Boldly into the Darkness: Living with Loss,
Growing with Grief & Holding On to Happiness
by Autumn Toelle-Jackson
Life for Autumn Toelle-Jackson started out happy, almost like a dream. When she entered her thirties, however, tragedy made up for lost time. Over the span of a few short years, she endured several miscarriages and the loss of her husband, a dear cousin, and child.
But one small cross-section of a life doesn’t do justice to the amount of love, resilience, growth and blessings a person experiences after such titanic losses. With each new harbinger of grief, Toelle-Jackson was forced to discover another way to survive the pain. In Boldly into the Darkness, she examines all the lessons and outcomes of her life story with aching intimacy and insight. The result is a portrait of healing so complete, it transcends the traditional survivor narrative and enters new territory, a bold light shining where before was only darkness.
It has been quite a while since I’ve read a memoir, so I was pleased to be presented with Autumn Toelle-Jackson’s Boldly into the Darkness: Living with Loss, Growing with Grief & Holding On to Happiness for review. Hers is a story including successive losses, within a short period, of people very close to her: her husband, cousin, then her daughter – and these were following more than one miscarriage. How in the world does one deal with such devastation? How does one overcome the painful fear of vulnerability by allowing the world into their private life?
One reason I found for the ability to realize these and other achievements came rather quickly. At the start of Toelle-Jackson’s narrative, she states, “ [D]espite traumatic events, it’s not a traumatic story. Instead, it’s a story overflowing with love and marked with loss.” When I read these words I felt a bit (selfishly, I admit) relieved, because I had begun to fear the darkness I felt sure was certain to be between the covers of this volume. Death and the destruction of humans, even strangers, is awful for most, and it is such a profound horror I think our brains are wired to not truly be able to grasp it in its huge, stark reality. However, I have also long said that witnessing the profound grief of those left behind makes me question which is more devastating to observe.
I don’t think the author necessarily sets out to comfort readers, and that’s all right – it’s not her job to do that. Moreover, the jolt of events are part of the reading experience and it’s up to us to digest what she offers responsibly, thoughtfully. Still, she does offer us something:
Over time, I learned that, with each new grief, I’d shatter and then find a way to survive, whether I wanted to or not. I learned that I had choices, and I’ve chosen to do more than live. I learned that while the darkness brought sobs of anguish and never-ending tears, it also held healing and rebirth. I learned to live with my losses. I found ways to grow from the grief I carry. More importantly, I learned to grab hope wherever I could find it and hold on tight, because sometimes the hope that things will get better was all I had.
This passage immediately struck me with the understanding that Toelle-Jackson was presenting her audience with a requirement of sorts: reading her story passively and feeling sorry for her isn’t a viable option. There is more to life than suffering, and crafting its sum—and any reading about it—as a mere grievance narrative, is counterproductive and not akin to what we are made to do, be and achieve. She continues: “Those we lose are more than the loss. They are love, laughter, and happiness. That should be their legacy. Their death shouldn’t define them. Our loved ones are more than that one point in time.”
With this, Toelle-Jackson claims her life and those of her loved ones for something and somewhere brighter and higher—the trick is getting to that spot. As the author moves forward with her story, beginning almost immediately with her husband Joe’s untimely death, she opens the door to the dark part of her life and allows us to gaze within. It is a complex area, organized in segments that play tricks on observer and participant alike, its sting delivered according to role as well as experience and understanding. One passage I appreciated most was that which drew on her relatability to natural forces, occurring during retreat to a small, Pacific-coast town in February. Here were gardens, parks, a beachfront, and as she makes her way through these and other spaces she recognizes actualities that comfort even as they present truth in their sometimes harsh reality. For example, a Japanese-styled garden whose calming area was suggestive of a poem, even within its sometimes wild spots, “a place where suffering was OK because it was part of existence. It was a place where brokenness mixed with peace and beauty because in nature it all goes hand in hand.”
Feeling the sun on her back perhaps enabled Toelle-Jackson to connect her thoughts to what she observed, as she “saw firsthand how life was sprouting out of the darkness of winter and growing from the small seeds of last year’s plants.” This is, of course, the cycle of death and re-birth we all recognize, and a theme Toelle-Jackson expands upon as she screams into the ocean and “the waves below me take their fury out on the rocks.”
