A Letter Heard Around The World . . .
Phyllis Davies' Story . . .
by Lorri Sulpizio
On Derek Davies' 14th birthday, his mother Phyllis wrote him
a letter. Although Phyllis would put her heart into the words she
composed, the letter would remain unread by her son who had died
five months earlier. This letter was to a boy Phyllis longed to
hold, to hug, to talk to, a boy who was no longer available for
his mother's unending love. In writing a letter to Derek, Phyllis
realized that putting her thoughts on paper eased some of her pain.
She began keeping a "notebook," recording her feelings
and her thoughts. She wrote without form, without the idea of keeping
a diary or a journal, attempting only to free herself from the blanket
of pain and explosions of emotion she'd experienced since the death
of her second son.
Words found their way to the pages as crisp, free-form vignettes.
Phyllis learned to write with new abandon, in a way that escaped
the bounds and rules of prose. Soon, pages overflowed with short poems,
paragraphs, and thoughts. Phyllis allowed herself to feel, allowed
herself to hurt, and allowed her emotions to take the guise of words
on the page.
And then the magic happened. A notebook containing the grief of
a mother, a troubled sick woman and her concerned physician, and Phyllis'
readiness to help others in pain, sparked the creation of Grief:
Climb Toward Understanding.
At a quiet cafe one afternoon, Phyllis noticed a woman sitting
alone at a table. She could feel the woman's pain from across the
room. While getting a glass of water, Phyllis approached the woman
and asked if she could help her. After inviting Phyllis
to sit with her, for the next hour the woman shared that her daughter had died and
that she herself was in the final stages of a terminal illness. As they
walked out together, Phyllis heard her heart tell her to share her
notebook. It wasn't until the woman walked away with the writings
that had been a constant companion for nearly two years that Phyllis
realized she didn't even know the woman's name or phone number.
They had agreed to meet the next morning for coffee--and did.
A few days later, Phyllis received a call from the woman's physician.
It seemed his patient's condition had improved remarkably. The woman
had told her doctor of reading a healing story in a stranger's
notebook. Intrigued by the sudden improvement of his patient's condition,
the doctor called and asked Phyllis if he, too, could read the notebook.
Slowly the word spread. People asked for copies of this unusual
notebook to read or give to a friend who was struggling with a loss
or change. The circulation of her writing and the knowledge that
she was helping others cope with grief helped Phyllis' own recovery
immensely. It softened her sorrow and showed her a new purpose.
A supportive writing group also encouraged her to publish her
notes as a book.
Phyllis Davies wishes she'd never become a writer. If her son
Derek had never been a passenger on flight 624, she would still
be living simply on the family farm in the Los Osos Valley along
the central coast of California. She likely would still be running
the property management division of the Davies Company. Unfortunately,
things didn't happen that way. Derek Davies, on his way to visit
his uncle's ranch for a week's vacation, died as the commercial
airliner he was on collided with a small plane in a fiery mid-air crash shortly after
The idea of publishing a book had never crossed her mind.
Phyllis' lifelong struggle with undiagnosed learning disabilities
gave her a deep fear and dislike for the task of writing. She only
recently learned that it is severe dyslexia that has kept her from
dealing with words in written form. Reading had always been
a slow and difficult task, and she wrote only when absolutely
necessary. Unknowingly, she learned to depend on others to cope
with this harsh disability.
The death of her son presented Phyllis with emotions she couldn't
handle. Her grief for Derek consumed and controlled her. In trying
to remain composed and carry much of the caregiving responsibility
for a large extended family, she nearly fell apart. Unresolved
grief and unattended feelings of loss from the death of her first
son Dylan, who died in infancy, aggravated the intensity of her
pain. She felt isolated from her husband and her 15-year-old
daughter Dawna. Phyllis clung to her grief, afraid of what would
happen if she let it go. "At times it felt like my grief was
all I had left in life."
