Q&A with Carole Geithner, author of the new book, If Only.
The summer after her mother succumbs to cancer, thirteen-year-old Corinna returns to school to face eighth grade as “the girl whose mom died.” Even her best friend has been MIA for months. Navigating her own emotions as well as her father’s, Corinna bravely faces all the firsts without her mother — holidays, birthdays, shopping for a bra, and her budding crush on a classmate. Throughout the school year, Corinna’s journey through grief is honest and raw, yet beautiful and real. If Only is highly recommended reading for anyone who has suffered the death of a parent — or anyone who knows someone who has experienced such a loss. Through a compelling voice, Corinna shows us how we can respond to tragedy and how we can treasure memories of those we love.
Your background in social work and grief counseling, and your personal experience of your mother’s death when you were 25 clearly have given you many helpful insights in writing If Only. How did your professional training affect your personal reaction to your own mother’s death? And how did your training most affect how you wrote this novel?
My mother died while I was still in the middle of getting my master’s degree in social work. Looking back, I think I pushed myself to have conversations with her that I might not otherwise have been brave enough to initiate, having learned in my classes and internship that communicating about the really hard stuff can be healing.
Her death so early in my training also influenced my professional path. I believe that it gave me an extra sensitivity to noticing and acknowledging all the different kinds of loss in the lives of people with whom I worked.
I wanted to weave into the story the things I’ve learned in my professional training and experience. I wanted to illustrate some of the good and the bad about how our society approaches grief and grievers, and to provide a view into the interior world of a grieving teen. I also wanted to share some of the things that have been helpful or not helpful to grieving teens. I tried to be careful not to make the story feel preachy, believing that the fiction format works best if the reader gets swept into the protagonist’s world without feeling judged or lectured. The things I have learned and tried to weave in are too numerous to list in this Q&A, but here are just a few: the importance and value of listening; people grieve in their own way, even within the same family; kids grieve in some ways that are similar to adults, and in other ways that are different; talking about taboo subjects — bringing them out of the shadows — reduces the sense of isolation; a child’s adjustment to the death of a parent has a lot to do with their surviving parent’s functioning and the availability of other adults to help pick up the slack; a child’s cognitive mastery of death and their emotional development evolve; it’s important to be honest but reassuring when talking with kids about death; the pain of grief lessens over time but it is an uneven process, with grief coming in waves, sometimes triggered by anniversaries; kids are resilient; it’s important to give children and teens a sense of choice about their involvement in preparations for and attendance at a funeral.
Various reviewers have picked up on the authenticity of Corinna’s experiences and her voice. She sounds so real. What challenges did you face in making Corinna a flesh-and-blood character? What techniques did you use to give Corinna her rich voice?
I drew on direct experience and overheard conversations with kids around Corinna’s age — from driving carpool with my own kids when they were that age to working with groups of teens in bereavement groups. I also read some letters I’d written to my camp friend when I was that age — she had saved them. I cringed when I read them as an adult, but they were a helpful reminder of some of the dynamics and angst of that age. I had to be careful not to give Corinna too much adult perspective. For this, I had some junior high and high school readers, including my own kids, who pointed out when I was old-fashioned or unrealistic about something.
Corinna experiences people who say and do the wrong things, even when they want to say or do the right thing to show they care. What is your best advice for people when a close friend has experienced a death in the family?
One group of grieving teens discussing this very question concluded that the right person cannot say the wrong thing and the wrong person cannot say the right thing. One girl in that group said that she feels sorry for some people at school who are trying so hard to be nice but are totally clueless. The group all nodded in agreement. It’s important to remember that nothing you say or do can “fix” your friend’s grief. It isn’t fixable. But saying nothing is often interpreted as not caring.
Here are my suggestions: Acknowledge the loss and their unique grief, and do it in an honest way. It’s OK to say you don’t know what to say but that you care and want to be there for them/are sorry for their loss. Avoid trite platitudes that make the griever feel that you don’t understand. Be a good listener, without trying to “cure”; don’t say you know how they feel; share memories of the deceased person; understand that it will take time; silence is OK — you don’t need to fill the spaces; take your lead from the griever as to whether to bring up the loss, considering location (public versus private), mood, and context. With kids and teens, remember that they are kids first, grievers second. They want life to be as normal as possible.
One of the aspects of the novel that I particularly enjoyed was the portrayal of grief as a process that is highly individualized. We don’t all experience or exhibit grief in the same manner, or in set amounts of time. It’s almost as if the book shows us that we have “permission” to handle grief in our own way. How should people respond to those who seem to expect the grieving person to “get over it already” or who say, “A good cry would make you feel so much better”?
You’re right, there is no one right way or timetable. In fact, the whole concept of stages of grief has been revisited. Grief is not a linear process, and one does not have “closure.” It’s a lifelong ebbing and flowing of grief waves, with waves spreading out over time, but always the possibility that a smell or anniversary date, developmental milestone, or other experience will trigger a new wave. The best advice is to be a good listener — if the person wants to talk about it, listen. If they want company, be there. Hold back on advice unless it’s asked for. Find other ways to let them know you care, such as offering to help with a concrete task or asking them to share a memory about the person. Writing a personal note, however awkward it may feel, is a great way to let them know you care and it’s something they can read and react to when they have privacy and are in the right mood.
