Grief is a curious creature. When you lose a beloved person, everything changes. You even have to learn to breathe anew. None of it is predictable. The process is highly individual. Reading Jami Yeats-Kastner’s heart-wrenching memoir about the death of Sam, her youngest son, was perhaps not the wisest choice for me after having experienced the greatest loss of my life, the death of my husband. Yeats-Kastner’s journey, however, is very different. Yet her story resonated with me in unexpected ways and gave me a measure of comfort.
“The Day It Happened” for Yeats-Kastner and her family was 8 February 2013. Her eighteen-months-old son drowned in their pool. That day she became the “Crazybutterflylady”, guided by signs in the form of butterflies on her path to acceptance and to herself.
As my favourite philosopher Mark Rowlands says: “To be at our best we have to be pushed into a corner, where there is no hope and nothing to be gained from going on. And we go on anyway.” Yeats-Kastner repeats the sentiment in the opening of her book: “Sometimes you need to be completely broken to find the most powerful part of yourself.”
As she notes, losing a child is “universally accepted” to be the greatest of pains. It is the loss of a life not lived, of the immense potential and its beauty. It is unbearable. Those left behind live in a void that is undefined: “If you lose your parents you’re an orphan; if you lose your husband you’re a widow. But what is the name for us, the broken ones? There isn’t one, because people can’t accept that it should happen.”
What Yeats-Kastner shows is how to transform the heartache of such a loss into a force for good. She seeks out messages which lead her on a path of discovery. She realises that in order to continue a meaningful life, to be a good mother to her other two sons (one of whom has severe low muscle tone), to be a loving wife and a fulfilled person, she needs to preserve her space and cultivate her creativity. Not afraid of what others might think of her, she pursues all avenues – whether spiritual, religious, or alternative – to achieve her goals. Together with friends, she starts a charity in her son’s name and learns to appreciate “life’s great truths”.
Nothing is easy. Guilt feelings persist. Reproach from others has to be confronted. There are days where everything seems impossible. Yeats-Kastner confronts it all with searing honesty and does not flinch, simply asking that we do not judge her too easily. She describes her family’s ordeal and their courage to find a new life. They move house, take up new professional challenges, and follow the butterflies which seem to appear out of the blue, but are in fact constantly around you if you are bold enough to look for and acknowledge them.
Sam and Me and the Hard Pear Tree is a moving memoir of survival, healing and hope.
Sam and Me and the Hard Pear Tree
by Jami Yeats-Kastner
Review first published in the Cape Times, 2 April 2015, p. 24.