Several years after I started my teaching career in the mid-1990s, I returned to graduate school to earn a degree in counseling psychology. As part of that program, I read many books about grief and thought that I had a pretty detailed understanding of grief and how to respond to it as a clinician.
Then, as a parent, we lost our middle son to an accidental overdose almost six years ago. While I had lost other loved ones before his death and thought I knew how to handle my own grief, I was not prepared to grieve for my beloved son. So I read books about parental grief, trying to find help to survive our reality. There were many books that talked about nutrition, religion, therapy, and other ways to handle grief, but none of them resonated with me. While we read those books, we also listened to the well-meaning comments on how his death would destroy our marriage and our family, and had to figure out how to make our own new reality with our family intact.
This past month, I picked up the novel Without Jenny by Mark Gunther. The book was suggested by a writer who knows my work as well as Gunther’s work. A novel about grief? I was intrigued. When it arrived, the gorgeous cover pulled me right in, and I didn’t even bother to read the “about the author,” which I usually do before starting a book.
Within pages, I was holding back sobs as I read about the main character’s pain and anguish as her beloved daughter was killed in a freak accident. I could feel her loneliness, the guilt, the uncertainty, the not wanting to eat, wanting to or not being able to sleep, the feeling that life would never be the same again. I read each page of the struggles Joy’s family endured trying to figure out their new lives, and how to keep their family together, rooting for them, but also knowing how hard just surviving on a daily basis can be. I relished the depiction of grief within the Jewish community of faith and wished for a moment that my religious community had such simple but beautiful rituals for grief. I felt her absolute devotion to her living son, and her desire to figure out how to keep their family together, even as their lives were so completely changed with Jenny’s death.
Beyond it being a truly beautiful story of love, healing, and hope, Without Jenny is exquisitely written. Gunther’s use of descriptive language is tight and lyrical, clear but not overwhelming. I am amazed at his ability to write from a woman’s point of view. I marveled at his ability to depict a parent’s grief, and his ability to explain the complexities of family life after the death of a child, and to do so in a work of fiction.
Later, as I finished the book, I read the acknowledgments and Gunther’s biography. Reading that he too is a grieving parent (something I hadn’t known until then) made me reflect on how writers often wrestle with their own demons as they write fiction. Without Jenny is a beautiful book that is uplifting even if you aren’t grieving yourself.
The book can be found on Amazon at Without Jenny