On the first page of your book, you refer to the “Colors of Me,” and you designate the seasons of the year with certain colors from the art palette. “Grief is hard. Really hard. And you can’t put the cap back on when you want to, like you can with a tube of paint.” That is the only reference to painting in the novel. How did you decide to use this as a framing device?
I had in mind to use the arc of the first year, going through the firsts, the seasons, the anniversaries. I wanted to convey some sense of healing, but not paint an overly rosy, tidy picture with everything neatly “on track” at the end. Blended colors seemed like a good way to convey the blend of emotions, the shifting emotions, without a linear restriction. The paint tube reference came later, when I was trying to capture how grief isn’t something you have “closure” on. You learn to live with it rather than get over it.
An aspect of Corinna’s grief is demonstrated through her flute playing. How does her flute playing — and her decision ultimately to forego continuing in the band — tie into her grief?
Corinna’s routine — soccer, flute, friends, homework — are all affected by this major change in her life. Music has been something she has continued with since fourth grade but didn’t have a passion for. Rather, she continued flute more because her musician mom wanted her to. Some kids might have thrown themselves into music/flute as a way to stay connected or out of a sense of duty to the deceased parent. Corinna didn’t. I had to choose to sacrifice one of her activities, to help show that life doesn’t go on as if nothing happened and perhaps to show that she gained a little freedom to make her own choices.
Your book shows many ways that people can celebrate the person who has died — as well as hold on to information about the person to help them remember. I especially liked the quilt idea, which I believe you also sewed after your mother’s death. What of your mother’s fabrics appear in your quilt? Which square means the most to you? Why?
I made a small memory quilt as my very first step in writing the book. I thought it would help me get into the main character’s physical and emotional experience. After so many years, I only had a few things made of fabric that belonged to my mom. (I wasn’t willing to cut up her wool sweater that I still wear.) The most meaningful square is the one from the nightgown she wore when she died. It has a little rosette ribbon that was right near her heart.
Another idea that resonated with me was Corinna’s request that her mother’s friends write out remembrances that Corinna could then hold onto. That seemed like a great way to learn about a loved one from someone else. Did you also use this technique? Have you heard from others about the effectiveness of this idea?
It was actually her mom’s friend who suggested that idea, and Corinna loved it, especially once she read the letters. I, myself, have loved hearing little stories and remembrances from people who knew my mom, but this particular idea came from a father who wanted his young children to have more memories of their mother from people who knew her at different stages of her life. Kids who are really young are eager to know more about who their parent was and are sometimes jealous that the older siblings have more memories of the person who died.
Your website provides a list of grief resources. What did you particularly find helpful when your own mother died?
I found it very helpful to talk with two friends who had been through the early death of a parent — they could listen and “get it.” Reading about other people’s experiences with grief was also helpful. I wrote a few poems to express my grief, and I enjoyed wearing some of my mother’s clothes or jewelry as a way to feel close to her. I continue to light a candle on the anniversary of her death and get flowers on her birthday.
Have you heard from young readers who have read your book and who may have had a parent die? What has touched you the most in their responses?
I love hearing from readers of all ages. Some readers resonate with the difficulties of navigating peer relationships at Corinna’s age, while others resonate with her fears about having the surviving parent die, or feeling alone and set apart. I’ve heard from a number of adults who had a parent die when they were young and they’ve told me how evocative it was of their experiences. Several said they hoped that teachers would read the book, as they’d had difficult experiences in the classroom after their parent died.
Here are two messages from adult male readers whose fathers died when they were young:
“If Only is that tight, long hug that I wish had been available for me when my father died.”
“You have captured the voices of adolescence, grief, naiveté, and guilt that visit those of us who lose parents while we are young. … If only there were more” authors who could “capture the quietly explosive combination of wishing for the past, concealed anger, and disbelief that strikes those who are forced to face tragedy before we are ‘ready.’”
Fiction author Barbara Esstman says scenes that give writers difficulty are often scenes they don’t want to write, or ones that are too painful. Did you have any of those scenes in this book? If so, how did you work through them?
There are a number of scenes that made me squirm as I tried to feel and convey the awkwardness and the pain of trying to communicate about the truly tough stuff. I forced myself to sit there and have the conversation in my head, even when I wanted to get up and make a cup of tea or go for a walk.
What writing advice have you found particularly helpful?
“Don’t over-protect your protagonist.”
What new writing projects are you working on?
A novel about a 17-year-old girl who gives some well-intentioned advice to her best friend that doesn’t turn out well. …
Valerie O. Patterson is the author of teen novel The Other Side of Blue, Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2009). She has an M.F.A. in Children’s Literature from Hollins University and is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She lives in Northern Virginia.