How One Mother’s Grief Led Her to Create a Haven for Thousands More

I hope I never know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of Sarah Shaw.

Sarah is the protagonist of my novel, Shelter Us. We share some demographic traits: mother of two boys, Berkeley JDs, residents of Pacific Palisades, California.

But Sarah is also the mother of an infant who died. I have not known that pain.

When I was close to finishing the manuscript, I decided I needed an expert’s advice to be sure it honored the truth of the grieving parent’s experience. As a novelist and mother, I could try to imagine what life would be like after the death of a baby. But I was terrified of misrepresenting the emotional terrain of a grieving mother and inadvertently adding insult to injury.

I reached out to Susan Whitmore – grief counselor, founder of griefHaven, and mother of Erika – who unfortunately has walked in Sarah’s shoes, asking for her feedback on Shelter Us.

Susan graciously and generously read my manuscript. She confirmed the things I’d gotten right, added nuance in places that needed it, and told me “that would never happen” in one pivotal scene. I’m eternally grateful for her openness.

Susan’s openness is what led me to be sitting in a hotel ballroom yesterday filled with Sarah Shaws – mothers, as well as fathers, grandparents, and siblings — who had experienced the death of a child.

We were there in support of griefHaven, a resource for grieving parents. Susan founded griefHaven after her daughter Erika died of a rare sinus cancer, and she became frustrated in her efforts to find help. She decided to create what she felt was missing. As she explains on the griefHaven website:

As I began my personal journey, I discovered there were many support tools, but they were scattered everywhere, and finding them was a painstakingly arduous process….I needed one place where I could learn about a variety of support tools available and, ideally, what other grieving parents and family members found helpful as well. It was then I decided I would put together that web site–a grief haven–where parents, siblings, family members, friends, and specialists could come and find all that was available…a foundation from which you may start rebuilding your life.

The luncheon was emotional. We heard from an array of griefHaven supporters and clients: We met Molly’s mom, who lost her 21-month-old daughter last year, and who bravely told us what it meant to her to see that there can be light in life after total darkness. We heard from Billy and Carol’s dad, former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, who lost his son to a scuba accident and his daughter to a heart attack. We heard from Jared’s cousin, now an eloquent 16-year-old, who opened a window to her then-six-year-old grieving soul upon the death of a baby cousin ten years ago.

We heard from Polly’s dad, Marc Klaas, who founded KlaasKids to prevent violence against children, and Ron’s sister, Kim Goldman, who has written a book called Can’t Forgive, about her brother’s violent murder twenty years ago. “It only takes a nano-second to be transported to a place you thought you’d never be,” she said.

It wasn’t an easy afternoon, but it was meaningful. Little Molly’s poised and sorrowful mother said that in the aftermath of her daughter’s death, she wrestles with the meaning of life. She shared with us with words Susan Whitmore had offered her that have helped:

“Maybe the meaning of life is just to grow our souls.”

With admiration, love and support for all who yearn for a haven for their grief, and for all those who provide it,


6 thoughts on “How One Mother’s Grief Led Her to Create a Haven for Thousands More

  1. I can’t imagine the grief.
    I read Shelter Us with dread because it is about a subject every parent fears. It is a beautiful journey and I love the book. Thank you Laura!

    1. Thank you for the comment, Joyce, one of my early readers! I should remind future readers not to dread reading “Shelter Us” because it’s also filled with hope, daring, joy and ultimately optimism.

      I know what you mean, though. It took me forever to pick up “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold because of its frightening subject matter, but like that book, the scary event has happened before you turn the first page. And then I LOVED that book. If Shelter Us is read 1/10th as much as “The Lovely Bones” I’ll be thrilled! (Pre-orders for Shelter Us will begin in the new year!).

  2. we should never know but when my husband and I were first married and everyone was having babies,one of our closest friends had not one but two babies die of what was then called Crib Death…how, I said to myself could TWO such occurences happen and then one of our friends had a baby boy born with “water on the brain…Another baby followed with the same birth defect. Many years later we me a couple whom we became very friendly with whose daughter was A SPecial Needs Child. They weren’t given much hope for her to live too many years but she lived until she was 39, but this made it much harder for them to cope with than if she had been taken much younger. It is a terrible thing to live with but we cannot ever accept why this should ever happen to us let alone others. There is a great deal of tragedy all around us. We pray they can somehow live with it! Good luck with your book….Love

    1. Claire, thank you so much for your comment. There’s a lot of pain around us, and it helps to remember that so that we can be understanding and mindful not only of the simple blessings that fill our lives most of the time, but to be compassionate and empathic to everyone, because we may not know what they are living through.

  3. I can’t wait to walk into Barnes & Noble and buy your book. I know it will be wonderful. If it’s about one’s soul, look at the soul who has penned the words. (One of your many) Biggest Fans … Sharla

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