Book Review – Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love by Anna Whiston-Donaldson

by Mark Votava


Rare Bird is the name that was given to Anna Whiston-Donaldson’s son Jack who died at the age of twelve when he got caught in a creak and drowned.  This book is a memoir of deep pain and loss as Anna Whiston-Donaldson shares her process of grief after her son died.  I was so drawn into this story of raw honesty, despair and sadness.

This book is about moving on after unsurmountable tragedy.  In life where we live as though we can control everything, Anna dispels the illusion of this that broke her world apart.  All of us will experience loss of some kind in this life.  I found myself crying for Anna in her pain as this book is hard to put down.

It takes courage to read this kind of memoir because it doesn’t exactly make you feel good at every point.  This memoir is from a woman who knows what it means to suffer and question God in the midst of her pain.  I liked the book because of its honesty about pain, grief, sorrow, loss and all the things we take for granted.

So much of American Christianity ignores the reality of pain.  We think that there should be no pain within us because Jesus has “completed us.”  But I am finding that this is one of the most damaging clichés the church feeds to people.  It is a cover up from facing life with honesty, our confusing questions and authenticity.

It is hard to just be present to others in their pain without trying to fix them.  We aren’t so good and practiced at this at all.  And Anna Whiston-Donaldson’s book calls us to this kind of presence to others who are grieving and suffering in their pain.  It takes humility and compassion to be present to others in their loss.

Life is not so neat and controllable as we might think.  We need more vulnerability in life to discover this.  Facing death definitely brings us a sense of vulnerability.  In a culture that want to ignore the tragedy of death, we don’t know what to do when it happens.  This book is a guide of wisdom to those struggling with loss, death and questions that are hard to face.

  • Honoring the tender spots

“…you’re braver than you think and that survival is possible when life’s storms take us in uncertain, unwanted directions, whether we’re facing the loss of health, relationships, expectations, or even our dreams.  And that with God we can do the impossible, while still honoring the tender spots where the pain is dulled but won’t ever be forgotten.”

  • Neat lines and graphs and deposits

“I wanted to live in a world that made sense to me, with neat lines and graphs and deposits and withdrawals…”

  • Weakness and vulnerability

“I felt weak and scarred and vulnerable…”

  • Going forward despite the pain

“I kept my feelings inside.  I could think of no other option than… going forward despite the pain, trying to live a good life…”

  • Coasting through life, missing opportunities

“Sometimes I feel as though we are coasting through life, missing opportunities to really make a difference…  Couldn’t we do something significant, serve the world, and get off the grid, all without killing one another?”

  • A scary, dangerous amusement-park ride

“I feel like I’ve been forced onto a scary, dangerous amusement-park ride, constructed by a psychopath, not a loving God.  I’m strapped and buckled in, and the ride will move forward despite anything I might do to try to stop it.  It will terrify me, make me sick, and possibly kill me, but there’s no slowing it down once it starts.  There can be no bargaining about taking this ride tomorrow or the next day instead.  And there’s no getting off.”

  • Grief feels a lot like shame

“No one ever told me grief feels a lot like shame.”

  • The confusion of losing what we love

“…if we are going to take brave steps together into the confusion of losing what we love the most, doesn’t it help to hear from the outset that somehow, in some way, it does get easier.”

  • Control is an illusion

“How does one wake up the next day and the next?  How do you force yourself to breathe and to eat when both seem disgusting and ridiculous?  How do you keep from losing your mind?  How do you live knowing the dirty secret… that control is an illusion.”

  • Walking beside someone in deep pain

“It dawns on me that I’ve never walked beside someone in deep pain.  I’ve been more of a drive-by friend, the kind who reaches out once or twice and hopes the situation will be resolved quickly.  I care.  I cry.  I pray.  But I don’t stick around long.  I’m the type of friend you would want around for a broken ankle but not for chronic depression.”

