Finding a Way by Diane Simmons
United Kingdom: AdHoc Fiction (2019). RRP: £9.99.
Reviewed by Sandra Arnold
Diane Simmons’ book, Finding a Way, is a collection of fifty-one linked flash fictions which explore the complexities of grief. Twenty-two year old Becky has died from cancer, leaving her devastated family struggling to come to terms with it. The stories are narrated by Becky’s mother Liz, father Christopher, brother Sam and husband Jake over a three and a half year period following Becky’s death. Each story stands alone, but the collection as a whole has an overarching narrative which takes the reader on the family’s journey through grief.
While processing their own emotions, the family must also deal with other people’s reactions. Various forms of avoidance exacerbate their feelings of isolation, when for example, friends pretend not to see Liz, or avoid the topic of her daughter’s death, or use euphemism ‒ another form of avoidance. Liz: ‘I get so mad when people say my daughter passed away or passed on. Becky got cancer and died. She’s not passed anywhere’ (p15). Social gatherings cause pain through listening to people talk about their new jobs, travel and future plans. Sometimes friends offload their own problems. Liz: ‘I have no idea why she thinks I have any headspace for her problems, why she thinks it’s appropriate to moan about her child when I have just lost mine’ (p23).
When Christopher tells a new colleague that his daughter died of cancer, the colleague, initially appalled, is relieved when he learns it happened two years before. This sends a signal to Christopher that his grief should have an expiry date. When Liz offers condolences to an acquaintance whose husband had died six months earlier, the acquaintance says she’s grateful they had twenty-six years together. Liz: ‘She’s probably forgotten about my daughter’s nine-day marriage, perhaps she’s even forgotten Becky died. I think about bringing it up, but I stop myself. This is about Valerie, not me’ (p75).
Becky’s brother Sam likes taking showers because the noise of the shower enables him to cry unheard. Christopher googles to see if it’s true that after the death of a child most marriages end in divorce. To his relief he finds this is a myth. The couple are unable to make love because they can’t forgive themselves for being alive when their daughter isn’t. Later, Liz has a strong urge to have another baby: “I need the chance to give birth to another daughter. To try harder this time to keep my child alive’ (p32).
Two years after Becky’s death, Jake meets someone else and feels he is betraying Becky. Liz struggles to be happy that Jake is ready to move on with his life. Sam reacts with anger: “It just makes it clearer, doesn’t it – it just makes it clearer that Becky’s never coming back’ (p87).
Books on the subject of grieving the death of young adult children are scarce. Finding a Way is an important contribution. Diane Simmons, drawing on personal experience, writes with honesty, clarity, and without sentimentality. The stories highlight issues over grieving that will be painfully familiar to those who have lost a child. They will also act as a guide to those who cannot find the right words to say to the bereaved.
Sandra Arnold lives in Canterbury. She has published a book on parental bereavement Sing No Sad Songs (Canterbury University Press, 2011) and two novels. Her third novel Ash (Mākaro Press, NZ) and a flash fiction collection, Soul Etchings (Retreat West Books, UK) will be published in 2019. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing.