We'd rather feel almost anything other than grief. Often, someone we love has died. Probably, their death caught us off-guard.
Yet, Laurie Phillips believes that there is a way to endure grief, "a way you can hold this horrific thing lightly."
Even when the horrific thing is suicide.
Phillips is a St. Paul artist who, with longtime friend Rebecca Anderson of Mound, created "Suicide Survivors' Club," a series of five picture books about the Anderson family's journey after the death of their husband and father, Donald Anderson.
The books tackle heavy issues, but their spare language and evocative watercolor illustrations lend them the accessibility of children's literature, encouraging readers to hold this horrific topic lightly, indeed.
Not that anyone else was supposed to see them. "These are books that were never going to leave our living room," Anderson said.
But when Phillips began showing pages of the work in progress at various art shows, she and Anderson were struck by the intensity of viewers' responses. For those who'd experienced a loved one's suicide, the art let them talk. Those grieving from other causes heard a familiar note.
The idea remained private, but they began to realize it might play a role in other living rooms.
Eight years had passed since October 2002, when Donald Anderson took his life after his latest bout of depression. Once an oil rig engineer, he'd become a master sculptor and artisan, creating jewelry of exquisite detail and imagination. His pieces told stories: of Columbus sailing off the edge of the Earth, of imagined galaxies, of the need for shelter.
So maybe it's fitting that his family's stories have become part of his legacy.
His survivors included the couple's children, Pattie, then 19; Aidan, 7, and Will, 5. Through therapy and what Anderson described as "the incredible sensitivity" of the Orono School District, the family was coping. But Phillips, who'd experienced loved ones' suicides, knew when she talked with Rebecca that edges still were raw and that telling their stories might help, with art filling in the emotions.
Each child and Rebecca would get their own book. Rebecca also wrote an additional book about parenting. None is longer than 40 pages.
"I never would have gone into anything like this with anyone but her," Anderson said of Phillips. "I did it because it felt safe, and it was a different form of communication for the kids. They trusted her because I trusted her."
Hearing news like no other
From each of the kids' books, how they remember hearing the news:
From Pattie: "My first thought is, 'Oh my God, who will walk me down the aisle?' Even though I'm not even in a relationship."
From Aidan: "It's raining the next morning. I walk downstairs and find my mom in the leather chair facing the window, crying. She says Dad has killed himself."
From Will: "We're upstairs in the living room when my Mom tells us my Dad died. My sister is there too, we're all crying. I go to school later that day and the teacher announces to everyone that my Dad has died."
The recollections illustrate how grief can recoil on our memories.
Pattie wasn't home, as Will recalled, but in college. Anderson told only Pattie that it was suicide; the boys were told days later, following a counselor's advice to let their questions guide their readiness to learn the truth.
"And I did not send Will off to school that day," Anderson said, laughing.
"At 5, his sense of time was so collapsed," Phillips said.
She spent time with each child, working to reach illustrations that captured their feelings. When Aidan talked about discovering "that one of our old babysitters is stealing from us," the watercolors on the page show a sly cat scampering away, a string of sausages trailing from its mouth.
That survival is possible burbles to the surface in Will's book. He was so young, so it's the shortest book, yet one page packs a stunning reality: "I really like science — astronomy and engineering, I definitely inherited that from my Dad. He was gone so I've just explored it on my own."
The first piece of art to emerge was a 16-foot-long scroll with two heads back to back, their words flowing around them, illustrating Rebecca and Pattie's sometimes contentious relationship.
When Phillips included it in a show at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, the scroll captured people's attention, and even more so when they learned its genesis.
"From the beginning, I did not want to hide the fact that this was suicide," she said. Such frankness elicited similar reactions as more art emerged. Pages were shown at a Suicide Awareness Voices of Education memorial event, and at St. Catherine University in St. Paul.
Never played the 'S' card
In April, the two spoke at the Association for Death Education and Counseling's national conference. On June 11, "Suicide Survivors' Club" will have its official book launch. The five books are $30, plus tax and shipping, and may be ordered online at suicidesurvivorsclub.org.
The books have gained plaudits from bereavement specialists, therapists and clergy members.
"Beyond these books' usefulness to anyone who has been affected by the suicide of a person close to them, there is the benefit to the larger realm of individuals who are touched by the experiences of survivors of suicide," said David Morris, a doctor of psychology in Stillwater. "That includes nearly everyone in the helping professions, as well as anyone who knows a family that has lost a member to suicide."
"Our culture does not prepare us for grief, and it's still taboo to talk about suicide," Phillips said. The idea that survivors make up a club "was just something that arose in my mind when all the stories were together."
Today, Pattie is married and lives in Nebraska; her mom walked her down the aisle. The boys are in college, and will be reading at the book launch.
Both Anderson and Phillips say they occasionally get phone calls from friends of suicide survivors, asking if they'd talk to them. They usually decline; they're not professional therapists.
The books are what they can offer.
And, while their roots are tragic, the books also hold moments of ordinary humanity. When Aidan wrote about missing two weeks of school, he also noted, glumly, "I have to make up all the schoolwork I missed."
Anderson laughed at the memory. "We never played the 'S' card, the suicide card," she said. "Whatever has happened, there still are things you have to deal with."
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185 • @Odewrites