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A condensed version of the first part of this book appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine on Father's Day in 2000. The book, entitled Losing Jonathan, runs about 56,000 words. It is divided into two groups of short sections: the first series of sections explore the year before our son Jonathan's death, his battle against heroin addiction, and the close bond between parent and child. The second series then traces the curve of parental grief over the next six years, reflecting on the turbulent struggle of such experience,with particular emphasis on the difference between the interior journey of a father and a mother, husband and wife.

In general terms, Losing Jonathan could be considered within the tradition of memoirs on parental grief, a tradition which often combines "the story" itself with considerable reflection and valuable advice. Like other books of this kind, our book is a record of intense human sorrow: how we experience it and how we endure it. Like all books of this kind, it is difficult to read because of the nature of the suffering, but it is finally a book of hope, demonstrating the strength of the human will to survive. We hope it will be helpful not only to people who have suffered loss, but to everyone, especially parents, who care about their loved ones.

Losing Jonathan offers some unique features within this tradition. The first part wrestles with the struggle of heroin addiction, ending with Jonathan's death from a drug overdose. Many books about parental grief discuss the traumatic battle for the lives of children leading up to the moment of death: death by car accident, cancer, stillbirth, heart defect--all terrible tragedies. Yet very few books offer an honest and detailed account of that struggle in terms of drug addiction, especially when told by ordinary citizens, a father and mother, from the upper middle class. The second part also offers some unique characteristics. In particular, the reader hears two voices, the voice of the father and the voice of the mother (taken from extensive journal entries), and so the reader senses the complexity of parental grief within a family context.

Many books in this tradition offer a single story of loss from the perspective of a mother, or several stories, often gathered by professionals, based on interviews and case histories. The French writer Genevieve Jurgensen, for example, recently published a moving book, The Disappearance, a series of meditative journal entries, reflecting on the death of her two daughters in a car accident. Doris Lund, a journalist and mother, has written Eric, a memoir on the death of her son from leukemia; Elizabeth Mehren, the LA Times writer, has written a stirring book about the loss of her child as result of a stillbirth. Judith Bernstein in When the Bough Breaks, Ann Finkbeiner in After the Death of a Child, and Barbara Rosoff in The Worst Loss have traced and commented on the experiences of several families suffering from the loss of children.

Like our book, these books offer important human patterns of grief and its consequences, and they make worthwhile suggestions for parents in need of comfort, as well as for friends who might want to help. Unlike these books, our book offers a strong male voice wrestling with deep emotions along with the voice of a mother. It also explores some of the implications of the drug culture, as well as the meaning of the father-son bond. In addition, it demonstrates how good literature and tradition can make a difference in our lives and even help us survive.

Although about 70% of books on parental grief are written by women, men have also contributed to this tradition. Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther, the story of his son's heroic battle with a brain tumor, has become a classic, as has Harold Kushner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People. From journal entries, Gordon Livingstone, a medical doctor, has also written an impressive book, chronicling the family's battle to save his son from brain trauma and the grief following the tragic loss. In terms of overall structure--one section addressing the events before death, the other section addressing the loss itself-- Livingstone's book, Only Spring, is close to ours. His use of journal entries is different, however, as is the cause of death and the reflective sensibility.

There are also books written by men from the Christian pastoral tradition: Lament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstorff and Gone but Not Lost by David Wierbe, for examples. In the last part of our book, a spiritual dimension emerges, but unlike these two examples, the traditions and sensibilities we draw on are primarily Jewish and liberal humanistic. In fact, there is a very strong thread throughout the book suggesting our belief that literature can redeem us. One other excellent book, Against the Dying of the Light by Leonard Fine, creates a Jewish context and sensibility, but his story is about the loss of his daughter from a defect in her heart, and focuses primarily on coming to terms with the grief after her death.

Our book fits into the tradition of narratives about parental grief, although it has unique characteristics. Judging from the variety and number of letters we received from readers of the Boston Globe article, the audience interested in this story ranges from fathers who have lost sons to children concerned about their parents; from any parent with a son or daughter to addicts of all ages; from professionals concerned with the war on drugs to students interested in the humanities.

It is also important to note that each year in the United States parents survive the deaths of 228,000 children and young adults. (This figure does not include stillbirths or miscarriages.) Using this calculation, we can assume that approximately 9% of the adult population has experienced the death of a child and that there are millions of bereaved parents who could use some help. In addition, recent estimates suggest one out of every three people in the USA has a relative suffering from substance abuse. We like to believe that our book could make a difference to these people and others.

Robert Waxler


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