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What Happened?

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 take-off.

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 literate.

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, listening friend.

Note: You have Sunnybank Publishers' permission to reprint or excerpt this article on
Grief: Climb Toward Understanding
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please send tear sheets and information to
Sunnybank Publishers
P.O. Box 945, San Luis Obispo, CA 93406

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