Review: A parent faces the ultimate sorrow
Liz Tichenor is a young, newly ordained Episcopal priest living at an idyllic Christian camp on Lake Tahoe with her husband, toddler daughter and newborn son when the unimaginable happens. Concerned that her son is showing signs of distress—crying inconsolably for days on end, spitting up bile laced with blood—Tichenor takes her infant to an urgent care medical station. A doctor assures her the baby is fine and dismisses her; she trusts the doctor, chalks it up to new-mom jitters and returns home. Hours later, late on a January night, baby Fritz stops breathing, and Tichenor faces every mother’s most primordial fear: the sudden, inexplicable loss of a child.
“I brought my head close to my son’s,” she writes in The Night Lake, “to listen, to be reassured, but I wasn’t. I held my hand over his mouth. The air was still and dry.” EMTs fail to revive Fritz in their tiny cabin’s living room, and Tichenor and her husband Jesse follow the ambulance taking Fritz to the local hospital in their car.
It’s on that drive that Tichenor notes the lack of sirens. The ambulance sticks to the speed limit. “I knew. Jesse knew. We were both coming to understand that this was a show they were putting on for us, not for Fritz, who was not coming back.” On that drive, Tichenor first glimpses the night lake, a nighttime vision of Lake Tahoe. The beautiful body of water was suddenly “impenetrable,” she writes, “a blackness that I wished would swallow me whole.”
Tichenor does not shy away from chronicling the depths of her devastation, but interactions with her parishioners in the aftermath reveal the unique challenges of her role as both priest and mourner. She is moved from the role of comforter to one in need of comfort. Comfort is unsurprisingly hard to come by.
Tichenor elegantly articulates not just the problem with shallow expressions of sympathy, but with the way religious responses dismissed and minimized her anguish.
Tichenor reveals the awkwardness of the way our culture handles grief, especially among religious people. She writes of the bizarre aphorisms in the stacks of sympathy cards she receives. “The truth was that I was glad to hear from anyone, from everyone”—and yet she is horrified by some of the cards that arrive, bedazzled with rhinestones and glitter, assuring her that it was meant to be. “God needed another angel.”
She writes, “Laughing at these cards numbed a bit of the dull ache, if only momentarily.” Tichenor digs deeper, elegantly articulating not just the problem with shallow expressions of sympathy, but with the way religious responses dismissed and minimized her anguish. “Many of the cards tried to solve the problem of grief in a typeset line or two, rhyming if I was lucky, sometimes tying it up with some Scripture to offer a simple reason for my son’s death, or sometimes attempting to defend God’s honor.”
Tichenor is also startled by the willingness of some friends and family to enter into their grief for Fritz. She writes, “But some [who wrote], I could hear between the lines…actually allowed this death to break their hearts, allowed it to rend them into bewildering grief. They didn’t have to be here, yet they were choosing to join me.”
This sense of being joined in grief echoes throughout The Night Lake. Tichenor quickly learns how to distinguish between those she can trust with her devastation—her husband, her pastoral mentor, beloved friends from her days as an undergrad at Dartmouth—and those who “seemed to weirdly want me to take care of them, or who wanted to make it all seem all right, palatable, survivable, understandable, done.”
Tichenor’s grief is further complicated by her mother’s recent shocking suicide. Her struggle with alcohol, strange behavior and tendency to neglect Tichenor and her brother shaped the author’s childhood and young adulthood. What Tichenor thinks of as her own genetic predisposition to rely on alcohol haunts her in the early days of grief. She eyes the wine bottles lined up on the kitchen counter of their Tahoe cabin but resists the temptation to use booze as a comfort.
Instead she turns to running. Pushing her body over trails that wind along the lake, she challenges herself to longer and longer runs as the time since Fritz’s death eclipses his short life. Running gives her something physical and visceral to focus on. Solo runs turn into races, increasing in length and difficulty.
Tichenor's interactions with her parishioners in the aftermath of tragedy reveal the unique challenges of her role as both priest and mourner.
Tichenor recognizes the limitations of her body as well as its capabilities, and tentatively she and Jesse begin to contemplate having another child. She writes, “I felt guilty for it, ashamed that I wanted another already. Would people think we were trying to replace Fritz? I had no interest in using a child like this.” And yet the “desire to raise siblings” remains a constant for Tichenor and her husband, and soon she is reminded of a strange vision she had the night of Fritz’s death. It was that of another child, a boy.
“My mind turned to the baby I’d seen on that awful dark night. Sam, I had heard, clearly, spoken out of the darkness.” Eventually, she becomes pregnant again. Day by day she manages her fear and anxiety, as well as that of her toddler daughter, Alice, whose limited life experience leads her to believe, understandably, that the new baby will also be taken from them. Together, they move through the pregnancy and birth of baby Sam, ever mindful of what has been lost, yet grateful for what has come.
Tichenor’s experience—her hard-earned perspective on life, death and resurrection—necessarily works its way into her ministry as a priest. Now back in Berkeley, serving at her home church, Tichenor preaches at an Easter Vigil service. She writes, “I could not lie to them. I could not preach the light without naming the darkness, too. I returned to what I knew best, to the only way I could hope to know that Resurrection was true: the ways I’d mapped a path through darkness.”
In stunning, raw prose, Tichenor invites readers into a heartrending but ultimately hopeful story of grief, life and renewal. Returning to Tahoe to camp with her family, Tichenor and her husband take a daytime run around the lake, its darkness transformed into dazzling blue and then transformed again at night, no longer an abyss, but a bolt of “black silk cloth” held by an invisible hand.