Resource Reviews for February 2021:
A Walking Disaster: What Surviving Katrina and Cancer Taught Me about Faith and Resilience
Jamie Aten (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2018, 212 pages, hardcover, softcover, Ebook)
Jamie Aten is the Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian Disaster Leadership and Executive Director of Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College. He is also a cancer survivor, having been diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer at age 35.
Aten’s professional research emphasized the way disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and epidemics affect people who experience them. When the author received his cancer diagnosis, the physician, after hearing of Aten’s disaster work, remarked, “You’re in for your own personal kind of disaster” (14). This comment would provide a frame for the author’s experience and his book.
A Walking Disaster is engagingly written. The text is balanced by end notes with research citations and pages of recommended reading arranged by chapter. It not only chronicles a disease narrative, but also a professional narrative as the author’s experience with major disasters is expanded to include personal disasters, such as a cancer diagnosis. Written from a Christian perspective, the book is part information about the ways people respond to disasters, part survivor story, and part spiritual journey. In the preface to the book, Aten states, “Though I never would have chosen it, what I learned along the journey that threatened my life ultimately reshaped my soul” (xiv).
Concepts such as meaning making, survivor guilt, and Stockholm syndrome, to name a few, are interwoven with details of Aten’s spiritual journey and illness narrative. A surprise to this reviewer was the author’s discarding of the idea of “resilience” in favor of the spiritual virtue of “fortitude”:
The Church has long taught fortitude as the virtue of adversity and named it as one of the biblical fruits of the spirit (Gal. 5:22), marked by endurance and enterprise…. ‘Fortitude is the guard and support of other virtues,’ noted Enlightenment period English philosopher and physician John Locke. The concept captured my experience and the experience of so many other survivors who didn’t feel like the popular definitions of resilience captured their experience (186-187).
While some who are undergoing their own personal disaster might find the book comforting and reassuring, others might find it hits too close to home to read in the midst of the struggle.
Aten’s book is thoughtful, honest, and provocative. It is appropriate for anyone dealing with a serious illness and for those who share their journey.
Reviewed by Vicki G. Lumpkin MA MDiv PhD BCC, Chaplain retired.
i understand: pain, love and healing after suicide
Vonnie Woodrick (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2020, 142 pages, softcover)
When the final tally of the pandemic deaths is completed, will we ever know how many suicides were directly or indirectly caused by it? Probably not. But they will be many, and ministry to the survivors awaits. Vonnie Woodrick has written an honest and moving account of her family’s journey dealing with her husband Rob’s death by suicide in 2003.
In seven sections of brief chapters, her family story unfolds. The first three sections (letter, fairy tale, and tragedy) begin with the thank you letter she sent to the hundreds of people who initially provided support, but who gradually disappeared as months passed. It continues with the story of her seemingly idyllic life, at least outwardly, including their three young children, a life overtaken by Rob’s business failure, his anxiety and depression, and a life that ends by his hanging himself in their garage.
In the fourth section (grief) she describes the devastation the suicide brought upon her and their fifteen-year-old son and twelve- and five-year-old daughters. She describes her pain: “At the time, I didn’t understand that grief lasts forever. Grief flows like a stream in the core of our being. At first, the pain of grief strikes like a tsunami, sudden and unexpected. Thankfully, the torrents of emotion get further and further apart. The pain is always there but it does subside” (58). She also describes the pain resulting from the stupid things people did and said, thinking they were being supportive, or worse, their gradual disappearance from her life.
In the fifth section (hope) she observes that she “found the silver lining of hope in the smallest of things—everyday occurrences that took on new and unexpected meaning …” (69) and describes some of them. She makes self-reflective observations in the sixth section on healing, including “I believe that the moment we dare to admit that good things can come out of the bad—even death—is when we truly begin to heal and find our path. It is then that we can open our hearts to love again” (88).
Ten years after Rob’s death, together with her children, Vonnie formed the foundation i understand. In the seventh section she describes its core beliefs, goals and actions. (For more information see https://iunderstandloveheals.org/.) She lobbies for replacing Webster’s definition of suicide with the following: “suicide is a side effect of pain, the result of mental illness, mood disorder, and/or physical pain” (117). She shares the goodbye letter she wrote to Rob in 2019. She writes about her hopes and dreams including “a world where people talk freely about illness and pain … [and] a place without judgment, where mental pain is understood and acts of self-harm are seen as byproducts of mental, physical, or emotional pain” (123). Each of Rob’s children, now adults, share their journeys since their Dad’s death. This moving story is highly recommended reading for all who have lost a love one to suicide and for those who offer them care.
Reviewed by Roy F. Olson D. Min., a retired BCC who specialized in behavioral health chaplaincy.