Finding THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN with Amber J. Keyser, for Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day
‘Here’s the deal,’ he said, talking to the ceiling tiles, ‘We’re all in a club no one wants to join. We hang out. Our mom’s cry.’
Jacey whispered liked a kicked dog.
‘At least here, everybody knows you’re missing something.’
‘Like a leg?’ Jascey asked, her need for answers a gaping wound.
Keri opened and closed her mouth like a fish. The worthless woman was swimming in the wrong pool, but Rakmen knew exactly what Jacey meant. ‘Yeah, it’s exactly like you’re missing a leg, but no one can see that it’s gone.” (page 10)
Today, October 15th, is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day. Like most awareness days, its aim is to give people who have suffered with miscarriage, stillbirth and infant loss a voice. We raise our voices once a year to raise awareness of a silent suffering that we can not escape but often can not be seen by outward observers.
September 2015 came and went this year and for the first time since 2006, I didn’t even mention it on my Facebook page, though I of course thought it: my baby would have been 9 this year.
That first year, I thought I would never survive the stark consuming emptiness that my uterus, recently full of promise, had become. And in the years that have come and gone since that one, I have heard the statistic often: 1 in 4 pregnancies ends in miscarriage.
In 2010 the local high school my public library served had 22 pregnant teens. Statistics wise, that meant that somewhere around 5 of them would lose their babies. And as little as we talk about miscarriage, we talk about miscarriage among teen pregnancies even less. Though I imagine for many teens it must be even more emotionally complicated, because underneath that loss and potential emptiness and the surge of hormones that can’t figure out what to do because there is supposed to be a baby and now there is not, there is often an adult whispering that it’s probably for the best because being a teenage mother, a teenage parent, is so hard. The teen themselves may even feel a tremendous sense of relief.
A friend of mine, now a grown woman and the mother of two, was a pregnant teenager. But as a teenager she was the 1 in 4, she did not get to bring a baby home and that is what the adults in her life expected of her, a sigh of relief that she had somehow dodged a bullet and life could continue on as normal. But she wanted to grieve, needed to grieve, and the adults in her life didn’t recognize that very real need because it seemed to them that this loss really was for the best. My friend shared with me how confused she was then, how alone she felt, and how she felt that she couldn’t be honest about her feelings because you weren’t supposed to want to be a teen mother, everyone knew what that meant for your life.
It’s interesting to note that in the past few years I have read fewer and fewer books about teen pregnancy. In the early days of YA, teen pregnancy and parenthood were hot button issues for what was then called “the problem novel”. As a whole, we have moved further away from the idea that all YA literature must be didactic and have embraced the idea of contemporary and compelling YA (and thank you for that). But even as we discuss the need for more and better representation, it seems like teen parents are often left out of this equation. And teens facing the unexpected loss of a pregnancy are almost nonexistent in YA literature, though not in real life:
According to teenage pregnancy and miscarriage statistics, about 900,000 teen girls get pregnant each year in the United States. Out of this number, about 15 percent of these teens miscarry the pregnancy. (Source)
And while I have read many YA books in my twenty plus years as a YA librarian, I have read very few that mention miscarriage at all, let alone teens having a miscarriage. Though this year I did read two books that dealt with the topic of miscarriage. The first was Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu.
In Devoted, Rachel Walker is a member of a devout Christian family that emphasizes procreation. When her mother suffers from a miscarriage, she watches her spiral in to a deep depression because not only does she feel a deep sense of loss, but she feels a sense of betrayal by her God and fears that it somehow makes her an inadequate woman; if your faith says a woman’s role is to bear and raise children, then what does it mean when your body betrays you and fails to do the one thing your religion preaches it was designed to do? In these pages that tell Rachel’s story of trying to determine what she believes and who she wants to be, we get to see her mother’s struggle with pregnancy loss through the eyes of a teen.
The second was The Way Back from Broken by Amber Keyser, which I read just last week and moved me beyond the telling of it. Here several different characters are dealing with loss as they gather to meet in a loss support group and the ache and agony of it punctuates every page; it haunts every character that we meet in one way or another.
Rakman is a teenage boy whose family is struggling with the loss of a baby sister, Dora. He is “adopted” in a support group by a young girl named Jacey who is struggling with her own loss; she was supposed to be a big sister but they never got to bring a baby home. In Rakman she finds someone who will answer her questions honestly. She sees him mourning and believes that somehow he can help her. Soon the two kids find themselves trying to navigate the Canadian wilderness on their own because in an attempt to find some type of healing Jacey’s mother took them on a canoeing wilderness adventure which takes some unexpected turns.
Rakman is an insightful young man, he looks at the grief around him and tries to cope in the best ways that he knows how. He sees the pain, feels the pain, but he also resents the pain. And through it all there is a sense of guilt. We don’t know what happened to baby Dora, but we know early on that she died in his arms after only a few weeks of life and that tragedy is tearing his family apart collectively and individually.
