Saturday, February 20, 2010

An Interview with Author Abigail Carter on her Book, "The Alchemy of Loss: A Young Widow's Transformation"

Whenever I hear the phrase "resilience of the human spirit", I think about Abigail Carter.  I hope you will enjoy this interview with her as much as I did. 
On a personal note; yes, we were one of the families she mentioned who hung with her “in the trenches” during those long dark days.
To the Carter/Dack/Boland family…I raise my glass and wish you well!
                                                                                      ~ diane fergurson

1. For those who may not be familiar with the premise of your book, will you give us a brief overview?

-Essentially my book is about my journey after the loss of my husband on 9/11. Its about discovering the silver lining that can be a part of grief, and the opportunities that loss can offer if you choose to see and take them. It delves into the morass of grief, the messiness of family relationships during a loss, raising grieving kids in the process and coming out the other end.

 2.  "Coming out the other end" involves healing.  What have you learned about the healing process over the last 8 1/2 years?

-Grief and healing do not necessarily go together. In many ways I am not sure anyone ever truly heals from grief. I sort of think of it as one of those diseases that lies in remission and then strikes again when you least expect it.

Here are some other things I have learned about grief:
  • Grief doesn’t have “stages” that follow a specified progression as in the Kubler-Ross stages of grief. You can feel both anger and numbness at the same time. You can be in denial and acceptance at once as well. And no matter how hard one tries to avoid it, anger and grief go hand in hand.
  • You can’t “put off” grief. It will eventually find you one way or another
  • Grief can settle in the body and form a kind of muscle memory that is reluctant to let go and can be quite painful in a literal sense
  • Loss can act as a sort of defibrillator that awakens you to new possibilities. Suddenly life seems too short to put off dreams or desires; perceptions of others no longer matter as they once did; priorities change dramatically. It can be a frighteningly liberating experience. I know people whose entire personalities have changed after loss.
  • Views on spirituality are often questioned and revised sometimes resulting in a deeper understanding of faith, fate and a more open and accepting attitude towards spirituality in general.
  • Grief often brings out creativity in people as they shed societal handicaps and become more independent and non-conformist.
  • In general, grief spurs us to appreciate life.

   3. If you feel that people never really heal from grief, then tell us about your remission process. What has helped you?  Writing the book, speaking engagements, working with others who have experienced loss? You've done all these things over the years. What have you learned that may benefit others? 

-Certainly writing the book was extremely cathartic and I recommend everyone experiencing grief to write their experiences down, even if it’s just in a journal. Its amazing the perspective it gives you, even if you are writing years after the fact. I often started writing about one thing and found myself writing about something I hadn’t even thought of and having lots of “aha” moments along the way.

Helping others has also been amazing. From my book I have gotten so many emails from people who my book has touched. These are often very personal emails from people telling me things that they have not told another living soul. I feel very honored by that and encourage them to keep writing me. I also volunteer and am on the Board of The Healing Center in Seattle which is a place for grieving families to come and get support. I work with a group of people who are a few years out from their loss, a group we call the “Perspectives” group, named for the notion that we are no longer looking back at our loss, but have now turned and are looking forward to what’s next. The group has had some life altering affects on people.

And yes, I have also done a few speaking engagements. I have spoken to caregivers of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) which was very powerful given that the people I was speaking to hadn’t yet experienced their loss, but were preparing for it. I also spoke to a group of social workers and caregivers who work with the bereaved in many different ways about the silver lining side of grief, something one of the other speakers dubbed “Post Traumatic Growth” which I found incredibly apt.

All this to say, that although it can be very emotional helping others through their grief, it can also be incredibly rewarding and life affirming.

  1. One of the things which I found so interesting in the book was your ability to describe having to take on the roll of a juggler.  On one hand you had death and widowhood to deal with, then layered on top there was the circus associated with being a 911 widow.  Your family thrown into the mix presented a whole other set of interesting, sometimes humorous issues.  Deciding to date again and making the decision to move away from the New York area...what is your perspective on all of this looking back?
    It really is quite a unique slice of life during a specific period of time (as they say).

-Yes, that period in my life was really crazy. I honestly don’t know how I got through it. Partly it was grief that got me through – there is a period where you are sort of in shock and there was a long period where I felt quite detached, like I was sort of a stranger looking into someone else’s life, not really having a say in the direction it took. I remember often thinking, “huh. These people are acting really crazy. I sure wish I could help them.” The odd thing was, it was incredibly liberating. I didn’t have to take responsibility for everyone, something that I had spent my life doing.

After that effect wore off, I remember thinking I just had to put one foot in front of the other which is how I managed to get from day to day. I wasn’t really able to plan ahead, I just got through each day.

There was a period of freedom too, where my mantra was “life is short,” where I felt I had to experience life to the fullest. This was the period when I dated and ultimately moved from New Jersey to Seattle. The move, though also had to do with trying to escape all my drama, and my identity as a 9/11 widow. In that respect the move has been a really good thing.

These days, I think I have managed to simplify my life. Its easier too now that the kids are older. I find I prefer quiet much more than I used to (though that may simply be an effect of getting old!). The down side of this though, is that I have become a bit of a hermit (typical of a writer’s life I suppose), which perhaps a way of countering all the past drama. I do worry about it sometimes too, that maybe some of that early detachment is creeping back in. I suspect this detachment though has to do with the overload of responsibility I have on an ongoing basis – sometimes I just need to check out for a while.

