Thursday, September 5, 2013

Review - WARRIOR MOTHER, A Memoir by Sheila K. Collins

  Sheila K Collins

WARRIOR MOTHER: Fierce Love, Unbearable, Loss, and Rituals that Heal is the true story of a mother’s fierce love and determination, and her willingness to go outside the bounds of the ordinary when two of her three adult children are diagnosed with life-threatening disease. At a dance workshop, held to address the threat of the pandemic AIDS, the author admits she doesn’t know how to be the mother to her gay son. With the help of women in her spirituality group, she learns to say yes to what life is asking of her son, and of her, as his mother.

The author’s best friend, dying of breast cancer, asks the author to accompany her through what turns out to be, fourteen days of her dying, ironically preparing this mother for what lie ahead with her own children. Five years later, the author and her family confront again, a life and death circumstance – her 40-year-old daughter’s diagnosis of breast cancer. When the customary treatments fail, her daughter decides on a bone marrow transplant and the author visits a healer in Brazil on her behalf.

Experience as a professional social worker and family therapist doesn’t always help the author to cope, but her familiarity with improvisational song, dance, and storytelling, and women’s spirituality rituals carry her through. The book follows the family through memorials and celebrations of lives well lived, the impact of grief on those left behind, and the rituals that help them heal.

“We have to make art out of what happens to us,” writes Sheila K. Collins.Warrior Mother is a testament to how art-making, done in a sacred context,can transform tremendous loss.  Collins reminds us of the endurance and healing power of love–especially a mother’s love.”
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, author of Writing the Sacred Journey: The Art and Practice of Spiritual Memoir

“Just as love survives death, so too does spirit supplant mere survival. Sheila K. Collins has faced a parent’s worst fears and learned to still dance in their wake. Warrior Mother is a mother’s manual of profound honesty, hope, and healing.”
Marc Nieson, author of Schoolhouse: A Memoir in 13 Lessons

With courage and grace, Sheila K. Collins’ Warrior Mother generously invites the reader on her heartbreaking journey, with equal doses of candor and sensitivity. Admirably free of self-pity, physically and emotionally precise, her story is bound to enlighten others who have grieved and healed from the loss of a child.
—Sarah Saffian, author of Ithaka: A Daughter’s Memoir of Being Found

Sheila K. Collins, PhD has been a dancer, social worker, university professor, clinic director, writer, and improvisational performance artist. She currently directs the Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players, an InterPlay-based improvisational performance troupe that assists human service agencies in serving noble purposes in the Pittsburgh community.

Sheila has written about the power of play, dance, and the expressive arts in her book, Stillpoint: The Dance of Selfcaring, Selfhealing, a playbook for people who do caring work and on her blog, Dancing With Everything which is on her website,

Excerpt from Amazon:

People would often say to me, "This isn't the way it's supposed to be, children dying before their parents." They said it when my 31-year-old son, Kenneth, died of AIDS and again, seven years later, when my 42-year-old-daughter, Corinne, died of breast cancer. When Corinne died, I got a phone call from my cousin, who had lost her own daughter in a car accident twenty years before: "This shouldn't be happening to you," she said in an attempt to comfort me. When I asked who it should be happening to, she said, "Someone who hasn't already lost a child."

But I prefer not to think this way.  When I am in that place of questioning the circumstances of my own life, I picture the gravestones in the historical cemeteries our history buff father took us to visit as children. We kids would run from stone to stone, doing the math, and discovering children our own ages or younger buried there. I remind myself it's only in recent generations and in a country as fortunate as our own, where parents can expect to raise all their children, and to predecease them.

So I set out to write about my experiences as a mother who has lost two adult children to horrific diseases.  I wrote partly for my own healing, and partly to share with others what my family and I learned in the process.  Many people did not understand my spending so much time writing about this, especially my husband, Richard, whose style of grieving was entirely different from my own. He and I finally came to an understanding several years into the project, when I returned from a writer's workshop in Iowa City, held a couple of weeks after the town had suffered a significant flood.

I brought back two of the thousands of sandbags that had been stacked as barricades against the rising waters.  The empty sandbags had been decorated and made into handbags by artists in the community, and sold to raise money to help the local Habitat for Humanity with the cost of the clean-up. Before I'd left for the writers' workshop, Richard had said, "I hope someday you will find something more pleasant to write about."

My first night home I laid out the two handbags made from the sandbags alongside a folder that contained some of my writing. "My writings are my sandbags," I told him. "We have to make art, or at least something useful out of what happens to us, and we don't get to pick what that is."
People have asked me how I've survived all the tragedy and loss in my life.  Perhaps I've written the stories of my journeys with my children, other family members, and my best friend, in order to answer that question for myself. I know my grieving process has been strongly affected by remembering how hard both my children fought to stay alive, and all that they were willing to do to gain more life.  I have never wanted to dishonor them by wasting one moment of whatever precious life I am given.

Like a prospector panning for gold, with the help of my journal, I have panned and sifted through these experiences: of life, death, and the places in between. I have shaken the sieve in such a way as to uncover the valuable shiny nuggets in these stories, amongst the dirt, pebbles, and other debris.

This sifting and sorting has been, like the experiences themselves, tough at times, but also enlightening. Ultimately, I've come to appreciate the many ways that people confront illness, diagnoses and treatment decisions, and yes, even death; the many faces and masks of grief, as well as the precious gifts that come in dreadful-looking packages.

(from Warrior Mother - Fierce Love, Unbearable Loss, and the Rituals that Heal by Sheila K. Collins PhD.)