She asked herself in her piece, "Refocus": "Do I really want
to give up the security of my grief?" She began to identify
herself only by this new grief-stricken identity. Introducing herself
as "Derek's mom," Phyllis clung to her son's memory, not
wanting his death to take away her "right to be a mom."
She wrote without boundaries,
overriding her dyslexia. Now, she wrote without feeling grammatically
bad or dumb. Recording everything longhand, the notebook found its
way to a computer where Phyllis could handle her horrible spelling
and make insertions anywhere she wanted. Not knowing how to type
hindered her initial progress.
Coping with disabilities long ago
had taught her the rewards of tenacity. She eventually became computer
Comforted by the support of a writing group and the companionship
of her notebook, Phyllis' life adopted a new purpose. The circulation
of her tools for those in pain led her to turn a letter to her
son into a message for the world, a book.
Beginning the publishing process, again she let her heart
lead her, and with much determination worked on the project.
She did her own layout and design work. She learned how to typeset
the book, completing most of it after the family had gone to bed.
For the final touches, she hired Margaret Dodd as her book design
consultant. Phyllis initially published the book to meet the local
need she had seen. Today it is in its 6th edition.
Phyllis had seen Itoko Maeno's sensitive, award-winning watercolor
images in several children's books and knew immediately she was
the artist for the project. Itoko could not start on the art for
a year, but Phyllis kept working on the project, sharing it with
anyone who asked. She only requested that people let her know if
they found a grammatical mistake or lack of clarity.
She also asked people to pass the notebook on to someone else
who needed to be encouraged.
Grief: Climb Toward Understanding offers poignant
and honest lyrics, realistically tragic images, and tenderness from a mother who has lost part of herself. The reader
climbs with her through stages, the phases of grief that Phyllis experienced as mountains. These mountains and hills carry
the names of feelings that we all go through, from shock to anger
to gentle sadness to an eventual refocus, back into "reframed life."
In Grief, we meet Bill and Dawna, Phyllis's husband and
daughter, and we get a glimpse of the dynamics of the family and
the pain they all encountered. There are times in the book when
the reader might feel like an intruder, violating the Davies family's
right to the privacy of their mourning. It's almost as if we shouldn't
witness Phyllis saying to Derek, "I must learn to live without seeing
you." "Coping with just one moment, one hour, one day,
helps me not get lost as I learn to live again." But these words
have helped to heal her, and now she and her family have made them
available to us, to help us heal.
The last one-third of the book leaves the heartfelt imagery of
a wounded and healing mother, and addresses the necessities of life
and death. These are the resources Phyllis collected to help her
family through their crisis experiences. These experiences lie ahead
for almost every family as loved ones advance in years. Like a planner,
this section outlines what to remember when dealing with death,
everything from questions to ask the funeral director and how to
write a eulogy, to how to help children and teens cope with loss.
It seems that Phyllis has considered almost every possible situation
by outlining the steps in a clear, organized manner.
As I read I found myself holding my breath at the image of a mother
not cooking, fearing the kitchen and avoiding the grocery store
until only mustard remains in the fridge. I felt myself smile at
a mother's memory of her son's crawdad collection loose in the kitchen
sink, creatures running free on the countertop. I thought of my
own family when I read how the four Davies, mother and father, sister
and brother danced together, realizing that memories are precious
and a loving family is a jewel. I was stunned as I flipped through
the resource pages, realizing how many important considerations
occur when dealing with a death. There are 107 overwhelming decisions
to be considered or made in the first two days after someone dies!
For me, the true magic of Grief comes not with the meter
or diction of the free verse but with the power of the imagery and
the capturing of a universal experience. Phyllis never tries to
take the pain out of death, never denies grief's anguish. She treats
the loss as a process, one that begins with pain and sadness and
moves toward a reconnecting of life. She has shared with us what she thought
were private moments; these moments and her wisdom move into
our experience. This collection of feelings encompasses what we
all have within. Grief, although structured as a self-help
guide, acts less like a tool and more like a gentle, compassionate,
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