Losing a parent is a devastating experience, especially when the person suffering that loss is a child. Carole Geithner, a clinical social worker, counsels children through these tough times. Now, her book, If Only, brings her wise and sympathetic voice to a larger audience. Her young adult novel may be fiction, but many readers—both children and parents—-will identify with her characters and take comfort from her message.
While Geithner doesn’t minimize the pain of the loss, her hope is that children will understand that, yes, they can survive. “There’s very little fiction that really gets into that,” she said over tea in a restaurant near American University. “There’s a lot of fiction where a parent dies—that’s a standard premise—the children are abandoned, and then they go off on an adventure, and have this victory, taking on the demons. But not many books that actually talk about the grief and how to get through it. That was definitely a part of what motivated me to write the book. To show that [the death of a parent] changes us forever but is survivable.”
These days Geithner, who is married to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, divides her time between New York and Washington. She helps to lead support groups at the Bereavement Center of Westchester and teaches a course to medical students at the George Washington University Medical School where she is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “They call it `Practice of Medicine,’” she explained about the medical school course, “but you could call it `Listening Skills’ or `Bedside Manner.’” She added: “Everybody needs to be a better listener.”
Geithner’s listening skills are displayed within the pages of her novel. She manages to capture the children’s voices, particularly the voice of the book’s main character, Corinna, who is 13 when her mother, Sophie, dies during the summer after a battle with cancer. Corinna’s father, consumed with his own grief, tries his best to care for his daughter, but often leaves her to fend for herself. Returning to school in the fall, Corinna feels like a fish out of water.
Everyone—worst of all, my friends—has pretty much avoided me all summer. But now they won’t be able to. And everyone else…Well, I figure if they don’t already know my “news,” as soon as they find out, I’m going to be the class freak. Or the class pity project.
“I was working a lot with that age group at the time, with kids who had suffered a serious loss. That helped me [with the children’s voices],” she said. Her daughter and son were also around Corinna’s age while she was writing the book. “I was hearing that language all the time in my car pools.” Her children served as fact checkers, telling her when “something was off.” One scene in the book has Corinna talking to Franklin, a boy in her class. “My son told me there was no way a boy was going to say that much,” she said with a laugh. “So I had to really scale back what he shared with Corinna. That was very helpful.”
Besides the language, Geithner manages to touch on situations that children encounter after a parent dies. Friends, even best friends, often pull away, say the wrong thing, or say nothing at all. Corinna’s best friend, Joci, tiptoes around the topic.
Joci is supposed to be my best friend, but we haven’t actually talked in what feels like forever….She sent me a card a few weeks ago but, basically, she’s been MIA for months.
“There’s nothing your best friend is going to say that can fix [what has happened],” Geithner explained. “You don’t want your best friend to pull away from you. You want them to treat you normally. You want to be normal even though this major change has happened. So sometimes you have these conflicting needs and wishes and the friend can’t tell. Should I talk about it? Does she not want me to talk about it?”
Geithner was 25, married, and in graduate school when her mother died. Even though she was older, her experience was similar to what young children go through. She wanted others to acknowledge her loss, but worried about breaking down in public. “I think that’s a common reaction,” she said, a feeling Corinna has when a well-meaning teacher expresses sympathy.
I tell myself, “I must not cry at school or I might not be able to stop. I must not cry at school.”
Corinna is asked to join a bereavement group led by a school counselor, similar to the groups run by Geithner. “There’s an empowerment being with kids who have had somewhat similar experiences because you don’t feel you’re the only one,” she said. Initially resistant, Corinna also discovers children whose situations are perhaps more difficult than her own. Jasmine’s father, a U.S. Marine, died in an explosion in Afghanistan, while Max’s father killed himself. Geithner purposely included these situations to embrace children who have lost a parent through war or suicide.
“There are some special things about losing a parent in war,” she said. “The parent has often been absent for a long time and that’s already taken somewhat of a toll on the family unit, wondering if mom or dad is safe, dreading that doorbell ringing, someone in uniform showing up to give the bad news.” After a military death, the remaining family must move off the base within a year. “There are secondary losses of school and housing and community and people who understand the whole military culture,” she said.
Geithner said rather than “committing suicide,” she was careful to use the words “death by suicide,” the new way of phrasing this loss of life. “`Committing’ implies that the person feels he has a choice and it’s so rare that the person feels he has a choice,” she said. “Most of the time, a person views suicide as the only way to end the pain.”
Children tend to blame themselves for any kind of death, but particularly with suicide. The questions linger: “What could I have done? Could I have prevented it? If I was better would they not have done this?” Kids also blame themselves when parents divorce, but with suicide, the pain is accentuated, she added.
Geithner didn’t set out to become a social worker. After graduating form Dartmouth, she worked for Common Cause and in the evenings volunteered at a crisis hotline. She decided she had found her calling and went on to earn her master’s degree in social work at Smith College. As a school counselor in Washington’s inner city, Geithner helped children cope with the pain of loss and separation. She moved with her husband to Japan and counseled English-speaking families. Returning to the U.S., she ran groups for children and worked in American University’s counseling office, seeing both undergraduate and graduate students. Loss, she discovered, could affect a person’s relationships throughout a lifetime.
How can an adult help a child hold onto the memory of the parent who has died? Friends of Corinna’s mother share their recollections in letters. “If your parent dies when you’re quite young, you’re not going to be able to have as many memories,” she said. “You need other people to fill in the blanks, to help you know who your parent or sibling was. I really feel that [sharing those memories] is a gift you can give when the time feels right.”
For more information on the book, visit Carole Geithner’s website
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Eat: Pesce (Dupont Circle)
Favorite Place to Shop: Bethesda Avenue
Favorite Washington Sight: Dumbarton Oaks Gardens in Spring
Favorite Washington Moment: When the cherry trees bloom and the National Book Festival on the Mall
What You Love About Washington: The interesting mix of people
What You Hate About Washington: When people can’t listen to each other because of their politics