In her compelling new memoir, Sukey Forbes, descended from two prominent New England families, whose members include Ralph Waldo Emerson, chronicles her struggle to come to terms with the death of her young daughter. Oddly, for Forbes her family’s cultural inheritance, both austere yet unconventional, first hinders her ability to grieve but in the end guides her toward the road to healing.
Forbes’s tale begins in August of 2004 when her 6-year-old daughter, Charlotte, suddenly dies in the emergency room of Newton-Wellesley Hospital from a rare genetic disorder, ushering in a sorrow and confusion so intense that it numbs Forbes to her core.
While she finds herself strangely unable to abandon herself to sobbing grief (and repeatedly takes herself to task over it), Forbes determines to come to a “deeper understanding of the incredible rupture that had taken place in my life.”
In the beginning, Forbes turns to the Catholic Church to make sense of Charlotte’s death. Brought up in Milton without formal religion, Forbes misses the “solid architecture of belief” that her friends, who had been raised Catholic or Jewish, relied on when confronted with death.
She is envious of the solace her then-husband’s Catholic faith brings him. (The marriage collapses in the wake of Charlotte’s death.) In search of comforting rituals she agrees to a Catholic funeral for Charlotte in Weston, where the family has just moved, and during the service she attempts to commune with the grieving mother of the Pietà.
After a time, these efforts prove insufficient, forcing Forbes, a self-described WASP, to fall back on her family’s tradition of Emersonian self-reliance and a belief in the power of nature. She retreats to her family’s home on Naushon Island, in Buzzards Bay, where generations of her family had summered.
As she begins to look deeper into her family’s history she learns her personal trial was one she shared with her great-great-great-grandfather Emerson who also had lost a child. “I chiefly grieve that I cannot grieve . . . I comprehend nothing of this fact but its bitterness,” wrote Emerson over the death of his young son Waldo.
There is a unique and lovely energy underlying this book — one that stems from Forbes’s extended meditation on where Charlotte lands after her death. Forbes eventually comes full circle to find comfort in her family’s idiosyncratic traditions. She writes that, “[f]or 150 years, our ‘blue’ Forbes-Emerson descendants have embraced all manner of spiritual alternatives, ranging from Theosophy to Krishnamurti to mathematical astrology and the attempt to communicate with extraterrestrial beings.’’
Part of that openness to spirituality on Naushon Island comes in the form of a belief in an afterlife and regular, casual communion with departed loved ones. Having researched her family’s longstanding encounters with the ghosts of Naushon, it comes as no surprise that six months after Charlotte’s death, Forbes yearns to contact her little girl through a medium.
Forbes’s achievement in this book is that her engagement with “the other side” is thoughtful and, yes, persuasive. She first considers searching for Charlotte’s spirit after attending a support group for grieving parents. She fuels her determination to access Charlotte by educating herself through the works of Elisabeth Kübler Ross and Eben Alexander. Their descriptions of the afterlife and of people waiting on the other side for their loved ones deeply resonate with Forbes.
As she engages with Charlotte’s soul through a medium, Forbes comes to realize that her daughter had transcended her child persona. “Her incarnation as my daughter,” she writes, “had come to an end. She was now a spirit guide and special soul. She contained the essence of Charlotte but no longer the little girl.”
The best memoirs depict the movement toward transformation, and Forbes has certainly changed by the end of her book. She is no longer bewildered by the mourning process, but fully immersed in it. Her encounter with the supernatural could have veered into the quirky or ridiculous. Instead, Sukey Forbes has written a complex story of love and grief in which she comes to live with hope and faith.