South Charlotte

Surviving grief by recording blessings

At age 39, Kelly Buckley of Ballantyne never thought she'd be writing a book about grieving over the tragic death of her son.

As a former Canadian health care executive and as a freelance business writer, she always knew she wanted to write a book.

The book, which was self-published in February 2010, recently was recognized by the online book magazine, U.S.A. Books. "Gratitude in Grief: Finding Daily Joy and a Life of Purpose Following the Death of My Son," was a finalist in two categories: "Spirituality: Inspirational" and "Religion: Christian Inspirational."

Her son, Stephen, 23, passed away on July 4, 2009, while swimming with friends at Jordan Lake in Raleigh. As a goalie for the N.C. State hockey team, he had taken a hard hit during practice, causing a blood clot to form. The clot moved to his lung while he was swimming in the lake, causing him to drown.

"It was completely random," said Buckley. "Any strength I thought I had was completely eviscerated."

Buckley and Stephen had a close mother-son relationship. She gave birth to Stephen and his twin, Matthew, who died at birth, when she was 16 years old. She said she was able to grieve for Matthew while she grieved for Stephen.

"I never properly grieved for Matthew," said Buckley. "I tucked the pain away and tried to move on. When Stephen died, I finally embraced the pain of also losing Matthew."

The night she received the phone call about Stephen's disappearance while swimming, she and her husband, Brady, drove through the night to Jordan Lake from Kentucky, where they were visiting family. They arrived at 6:30 a.m., before the search team returned, and Buckley sat on the cove of the lake, praying for a miracle.

It was during this time that the idea for the book "Gratitude in Grieving" began to slowly take root.

"I tried negotiating with God, but I soon realized there was no negotiating with the 'Big Guy,' " said Buckley. "I don't know what made me do it, but I started trying to make a list of the things I was grateful for. I knew at that moment that in order to survive, I'd have to find things to be thankful for."

Buckley began writing the book in her car while she sat in the parking lot of the funeral home, waiting for Stephen's body to arrive.

"I started writing down all the little things I was thankful for, as a way to remind myself that there was still good in the world," said Buckley. "I needed to convince myself, and it took a lot of convincing."

One thing she was thankful for was that the divers had found her son's body.

"They found him, and I was able to say goodbye," said Buckley. "A lot of parents who lose their children never find them and never get that chance."

From there, Buckley sat at her laptop, feeling compelled to write.

"I can't explain the feeling, but I just needed to get (the grief) out," she said. "It just poured out of me - I couldn't stop writing."

For Buckley, writing became a coping mechanism. She wrote about her grief as it happened, detailing the overwhelming emotions both she, her husband and her younger son, Brendan, were feeling.

She also talked about the ways her family was trying to deal with the loss of Stephen.

"It was such a difficult time for us all, especially for Brendan," said Buckley. "I told him that in order to get through, we needed to find one thing a day to be thankful for. Some days were very hard, but it helped us get from day-to-day."

At first, the book was written just for herself as an outlet for grief. She had tried some bereavement groups but found them to be more negative than helpful.

"They seemed to perpetuate the grieving process and negativity, and I had to distance myself from them," said Buckley. "I began to wonder if there were other people like me who felt that there was a better way to grieve."

This thought prompted Buckley to publish her book. She sent her manuscript in to AuthorHouse, a publishing company for self-publishers.

"I was so happy I self-published," said Buckley. "I don't think I could have changed things in the book to fit some marketing campaign."

Buckley most recently got the news that she had been honored by U.S.A. Books in late October and felt surprised. "I'm so new to this that I'm glad people could connect to the book," said Buckley. "The award was awesome, but my reward comes from the e-mails I get every day from people telling me their stories. They tell me the book inspired them and taught them something about life - that's truly incredible."

Buckley is wrapping up her second book, detailing the lessons she learned from the first year of her grief and how she's going to apply them in the next year of her life. She said she's finally allowing herself to enjoy happiness again.

"When good things happen, I feel Stephen smiling," said Buckley. "It's like he's telling me to be happy, and in that way, I feel him around me all the time."