  • The inevitable losses to come

“For I have neither the stamina nor the inclination to proclaim any new revelations.  I am tired.  I am hurting.  I don’t feel like being God’s cheerleader.  And what’s the point of sharing anyway, when this knowledge has come at so high a price?  That living our lives as if we are in control is an illusion?  Won’t every person who lives be able to learn these truths on his own, through the inevitable losses to come?”

  • The pain is so deep

“…the pain is so deep it scares us to approach it fully.  To try to give voice to our feelings, our longings… and our fears for the future seem too primal to put into words.  Instead, our sadness comes out in small irritations and slights.”

  • The work of grief

“Grief is my work right now, and I’m afraid to skirt it or run away from it.  Everything I’ve heard tells me that if I try to stuff it down, deny it, or rush through it, I’m just going to have to deal with it later, and then it will be worse. ‘Worse’ scares the shit out of me.”

  • Leaning toward grief as opposed to leaning away from it

“The closest picture I can imagine is that I want to lean toward my grief as opposed to leaning away from it – contorting myself into painful positions as I make a futile attempt to escape from something hideous that is actually adhered to my body…”

  • Giving and receiving love when nothing can be fixed

“For I see holiness in giving and receiving love when there is absolutely nothing that can be fixed, and when there’s no exit strategy in sight.”

  • Running from people and places

“I don’t want to run away from people and places, from my feelings, and certainly not my grief, but I’m struggling…”

  • Crying out to God in despair

“In my heart I cry out to God in despair.  I want a sign.  I want help.  I want to be known.”

  • Weary and wounded

“I can barely force myself to care.  I’m too weary and wounded…”

  • When the unimportant falls away

“Or could it be that at times like this, when the unimportant falls away like chaff to the ground, we are finally able to recognize what God is doing in the world around us every single day?”

  • Acknowledging pain

“Maybe I was afraid that exposing someone’s pain to the light by acknowledging it would somehow make it worse.  That it would cause them to dwell on it rather than live life…”

  • Live life moving forward

“We must find ways to live life moving forward, but it’s excruciating and complicated…”

  • Life is short and we should make the most of it

“Now we realize that life is short and we should make the most of it…”

  • A weird dance of figuring out our steps

“Refusing to at least try to enjoy life… cuts us off from even the chance of good days ahead.  It squanders the lessons we’ve learned about making the most of life now.  It compounds the wreckage and devastation.  I get that.  I really do.  But it’s all a weird dance, and it’s going to take us a while to figure out our steps.”

  • Great love even in our darkest moments

“Everyone will lose in this world, and signs of comfort remind us that there is great love even in our darkest moments…”

  • Anger and bitterness

“But when I get caught up in trying to make life fair, it threatens to mire me in anger and bitterness.”

  • Asking for the strength to get through this one moment

“…some losses show themselves immediately; others unfold over days and weeks.  Occasionally, I let myself feel the composite impact of all these losses, but then I must pull back again, because it is too much.  Instead, I ask for the strength to get through this one moment and hang on until the next time impossible hope shows up.”

  • Being open and natural around grievers

“Grievers I’ve come across function within society, and most days it appears pretty seamless…  We try to blend in.  We smile.  We look normal.  We need people to feel okay being open and natural around us, so as not to drive us even further apart from the world.  We are not from another planet, but it feels that way, so far removed is our experience from those around us.”

  • Sharing the broken, hurting pieces of our lives

“I’m not sure how sharing the broken, hurting pieces of our lives helps us, but it does…  And in the sharing of our loss, we somehow gain…”

  • New opportunity to show each other grace

“Each day is a new opportunity to show each other grace.”

  • Being honest about feelings and living gently with others

“I understand now there is no way to get an A in grief.  I can just be honest about my feelings, try to live gently with others, and when that’s too hard, give myself a little break and find some distance.  I can commit to plucking out the seeds of bitterness about how unfair life is when they sprout up again and again…”

  • Surviving and perhaps eventually thriving

“I’ve been learning that with God so close to me in my heartache, what I thought was impossible is possible, surviving and perhaps eventually thriving…”

What has been helpful in dealing with loss in your life?