After Casey Mulligan Walsh and I met in an online writers group, I wanted to hear her early mother loss story, but I soon discovered her familiarity with grief goes far beyond our shared experience, as does her wisdom. She became an orphan at age 12, lost her only sibling in young adulthood to a genetic cardiovascular disease that she also has, and later endured a painful divorce followed by the death of her firstborn, a son named Eric, at age 20.
Despite this cascade of losses, Casey does not define herself by them. Now retired from a speech pathology career and happily remarried for the past 18 years, Casey conveys a hard-won resilience coupled with radiant joy. She began writing in earnest over the past decade and is seeking representation for her memoir, tentatively titled The Full Catastrophe: A Love Story. You can read her writing and sign up for her blog at caseymulliganwalsh.com.
Tell us about “Before”
When I was small, in the 1950’s through 1967, I lived with my parents and my brother, and we had a pretty typical suburban life. My parents had met in Louisiana, where my mother grew up, during World War II. They settled in New Jersey, and my dad became a Fuller Brush man–the perfect profession for a charismatic, chatty Irishman—while she was happy to be at home with Tommy and me.
Beginning when I was in third grade, each of my parents had serious chronic health issues. My father had type 2 diabetes and heart-related issues (later assumed to be caused at least in part by a genetic disease called familial hypercholesterolemia, or FH), and my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. We had year after year of crisis and trauma related to their health and other events, including my being hit by a car, and this became the life I knew.
I was completely unprepared when my dad died of a heart attack at 50 on Easter morning when I was 11. I was even less prepared when my mother died only 10 months later, at 49. My mom had always been sick, but somehow I’d never expected she would die, too. Suddenly I was on my way to live with my father’s sister and her family in Upstate New York, while my 19-year-old brother married and moved south.
How did you cope “After”?
Academic success was the one thing I could count on. I’m that kid who had lost her family but still, I’m the salutatorian, because school was my safety zone. The day my mother died, I cried, because I was “supposed to.” I was sad, but I didn’t have the feeling of “Oh my god, this can’t be happening!” It was more like, ok, this is the next thing that happens now. The intense grief came later.
My aunt was lovely, but she grew up in a New England farm family where you don’t hug, you don’t talk about your feelings — very different from life with my warm Southern mother. At my aunt’s, they rarely went to a doctor, never asked me what I needed. Eventually I started babysitting and made my own clothes. I learned to take care of myself. In my teen years, I let friends’ moms mother me. I call it a life of “almost” – like a daughter, nearly a sister – a whole life of almost but not quite.
How did early loss impact your adult choices?
Repetitive loss drove my need for family. I went off to college, but I’d already met my husband, so I decided on a two-year degree. In retrospect, I understand that at that point in my life, I needed a family more than I needed an education, which has allowed me to have compassion for the young woman I was then. We got married and lived what looked like an idyllic upstate NY small town life. My in-laws lived across the street. My husband had this whole ready-made family that instantly took me in.
Then I had my son, Eric, my firstborn, and he led the way back to family for me. Yet I could be tucking him in the crib and have his funeral all planned. He’d be asleep and I’d be in tears — not literally planning a funeral but imagining the loss and feeling it deeply. Through my 20s, the time when my parents were alive felt like a fairy tale that had happened to someone else.
It wasn’t until I was in my 30s, as my three kids were growing up, that I allowed myself to connect with the fact that I’d had parents, to look in the mirror and think I look like someone. That was a big step for me. In those years, if I were up late watching a movie alone, I’d find myself crying for everything I’d lost, mostly for my mother. As I started feeling my husband’s family pulling away in the time leading up to the divorce, I think that’s when I really started grieving my parents.
