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Poet Thomas Lynch on navigating grief, both personal and public, in a pandemic year

a little girl roller skating on a road with sunlight streaming behind her
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In the introduction to his latest collection of writing, titled "Bone Rosary," poet Thomas Lynch writes:

“Never in my life did the sky seem to be falling from all four corners as it seems to now—pandemic, racial injustice, economic collapse, climate change—nor has the body politic, the culture at large, ever seemed so in cahoots as a co-morbidity.”

Lynch is no stranger to grief. The award-winning poet spent much of his career as the funeral director for Lynch and Sons in the Detroit metro area. That gave him an interesting vantage point for observing the pain and loss of the past year, including his own. His only daughter Heather died by suicide in July of 2020. She was 45 years old.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidial thoughts, reach out and talk to someone with the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

It can be a difficult thing to talk about the death of a family member by suicide. And when he was a funeral director, Lynch says some of the hardest conversations he had were with parents who also lost a child to suicide. But for Lynch, talking and writing about his daughter is a way of remembering her time on earth. And, he says, by opening up that conversation, he signals to others who loved Heather that they can also share their remembrances with him.

“I think the fright that most of us feel around the newly bereaved, and in particular the newly bereaved by suicide, is that we don't know exactly what to say…We think by talking about the dead, we are somehow encumbering the bereaved, I find just the opposite.”

According to Lynch, Heather had struggled for many years with depression and other mental health disorders. She had been estranged from her family for several years before her death last summer. As her family grapples with the grief of that loss, Lynch says that he has found himself focusing on his gratitude for the time he did have with her.

“I remember on her birthday this year, which was the first of March, there was this sudden recognition that I was more grateful for the 45 years she was among us, even though some of those years were were quieted by mental illness and challenged by mental illness, I treasured those years. I was grateful for those years more than I grieved by that time, six or eight months, without her," Lynch said. "I hope that remains the case because in general, I think that gratitude is an easier lift than grievances.”

"Bone Rosary" is dedicated to his daughter, but the book takes a wide ranging look at the humanity around the author, including humorous reflections on his relationships with his ex-wife. And that rosary in the title? It’s a reference to the rope of bones he hung in honor of his late, lamented companion, Bill the dog. As you might expect from a retired funeral director, Lynch is able to find humor in life’s difficulties.

“I have found that the indignities of age have about the mean underbelly of humor that I never, never imagined it, I just thought it was a sadness, but it turns out not to be,” he said.

Still, it’s clear that his daughter is at the heart of this collection of writings. One of the most poignant poems in "Bone Rosary" is “Skating with Heather Grace,” which appeared in Lynch’s first book of the same name. He wrote it decades ago, when his daughter was still in grade school. He wrote it while watching her glide around a roller skating rink.

“Skating With Heather Grace” by Thomas Lynch

Apart from the apparent values,
there are lessons in the circular:
paradigms for history,
time in around the world, turning,
love with another of your species—

To watch my only daughter
widening her circles is to ease
headlong into the traffic
of her upbringing.

Until nearly four she screamed
at my absence, mourned
my going out for any reason,
cried at scoldings,
agreed to common lies regarding
thunder, Christmas,
baby teeth. Last year

she started school
without incident;
this year ballet and new math. Soon

I think my love will seem
entirely deficient.

Later there's the hokey pokey
and dim lights for the partners’ dance.
She finds a shaky nine-year-old
to skate around
in counterclockwise orbits,

Is it more willingness than balance?
Is letting go the thing that keeps her steady?

I lean against the sideboard, sipping
coffee. I keep a smile ready.

After Heather died, Lynch says a longtime friend who had also lost a child to suicide reached out.

“When I sent him word of what had happened, he wrote back and said, ‘Soon, I think my love will seem entirely deficient,’ which is to say he was quoting me to me from 35 years before, and the wallop of comfort I got in that still takes my breath away.”

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