips of colored paper.  What color eyes did your loved one have?  What was one of his or her favorite foods?  What is a memory you wish you could forget but can’t? I wasn’t sure if that question would be too hard.  Maybe some wouldn’t want to answer it.  But each child wanted to share his or her memories; the time my father told me to hold my mother’s hand but I didn’t; the night my baby brother died.

I found that many of the children and teens I worked with were hungry for stories about people surviving what often feels like an unimaginable situation. While there are some excellent storybooks about grief for younger children and a number of helpful non-fiction books about child and teen grief, I had trouble finding much teen fiction that really got into the emotions and experiences surrounding grief. Fiction can provide a portal into someone’s inner experiences that can be more inviting for some readers than a guidebook.

My novel, If Only, is the story of thirteen-year-old Corinna in the year after her mother’s death.  Of course, her grief isn’t over at the end of a year or at the end of the book, because missing a loved one is a life-long process, but by the end, Corinna can see and feel that life goes on, albeit in a forever-changed way.  She shows resilience, as so many grieving children do when they feel adequately supported.

As I got further into the project, I realized that it was equally important to give other people in a grievers’ life – his or her classmates, teachers, neighbors, even people in the same family, a chance to vicariously experience and empathize with what life might be like for a grieving teen by entering that world through the relative safety of a novel.  My hope is that the people in a griever’s circle will be less afraid, less likely to pull away or say something that is insensitive or hurtful after reading Corinna’s story.  I hope they will be more likely to walk alongside grieving children and teens, to convey their caring presence as each griever finds his or her own, unique way.

I’ve received the most moving feedback from readers: The mom who said that she and her teen daughter were able to have their first real conversation about the daughter’s experience in the aftermath of her father’s death three years before.  The forty-year-old woman, whose mother had died by suicide when the girl was thirteen, who finally got up her courage to ask her father to tell her the story for the very first time.  The seventh grade boy whose classmate’s father had just died in an accident, who got some ideas about what he might be able to do to support his friend.  The middle-aged man, whose father died when he was thirteen, wrote to tell me, “Your book, If Only, is that tight long hug that I wish had been available for me when my father died.”  The mother of a ten-year-old, whose father died when she was two, reported that her daughter had grabbed the book out of her mother’s hands and read it through twice, falling asleep with it on her chest.

It’s been twenty-five years since my mother died. The waves of missing her continue to ebb and to flow.  It saddens me that she never knew my children and that they never knew her.  I make a point of keeping her memory alive and staying connected to her. To her absent presence.

  • by making her recipe for carrot cake
  • by listening to the Bach cello sonatas she played
  • by sewing a memory quilt with a square of fabric from the pale blue flowered nightgown she wore when she lay dying
  • by placing her conductor’s stool at the kitchen counter for my kids to sit on

I would never have chosen to lose my mother at such an early age, yet my grief experience has led to many meaningful and fulfilling parts of my life as a clinical social worker, an author, and as a teacher of listening skills to medical students.   As I warily approach the very same age at which my mother died, I am thankful that it has also taught me to cherish most days, if not every day, and to say “I love you” more often.

About the Author: Carole Geithner has over 20 years of experience as a clinical social worker in schools, hospitals, counseling agencies, and private practice with children, teens, and adults, many of whom had childhoods shaped by significant loss. She is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at George Washington University School of Medicine, where she teaches a class in listening skills to medical students.  She is a graduate of Dartmouth College and Smith College School for Social Work. IF ONLY, published by Scholastic Press, is her first novel.  Visit her website for more information about the book, reading group questions, etc.