Even before the divorce, I think I knew, but couldn’t articulate, that in creating this life that gave me the family and security that I needed, what I saw as the best thing about me – my intelligence, my academic achievements – didn’t make any difference to anyone. I got this big thing that I needed – family – but I lost a part of myself. Almost 20 years in, I went back to school and got bachelor’s and master’s degrees and had a career as a speech language pathologist. I see that as the beginning of saving myself. I drove an hour each way to school, with three kids and a difficult marriage. Looking back, what got me through, not just then but ever since I was that little girl with dying parents? Determination. I was never a secure kid, but I was always determined to figure things out.
And then your son, Eric, died
Yes, in the middle of the divorce. My “planning the funeral” when he was little hadn’t been literal. It was more about imagining another unthinkable loss. I did worry that he’d die young because of the FH he’d inherited, as had my brother and I, and my daughter. The irony is that he died in a car accident.
All the death and trauma in my early life, plus the contentious divorce, in a very odd way, prepared me for the death of my son. The intense two years before he died shook up every single thing I held on to. I worried I might not have the love of my children, the thing I wanted more than anything. It helped me see life and our connection to each other in a very different way.
The day that he died, the overriding feeling was, “So this is what it’s all been coming to. I’ve been learning to let go of Eric for a long time.” Because he’d been struggling with a number of challenges in his life, his death felt like a combination of a long terminal illness and a sudden tragic death, the worst of both worlds.
What inspired you to write a memoir?
The push for me internally to write the book was not, “I had this life of tragedy and look how resilient I am.” The story is more about how Eric and I had each become the people we were on the day he died. He had been in a bad place for several reasons, and I had been through my own struggles. I was not in shock, as some assumed, when he passed. One of the many reasons I wrote the book was to explain how it could be that I wasn’t.
When the police came to the door to tell me about the accident, my first thought was, “This is the day you knew was coming. Your job is to walk through it gracefully.” I never had the feeling of “this can’t be happening.” I pictured puzzle pieces floating in the air, then coming together. “Ohh, this is how it ends,” I thought.
Later, at the hospital, when they told me he had died, I thought, “I’ve had way too much practice at this.” I’d had a lifetime of knowing what death means. I also know that you can keep the people you’ve lost with you in other ways.
What does grief look like for you?
A lot of tears, but not all the time. When Eric died, I sometimes resented it when people thought I was doing ok based on how I acted, and then they didn’t acknowledge the loss. I was still sad, still grieving, but I’d been shaped as that 12-year-old. I learned very young that if you show that you’re sad or struggling, then people want to be around you even less.
How do you stay connected to the ones who have died?
Through Eric’s death and as I get older, I find I’m more open to things. I have a strong belief that they are with us. There are little signs everywhere, if you’re paying attention. For example, I see 11:11 on the clock all the time, and that reminds me of Eric. On his birthday one year, after my stepson had used my car and changed the radio station, Eric’s favorite song came on.
How do the losses impact you now?
Abandonment is still a huge thing, but as I get older, I know enough to identify it. Especially now in the pandemic, not being able to gather with family at the upcoming holidays triggers the fear that we’ll never resume what we used to do. So I just needed to give myself a day or so to feel the feelings of upset, then move on to plan B, creating our own day. And even though I have this core of resilience, I can do with my husband the same thing I did when Eric was a baby. I could cry in one minute if I pictured him dying and me being alone again.
I’m drawn to motherless daughters programs now, though it’s been so long since I had my mother that I don’t feel strongly of missing her in my daily life. My husband worked in child welfare, and we’ve discussed how I’ve weathered so much. But I had parents who loved me. Even though I lost them both by 12, I had them for those early years, and that made all the difference in who I became.
Because of my inherited FH, I always assumed I’d die young. Now, because of the new medications that are available, I have a whole new lease on life, and I’m determined – still – to find meaning in the losses.
What does acceptance mean to you?
It means never thinking “this can’t be happening,” which results from a childhood where lots of difficult things happened. By the time my brother died, I knew you couldn’t argue with death. But when Eric died, I understood a deeper truth, that “peace does not preclude sorrow.” Finding comfort and resolution in the things that have happened to us in no way diminishes our sadness over having to say goodbye too early to the people we love.