  1. Do you feel moving out of the New York area was beneficial for you and your family?
    If so, how?
-Yes, moving has been beneficial for a bunch of reasons. One, obviously was to escape the cloud of 9/11 that was, and probably still is to a certain extent, pervasive there. I seemed to bump into it everywhere I went. As well, the house that we had lived in as a family, though at first comforting had begun to feel sort of tomb-like, and I felt that if I stayed, I would become stuck in my 9/11 widow identity. The entire community seemed to know our family’s history, and I worried that the kids would grow up always being “9/11” kids.

In Seattle, the event was very removed for people here. They were much less traumatized by it, so we are able to live in relative anonymity with regards to the event. Many of the people we know don’t know our history or if they do, it doesn’t have the same heart-wrenching response that it does in NY/NJ. Just recently, Olivia’s class was studying the book “The Kite Runner” where the events of 9/11 are mentioned. There was a big discussion about 9/11 where towards the end, Olivia finally confessed her history much to the shock of her teacher and class. Some of the kids even thought she was lying. It was a huge leap for her to do that, as it is something she doesn’t talk about very much. I felt that had we stayed in Montclair, we always would have been treated as “special” in some way, and my gut told me that that would be detrimental to the kids. Either they would expect to always be treated differently or that they would feel pressure to always behave a certain way. It may have been a false premise, but it was something I worried about. In Seattle, they able to just be normal kids.

The downside was that we gave up a great deal of support that the community offered, which really hasn’t been replaced. We had some incredible caregivers in the form of therapists and doctors and widow communities that were integral to our survival in those first years. Giving those people up was very difficult. Also, many of our friends hung with me “in the trenches” so to speak, which provided a strong bond of friendship. I miss those easy friendships a great deal and I know the kids do too. But I know through the experience of moving as much as we did that good friends remain in your life no matter where you live.
6.  Any new books or articles in the works?

-Well, I had a lot of requests to write a sequel which I would love to do, but I doubt that I would be able to sell it to a publisher. It turns out that people won’t buy anything that they perceive to be a 9/11 memoir. Even though my memoir was so much more than 9/11 -- its really a self-help book on recovering from grief -- the 9/11 thing is an albatross when it comes to selling it. The book, oddly enough was far more successful in Canada, Holland and Australia than it ever was in the US.

Because of this, I am working on a fictional novel written from the perspective of a dead husband. I wanted to be able to delve into post loss relationships, what grief is like after the first year, and some of the issues around raising kids who have experienced early trauma and I am trying this out as a vehicle. Its been much harder to write than the memoir, but also a little more fun. I get to imagine a place where dead people go when they die. My ghost is very human-like and must rehash his life. It gets fun when he tries to set his wife up on dates that don’t go so well.

    7.  Well that sound like it would leave itself open to all kinds of possibilities! 
Since you are veering in that direction, you have also had many interesting incidents "from the other side" since this chapter in your life occurred.  Would you care to share any for our readers?
In addition, what insight have you gained from these experiences?
How did it impact your spirituality?

-Sure. There were a number of incidences, but here are a couple:

I guess the first one was about 10 days after 9/11 when there was still talk of people surviving in air pockets and we still held out that tiny bit of hope. It was 4am and I was lying in bed imagining Arron beside me, when the hall light suddenly went on. I got up thinking Olivia might have gotten out of bed, but she was sound asleep and then I thought perhaps my brother had stumbled in from the city really late, but there was no noise from him (and he didn’t get back until the next morning) and as I stood there, I just knew it was Arron, telling me he was gone.

On our wedding anniversary, a year after his death, Olivia and I were sitting and eating dinner. Carter had fallen asleep on the couch. It was very quiet, when suddenly the CD player came on. The CD that we had last played was Macy Gray, which had been our family favorite, and Olivia knew all the words to most of the songs. We just sat there amazed as Macy Gray sang to us and Olivia pointed to the ceiling, and I nodded and we just kept eating to the music.

I also have had quite a few very uncanny readings from Psychics.

I don’t know if we just manifest these incidents because we need to believe that our loved ones still exist in some way, or if there really is life beyond death, but I do know that believing there was life after death comforted me a great deal. I think I sort of believed in reincarnation and life beyond death before 9/11 but these and many other serendipitous experiences certainly solidified that belief. I still struggle with the idea of fate and whether it’s predetermined or not, though if I was to embrace a psychic’s view of life-after-death dogma, then I suppose I would need to accept that we map out our fate ahead of each lifetime on earth, making it both predetermined and self-directed. I’m still a little wobbly on that one, but I like its ability to embrace both theories at once.

I do like the thought of Arron up there guiding me in my decisions in a helpful sort of way, though I have to say that the encounters from beyond have dropped off dramatically since moving to Seattle. Perhaps I am just stronger now and need him less, which is a good thing. But I wouldn’t mind him dropping by a little more often.

Thank you for the interview...
If you would ever like to do a guest blog spot for the Mind Body Spirit Odyssey, we'd love to read more from you!
Abigail’s book is available through “Amazon”

You can also visit her website at


Abigail Carter wrote The Alchemy of Loss: A Young Widow’s Transformation  after her husband’s death in the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. Toronto's Globe and Mail calls it “Eloquent and honest. . . and listed the book as one of it’s top 100 books of 2008.  A Canadian National Bestseller, The Alchemy of Loss is also published in Australia, the United States and translated into Dutch. Carter’s work has appeared in SELF magazine, Reader’s Digest Canada, and Abigail moved from New Jersey to Seattle in 2005, where she now lives with her two children.

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  1. A realy nice interview, thanks , it is so hard to sort out loss of a loved one. xx

  2. oh, goodness, what a touching, soul sparking interview. I read every word with awe. Brava.

  3. This interviews is a poignant reminder to everyone, I think, that is experiencing grief right now. Thank you!

  4. what a great interview! i love reading these, diane, keep em coming...



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