In Disaster Falls: A Family Story, Stéphane Gerson frankly shared his experience as a bereaved parent.
There is never an ordinary death of a child, and except in the cases of illness it’s rarely anticipated. This death, Owen’s death, happened during vacation while white water rafting. Owen and his father, Mr. Gerson, fell out of their water craft in a spot known as Disaster Falls. Owen was eight years old.
Mr. Gerson began writing “because there were no words.” He wanted to understand how people find themselves in catastrophes. He wrote to “dispel the notion no one, not even us, could imagine what we were going through.” He wrote because disasters are about the dead and the living. He wrote to give rise to the idea that something other than “horror stories and bottomless vacuity” could represent disasters.
When the complexity of emotion is beyond grasp, writing can help to draw meaning from the experience. Mr. Gerson graciously invited readers to come along as he tackled big questions. He described what it was like to see his son in the water, just out of reach. He described his experience looking for him on land, hopeful he had come to shore, and then his thoughts when he first saw his son’s body. He detailed the discussions about the safety of a ducky on the whitewater and his uneasiness with his son’s decision. He talked about being with the other families the night of the accident, alongside the river that killed his son, and yet feeling isolated. He talked about his subsequent research of Disaster Falls and the court case that followed. He talked about his relationships with his father, wife, and older son.
He laid it all out. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from a letter, card, or conversation after Owen’s death.
What was Owen’s favorite thing to do?
Just to know, I feel really sorry for you and Owen was a great kid.
Was the water deep?
Was Owen eight turning nine or nine turning ten?
I know how it feels to lose someone because I lost my grandmother.
This is not an easy memoir. It is brutal in places. It is unspeakably heartbreaking and traumatic. Mr. Gerson included the beautiful aspects of his life with Owen and without him, as well; it just that this isn’t the lilting kind of memoir where I came away feeling vital and connected. I felt bruised and raw - just the tiniest fraction of what Mr. Gerson has experienced.
If you are a bereaved parent, grandparent, or sibling, this memoir is going to feel different. You may feel relieved by Mr. Gerson’s frankness and courage to say things other people do not. It may feel like too much.
If you are close to a drowning incident, this book is full of triggers.
If you want want an honest, vulnerable view of mourning and grief from a father’s perspective, I can’t recommend this enough.
I see a lot of incredible moments of the human experience while being with families in love and grief. From each family I learn, and those lessons and points to ponder are what I wish to share with you here.