I felt the turmoil in my soul. And like the waves releasing their power, I started to let go of my anger…I stood there and screamed, and the roar of the ocean drowned out the noise I made. With each shattering wave, I let go of some of my anger. Not all of it and not for forever, but it was a start. I knew I was angry and had been keeping the emotion to myself. But there on the cliffs, I gave it free rein to erupt from me like the water below.
But she also beckons us through entries to other portions of her past: growing up with a large family, including her beloved cousin Brittany; family trips; horse competitions; working toward future goals; attending college; and maintaining a long-distance relationship. We learn of the drudgery involved in the everyday (e.g. eight-hour drives) as well as the immensely joyful and satisfying: long conversations with Brittany or the college experience in which Toelle-Jackson took part in, that rite of passage involving making one’s own choices and learning how things work, what today we often call “adulting.”
These are presented because, as the author stresses, love without loss is not real, and has a talent for showing us this even within portions of life that often seem inconsequential, or at least not glaring examples of an ideal so profound. Her college days, she writes, were “pretty boring”; on weekends she preferred to drive home to compete with her horse, Norman, or stay in with a good book instead of attend parties. Certainly, it might be labeled as on a smaller scale of the love-loss match, but it illustrates the requirement that each one be paired with the other.
It is perhaps this understanding that enables Toelle-Jackson to direct her journey in a more productive fashion, and she does, guiding us as she moves through the lessons she must learn, drawing on the love and support of others as well as what lives within herself. She allows herself to grieve, is painfully honest in her self-assessments and observes, in search of meaning or some sort of recognition. Some of what she speaks of are “easily” recognizable truths, though there isn’t a formula to utilize and grieving is different for everyone. But one thing the author stresses through Boldly into the Darkness is the concept of understanding that we all have choices. She may have been thrust into the darkness, she tells us, but that doesn’t mean she can be forced to stay there, and she doesn’t. Finding her way out and learning to live with its remnants is her story, and she tells it powerfully, truthfully, with compassion for those who experienced it with her.
I don’t know if I could say which of those three is the most crucial “ingredient”; perhaps none are more vital than any other. The power socks it to us, providing the details of events that create scars in the soul. As her new world, a world now without her loving and much-loved husband, carries on, the author relates how she felt, what she needed, what she didn’t know she needed and how she came to learn. These are not always pretty truths, but Toelle-Jackson’s sincerity produces invaluable awareness for all of us, some of which could also be applied to ordinary relationships of all kinds—those with or without tragedy as partner, and those involving love, friendship or even just colleagues or neighbors—in which constructive honesty creates authentic bonding, the benefits of which are too numerous to list here. In turn, such authenticity reveals a care for others within a cyclical nature that turns back and shows people truths about themselves that they choose to follow up on or not. That Toelle-Jackson chose to wasn’t in itself a magic bullet: the journey had to be undertaken. Here she presents the peaks and valleys of that expedition, speaking truths without judgement in a manner many others could find solace in. Her writing is gracious and smooth, even when the emotions are raw and jagged, and I can’t help but consider what a thoughtful writer Toelle-Jackson is.
Boldly into the Darkness is a bit of a tour through that frightening space, as its author mines the deeper parts of her soul and the human psyche, determined to find the light that must exist alongside. She reminds us that though there is no love without loss, the dark cannot exist without light, and tells her story as one way to help others find something to grab on to that they too might pull themselves up and recognize that we are designed to survive. Individual losses present unique journeys, and various pathways she traversed might not work for some others. But the strength and hope Toelle-Jackson presents is a ray of brightness that may benefit all of us, in the best and worst of times.
About the Author
Autumn Toelle-Jackson has lived a life of love and loss, filled with happiness and marked by tragedy. Labels are too simple, but they do have meaning and they do tell part of her story: wife, widow, mother, survivor. The loss of a husband, a beloved cousin and mentor, her daughter, and miscarriages have left scars on her soul and memorial tattoos on her body, but Autumn learned to grow through it all. She found love and reasons to get up each day until those days strung into weeks, then months, then years. Autumn and her family created GrowingwithGrief to provide those who are grieving with a place to find community, resources, and help.
Autumn Toelle-Jackson’s website may be accessed here, and you can purchase Boldly into the Darkness at this page. This wonderful memoir may also be found at Amazon, Amazon UK and Books2Read, a page with links to major online vendors for the ebook and audio book.
Images courtesy Autumn Toelle-Jackson.
A copy of Boldly into the Darkness was provided by the author in order to facilitate an honest review.