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A private ordeal on printed pages
SoVaNow.com / October 10, 2013It was soon after the 11th anniversary of her son’s death that Shelley Ramsey came to the belated conclusion that, finally, it was time to open up to the world — and share what she knows from years of grieving.
“I’m a very, very private person,” she said, “so this was difficult.”
The result of Ramsey’s reckoning is “Grief: A Mama’s Unwanted Journey,” a 136-page book that recounts the death of her oldest son, Joseph, in a 2002 automobile accident and the searing aftermath for the Ramsey family. The book cover features a photo of the ocean taken by her youngest son, Wyatt, in Savannah where he attended college. The image is meant to evoke the first-time author’s “sea of grief.”
It’s a sea that has taken Ramsey many years, and much pain, to traverse.
“The grief process is very long, and it was very hard for me. I just want to offer other people going through it the hope that I had,” said Ramsey.
That hope, she explains, is the comfort in Christ, which she ultimately came to feel after many painful moments: “I think of [the book] as an act of obedience, because this is what God wanted me to do.”
Joseph Ramsey died in a car accident on Feb. 23, 2002, only 17 at the time. Early in the book, his mother writes about the mundane events leading up to the tragedy — the “men’s breakfast” of bacon, eggs and biscuits that Joseph and his father Phil shared at their church, Faith Community in Centerville, that Saturday; the early morning hustle and bustle at the five-person Ramsey household; what her son was wearing when she last saw him alive. Then, the shock of the accident: Joseph motionless, his car demolished beneath a tree, “his life on this earth over,” writes Ramsey.
“And our lives on this earth forever changed.”
Seven years passed, said Ramsey, before she was truly able to come to terms with her son’s death, she said. She acknowledges that her manner of grieving “honestly took me much too long” — in contrast to her husband, who was more viscerally upset, but also more able to move on with life.
“Phil grieved so hard, immediately, right at the sight of the accident. The first few days at home, it didn’t matter who was in the house or what was going on, he could shut it out,” said Shelley Ramsey. But he also came to grips with Joseph’s death much sooner: “He was definitely the healthier of the two of us.”
Looking back, Ramsey said, she made the mistake of thinking that she could get through her loss by holding onto the routines that shaped her life prior to Joseph’s death — by doing all the things a mother is called upon to do. “I still went through the basic motions every day,” she recalled. All the time, though, the pain only grew worse: “That summer was horrible. No one knew. I’d go work and the kid’s ballgames and then I’d come home and get in bed and I’d cry and I’d cry.”
Grief, she said, is “just ugly.”
That feeling informed her approach to writing about the impact of Joseph’s death. Of all the books she and her husband read about the grieving process, “There was one that reached us” — entitled “Lament for a Son,” by Nicholas Wolterstorff. A Christian philosopher, he described his shaken faith in the aftermath of such a crushing loss. Ramsey said she wanted to aim for something similar: a book that would be “very, very honest about the rawness and the realness of mourning for a lost child.
“A lot of the other ones out — I hate to use the word ‘flowery,’ because flowery and grief don’t go together, but they were more of a pat yourself on the back [type of book], and that didn’t meet me where I was,” she said.
To write convincingly of that place she found herself, Ramsey discovered that she needed to do more than merely rise to the challenge of writing a narrative. She felt she had to revisit every detail of son’s death — from reading over old journal entries that both she and her husband penned, to interviewing the emergency personnel who were the first to reach Joseph after the wreck.
It wasn’t easy: “The boys [her sons Curt and Wyatt] kept pushing me, ‘Mom, you’re not being honest about that time, how did you react’ and they kept encouraging me” to open up, Ramsey recalled. She would produce draft chapters and turn them over to a friend for her input, and the response would be much the same: “She would say, ‘I don’t understand this, you have to go into more detail.’
“I had to go back [to that time] to write this book; that wasn’t always pleasant. Even reading our old journal entries, that wasn’t pleasant.”
If she learned one thing from her grief, it was that some things can’t be rushed — not even, in her case, over a span of seven long years of misery.
“The main message of the book, if you’re going through this, and you have to grieve, is that you have to take your time to grieve.” It’s also important to communicate with those closest to you, despite the impulse to withdraw from the pain. “I was very honest about depression being a part of the grief process.”
What she learned as she and her family recovered from Joseph’s death, Ramsey said, is that “everybody’s grief is different. Even in our own family, we lost someone different. Everybody had a different relationship with Joseph” — mother and son, brother with brother, son to father — “ so we all grieved differently.” By the same token, she found herself struggling with consolations of others, words that were well-meaning, she fully understood, yet off-putting. In her book, Ramsey advises against telling a grieving parent, “I know how you feel.
“We know one day to expect to bury our parents and our grandparents and even our spouse, but we never expect to have to bury our child.”
The book ends on a hopeful note: the “grief essence flows like the ocean tide,” she writes, but it carried her to an understanding that joy is possible even when happiness has been extinguished.
“There’s a clear line between happiness and joy,” she said, explaining that the former ebbs and flows with day-to-day life, while the latter “comes from facing God, from knowing Jesus Christ. When we grieve and we grieve for a long time, we have to come to a crossroads. Grief can make you have to stop and choose which path you’re going to take. Even when we bury our children, there’s still so much to be thankful for. Learning what to be thankful for is what personally gives me joy.
“At some point, it was a matter of surrendering my grief to God. It was, ‘You know what? You know best — and I’m giving this to you.’”
Shelley Ramsey will host an open house to launch the publication of “Grief: A Mama’s Unwanted Journey” on Friday, Oct. 25, 6-9 p.m. at the family’s home at 2700 Fernwick Drive, South Boston. All who are interested in learning more about the book are invited to attend. Copies are available for purchase locally at the Halifax County Visitor Center, Southern Plenty, Turn’n Headz Salon, Common Grounds and The Packhous. The book is also available for purchase at Amazon.com and the Barnes & Noble bookseller website. The publisher is WestBow Press, a Division of Thomas Nelson. For more information, visit http://www.shelleyramsey.com
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