A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief
by Sheila Bender

Imago Press, 2009. ISBN 978-1935437046.
Reviewed by Lisa Shirah-Hiers
Posted on 11/01/2012

Nonfiction: Memoir; Poetry

In A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief, Sheila Bender offers a deeply moving account of the untimely loss of her young adult son, Seth, in a snowboarding accident just months before his anticipated wedding. Writing in present tense, Bender pulls us into her experience with an immediacy that is both painful and healing, universal and intimate. Interspersed in the narrative are poems she wrote both before her tragic loss and afterward, including the villanelle, "A New Theology" from which she draws her title.

As the book opens we are taken into the Denver hospital room where the curtains are drawn against bright sunlight and the respirator "whooshes" with the rise and fall of Seth's chest as the machine breathes for him. Watching and waiting for the angiogram that will prove that her son's brain is no longer receiving blood, she wonders why she is not angry at him for not wearing a helmet or angry at those who were with him for not insisting he do so. "Anger will trivialize this day, make what I need to do impossible," she writes. "Today, more than ever, my boy is an altar to which we bring our love. His shocking early death not a shock at all, exactly, but a finished poem..." (p. 25)

In the months that follow, Bender grieves, exploring the painful "what-ifs," works to accept Seth's death while honoring his life, and struggles to return to her teaching and writing and the business of living. She turns again and again to poetry as a vehicle to move her beyond her terrible loss to a sense of continuing connection with her son who now "has no likeness of a body and has no body." (p. 102) Her writing is rich with details that draw us directly into her experience as she sprinkles Seth's ashes at the beautiful Gold Mountain Resort site where his wedding was to be held and in the waters of Discovery Bay in Port Townsend where he liked to kayak. She reminisces about his unique take on life with family and friends and attends memorials in his honor, cooks chili from Seth's favorite recipes, and walks through the home he designed. In and among these exquisite details are poems—poems she read and poems she wrote on her journey to accept the unacceptable. The power of the written word and especially of poetry to capture, hold and transcend her experience and memories becomes a pathway, a kind of map for all who have suffered loss and tragedy and sought to both overcome and honor it.

Sheila Bender is an award-winning poet, writer, writing coach and teacher. She has published essays, poems and reviews in numerous literary magazines, anthologies and newspapers as well as articles and columns about writing in Writers Digest and The Writer. She is the author of many how-to writing books (including Writing and Publishing Personal Essays), three poetry collections and is co-author with Christi Killien of Writing in a New Convertible with the Top Down: A Unique Guide for Writers. In 2009 she published A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief to deal with the loss of her son, Seth, who died in a snowboarding accident, and to help others to cope with loss in their lives. To learn more about her "Writing it Real" classes and workshops or to order her books visit her website. For more background on Sheila's teaching and writing activities, read her interview with Carol Smallwood, Sheila Bender: A Writer's Life.

Check out our interview with the author of A New Theology.

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