Jean Reagan's 19-year-old son died of a heroin overdose. The family, she and her husband and their daughter, were devastated.
It was like, she said to her husband during a therapy session, "we're now a three-legged dog." "Except," he said, "three-legged dogs always seem to be happy."
That analogy stuck with Reagan and gave her hope that someday she might feel happiness again.
One day her daughter said to Reagan that she wanted her brother to be remembered for more than his death. That, too, stuck with Reagan.
As a budding writer of children's books, Reagan decided to deal with her grief by writing a story. "It seemed to me there was a real need for a picture book for younger children. Sibling loss seems to be one of the unrecognized griefs. Everyone worries about the mom and dad. Sometimes siblings are even admonished to be 'extra good' because their parents are grieving. In 'Always My Brother,' I wanted to honor siblings for the devastating loss they face with the death of their brother or sister."
The story in "Always My Brother" (Tilbury House Publishers, $16.95) does not exactly parallel her own story, but, she says, "it taps into the emotions and experiences of our loss."
For one thing, it features a much younger boy and his sister and, yes, their three-legged dog. "I really wondered if editors would let me get away with putting a three-legged dog in a children's book, but it resonated with everyone all along the way. I think there is that hope. We will always be a three-legged family, but someday we may be able to grab life again as all three-legged dogs do."
She hopes other people might find that same sense of hope. She hopes the book may "create opportunities for families to share the pain, rather than experience it in lonely isolation. I really wanted my daughter to understand that at some level, I comprehend the utter devastation of her loss."
Reagan also wanted to offer practical hope and realistic feelings. "Some books talk about the paralyzing grief that comes first after a loss. I wanted to acknowledge that, but also look down the road. On the other hand, I didn't want to fall into the 'we planted a tree or got a puppy, so now we're all better' trap. I tried to find the road between the paralyzing grief and the unrealistic tidy bow at the end."
One thing she has learned, Reagan says, is that you "don't recover. You incorporate it into your life and move on. Eventually, you see yourselves feeling normal feelings, even finding joy. But it's like my husband said, you have to break the ice on every puddle again, and sometimes you don't know when you are approaching a puddle. I go along, and suddenly something will give me a glimpse of John, and I falter. You never know when you will run across those."
"Always My Brother" has been getting good response from grief organizations and people who work with loss, she says. "When a grieving sibling read my manuscript and said 'this was me,' I knew it could be a healing resource. I hope it can help children deal with their often confusing, contradictory emotions."
This is the first book Reagan has had published. "I've written several others that I've sent out there. Most of them are silly, fun stories. This was my first serious one. When I told my daughter it had been accepted, she said, 'Oh, Mom, that's the one I wanted to be first.' So, I think it has helped her, as well."
Reagan has been what she calls "a serious writer" for four years. Some of her best writing time comes during the summers, when she and her husband work as volunteer backcountry rangers in Teton National Park. "We live in a 14-by-14-foot cabin, with no water, no electricity and bars on the windows to keep out the bears. But I love it. We meet such wonderful people from all over."
She was born in Alabama but spent most of her childhood in Japan, where her parents were Presbyterian missionaries. "I came back to the U.S. for college." She moved to Utah in 1981; her husband teaches at the University of Utah. Her son died in 2005.
And although "Always My Brother" is not exactly his story, "one of the great joys of writing it was returning with John in the book to a time when my John was young and healthy." A death like his, she says, "is a hard thing to figure out, with so many confusing, haunting questions. But my husband and I are proud of our son even though we are very, very sad he became trapped by a drug addiction that ultimately killed him."
She has found hope, she says; maybe others can, too.