My Review

The memoir, WARRIOR MOTHER by Sheila Collins, is a story about using rituals to heal. However, in all honesty, that part of the book did not resonate with me, and I found myself skimming over those parts. Ironically, it was the story of her daughter's Christian faith that struck a deep chord within me. 

While Sheila was a liberal thinker and open to what she refers to as "alternative and complementary" treatments, her daughter, Corinne, was not. Corinne was a devout Christian and was open about how her faith helped to steer her decisions. Although Corinne received many books that people wanted to share, she knew better than to think that she "wasn't thinking positively enough if something negative came into her life" or "The disease may be something she created to get her out of a bad marriage or a dull job." Her attitude was that she "didn't need the disease to teach her gratitude for what God had given her. She loved her husband. She loved her job. She loved her children." 

There was one point in the hospital when her daughter had gone for testing, and Sheila was drawn in to conversation by a woman from a local evangelical Christian church. The woman had stopped by to visit with Corinne, and while waiting asked Sheila, "Have you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior?" Sheila's reply was "My daughter has," "Jesus is the center of her life. Me? I'm closer to his mother." That was one of those moments where their different religious orientations created a spot of uncomfortableness for Sheila.  

Corinne was someone whom people were drawn to. She made friends wherever she went, and while in the hospital, had a wall of post-it notes of people she was praying for while she was on her own cancer journey. While others may have felt sorry for themselves because they had cancer, Corinne looked beyond her illness, and put other's needs first. 

While there were people around her dying, there were also people being healed, and although her journey ended in her dying at a young age, Corinne made a difference in so many lives. She began writing an on-line journal about her illness, and had many people praying for her. Having to spend two weeks in the hospital in isolation left her wondering what she'd do to fill her time. Corinne had already begun a wall of prayer, and with so many empty hours looming ahead decided to ask those who had been praying for her to send pictures and prayer requests so that she could pray for them.  "This will keep me from focusing too much on myself." The prayer wall grew daily as more and more people who had been praying for Corinne sent in their prayer requests. Turns out the e-mails that she had been sending to her family and friends keeping them abreast of her medical developments had been forwarded far and wide, inspiring others to pray for her. 

Here is a quote from the book that I loved. "As the number of pictures grew, I (Sheila) began to recognize that my daughter's energy and influence were growing way beyond the confines of our family and her small community. By the end of her two-week hospital stay, the wall had grown to fifty or so pictures, enough to fill the large poster frames I'd bought to transfer the wall to the apartment when she was discharged. She told me later, "I asked God to use me, to use me for His greater purposes." It was clear her prayer was being answered. She was being used beyond anything my protective mother instincts would have selected for her. Years later, I read about a principle in Zen: 'Generosity is the antidote to fear.' I thought of Corinne's prayer wall and how she had focused on others in the midst of her own challenges and how that became a gift to her as well."

There was also humor in the sadness. "I envy her faith," Pearl (Jewish) would say, "but I don't understand it. I can't imagine how she stays so faithful." ...I was talking on the phone with Pearl form our hotel room in Houston. She felt so bad about all that Corinne was going through, and on this day, her anger at the situation got the best of her. "So where is her Jesus now?" she said, her anger erupting abruptly into my ear. From where I was seated in our hotel suite, I could see Corinne in the next room, sitting on her bed reading. "I can't say about Jesus," I told her, "but right now Corinne is reading a book about Job. I think he's one of your guys."

"The subject of Jesus came up another time, in a more subtle conversation with one of Corinne's friends. The friend had asked Corinne what she though Jesus was doing in relation to her situation. "I'm sure Jesus is crying too," Corinne said. "Prayers are always answered. It's just that sometimes the answer is no."

Corinne wrote the following in response to a newspaper story about her journey with breast cancer a few days before she died: "Reading my story is far from encouraging if you just hear the story over and over...This is a story about growing in faith, depending on God's provision...I have tried to do the right and Godly ways but it is not our acts that bring us to kneel before him. Instead of Him being a part of this world and His attention revolving around me, I AM HERE TO SERVE Him, and I revolve around HIM.  I can say I would trade this cancer experience but am still working on realizing (that) the meaning of this will come as I approach His throne and he calls me his good and faithful servant...Rejoice in Him and look to Him for all you need."

I am going to use another's words to sum up my feelings on this book. I completely concur with this review and could not have said it better myself.

"What I like most about this spiritual memoir is how Collins honors her children by valuing their differences and choices while maintaining her strong mothering bond. She also honors herself by doing what she needs to do to take care of her own needs, letting go of her need to control how they live their lives. While I may not prescribe to her belief system, I have a great deal of respect for her ability to not only find a way that works for her but also to reach out to others in a healing way. Her writing is engaging and believable and her story lingers in my mind and reinforces that healing is possible after the most profound losses any mother could experience. She delivers on her promise of showing us in vivid terms what it means to be a 'Warrior Mother.' A story of courage and hope, it is a gift to the world."

With that, I am giving WARRIOR MOTHER five stars. 

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. No compensation was given.
Purchase Warrior Mother: A Memoir of Fierce Love, Unbearable Loss, and Rituals That Heal on Amazon

YOU can win a copy of WARRIOR MOTHER by leaving your name and email (for contact purposes) in a comment on this blog. 
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  1. Donna,
    Thank you so much for your kind words about my book. I look forward to hearing the thoughts of your readers.

    1. It was a wonderful book. Thank you for stopping by.


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