And Jacey’s mother is not dealing well at all. Her baby is stillborn, or born sleeping. One day the baby was alive and moving and coming, and then it was not. Jacey is a strong, fiery girl full of passion and pain who just wants the people around her to acknowledge that she IS a big sister.
I read The Way Back from Broken on an airplane, flying from Texas to Ohio. As I read those last few pages where everyone starts to acknowledge their pain and they make the decision to step onto the path of healing, tears streamed down my face. I remember that feeling of complete and utter brokenness. I remember feeling that there was not, could never be, a way back from broken. And yet slowly there was.
It has been nine years for me now. Nine years since I experienced horrific Hyperemesis Gravidarum. Nine years since I stood on the edge of death and wondered whether or not I could continue. Nine years since that choice was taken away from me. Nine years since I heard first a fading heartbeat and returned a few weeks later to hear no heartbeat at all. Nine years since I felt empty and shattered.
That first year was the worst, but slowly it got better. Slowly I got better. Each of us, those of us who suffer these types of losses, must find our own way back from broken. My way didn’t involve a little girl named Jacey and a trip in the Canadian wilderness, and yet I could relate to every word spoken, every tear shed, every moment of anger and confusion and betrayal that these characters spoke. And as they found their way, I remembered how hard it was to find my own way. Keyser presents a profoundly moving journey through grief while giving voice to a type of loss that happens far too frequently – 1 in 4 – and yet we still don’t often speak of it.
Shortly after I had my miscarriage I was walking The Teen, who was around 4 at the time, around our neighborhood. We were walking behind a group of giggling middle school girls. “I think I lost the baby,” the one girls said to her two friends as they walked with a levity that seemed to betray the truth of this possibility. Her friends giggled in response asking how she knew. She didn’t know, she thought maybe she was pregnant and then she thought maybe she wasn’t. They gossiped about the possibility with the enthusiasm of teens who had just learned that Justin Beiber and Selena Gomez had broken up.
In what is perhaps not my finest moment in interacting with middle school girls, I turned on my heel and confronted them from beneath my dark cloud of gloom. “You would know if you lost a baby,” I said, “you would feel an emptiness inside you, a darkness. It’s awful and it’s sad and you shouldn’t joke about it. Ever.” Tears streamed down my face as The Teen gripped my hand. These girls looked at me and they knew that whatever was happening it was far beyond something they were prepared for or interested in dealing with. They mumbled their apologies with their necks bent low as they scurried off in a different direction just to avoid the grief stricken woman who stood on the street before them crying the shattered tears of loss.
The value, for me as someone who has survived pregnancy loss, is that young readers who read books like Devoted and The Way Back from Broken get a real life glimpse into the emotional turmoil that comes hand in hand with pregnancy loss. And pregnancy loss affects everyone. Even if teens don’t experience it themselves, they are impacted by the loss around them. They journey with mothers and father who are grieving, and they themselves grieve. They make the journey from anticipation – the joy, fear, doubt and anger of being an older sibling – to loss. They feel all the same emotions that anyone experiencing loss feels: anger, guilt, sadness, fear . . .
Families are living entities, they grow and shrink and each stage of metamorphosis is a complex emotional journey. We were a family of two – a husband and wife. We became a family of three – a husband, a wife, a daughter. We were going to be a family of four, but we lost our baby and we were broken. We had to find a way back from broken that worked for us and it was not easy. Then we did become a family of four, but it was later then we thought and with this dark spot hanging over our family history. We could have been a family of five, in many ways – depending on your personal belief – we are a family of five. But when the world looks at us, they only see a family of four; they don’t see our lost leg because it isn’t a visible wound, because strangers can’t see the scars on your heart.
1 in 4 of us is trying to find THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN, and the moving words of Amber Keyser touched me in the deepest places where I remember what it was like to lose a child in my womb. It was the book I needed back in 2006 and to be honest, like most good teen literature, this book is not just for teens as it tells the universal story of grief and loss in ways that every one of us can relate to. And to all who know the pain of pregnancy and infant loss, peace to you.
Edited to add: Last night on my return trip I ended up reading a book that was the story of a teen girl experiencing a wide variety of issues, and one of them was pregnancy loss. She has a miscarriage after an automobile accident. This book doesn’t come out until 2016, and I have to figure out when and how to talk about it without spoiling the unfolding story for readers, but I wanted to let you know that this book – and it was a really good book – is coming.
I highly recommend THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN by Amber Keyser. It was published on October 1, 2015 by Carolholda Labs. ISBN: 9781467775908. And in the interest of full disclosure, I wrote a short story in an upcoming anthology edited by Amber Keyser titled The V Word.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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