Book Review

Losing a child.

As you read those words, do you have a visceral reaction?  A tightening of the belly? A gasp? One does not have to be a parent to feel the fear, the pain. One just has to be human.

Children die—of illness, accidents, violence—but when a child dies of suicide, as did Eileen Vorbach Collins’ fifteen-year-old daughter Lydia, on December 18, 1999, complex layers of grief and trauma are left for those left behind. There is a stigma. There are endless questions from those on the outside—and from within. And there is that terrible, dead-end word: “why.” “Although we may always look for the why,” Collins writes, “we will never find it. The only why I am sure of is why I write this pain …. What else am I to do with it?”

Love in the Archives: a patchwork of true stories about suicide loss is the culmination of what Collins “did with it,” a gorgeous collection of short pieces about Lydia, their relationship, and what life is like for a parent after her child’s suicide. Collins fittingly calls the book “a patchwork.” The forty-five or so flash “patches” fit together loosely, the space between them providing necessary room for breath. Reader, you will need that room, as the pain on the page demands that you pause, often. This is not a read-in-one-sitting affair, yet it is a truly compelling book that you will not put down for long.

We feel safe in Collins’ hands, even as she takes us to and through some difficult territory. Mirroring the experience of trauma, the pieces move about in different directions. “Like my grief, like my life, there is no narrative arc,” Collins writes in the preface. Yet each short essay sheds light on experience and, taken together, create a sad and shimmering whole. Collins writes in wide-ranging forms. Most are first-person accounts, but several are in the second person—Collins’ direct addresses to Lydia. There are several stories from her childrens’ points of view, as she imagined them. There is even a third person story using pseudonyms. “Perhaps I was trying to pretend it was all fiction—that these things had happened to someone else,” Collins explains.

Through these stories, we get to know Lydia, a teen who loved to collect things, who was driven to create, who read widely, wrote, drew, painted, and played the flute. We see Lydia’s childhood joy give way to anger, rebellion, and depression. Collins also shares her own marital struggles, challenging childhood, and her mother’s physical and mental illness. She writes thoughtfully about religion and the natural world—there are pieces that center around trees and cicadas. There is light and humor weaved in with the pain.

This would all have been enough. Given that suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents ages 10-14, a memoir so honestly and openly dealing with the subject would be a welcome and necessary addition to the literature of loss. But what allows Love in the Archives to stand apart from other such recounting are the many lessons Collins shares about the broader topic of grief.

In Love in the Archives, we journey along with Collins through her days of magical thinking; we hear her screams in the dark, and sometimes, we may want to close our ears. The pain of bearing witness, and our desire to have it all gone, underlies our society’s dismissive attitude toward those in the throes of grief. “We need to ditch the toxic positivity,” Collins writes in “You Light Up My Life,” a letter to a long-deceased Lydia. “I don’t want to hear you’re in a better place or that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. Most of all, I don’t want to hear that time heals all.” The initial grief that brought Collins to her knees is still with her over twenty years later: “(W)hile eventually I stood and walked, returned to work, raised my son, that grief wove its way into my marrow. It’s in my gut, on the surface of my skin, and in every beating cell of my heart.”  Having myself lost my first husband and my mother years ago in two separate car accidents, I feel this deeply. As a former psychotherapist, I also resonate with Collins’ challenge to the parameters the psychiatric community has constructed around grief.

In March 2022, the American Psychiatric Association added Prolonged Grief Disorder (PGD) to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V. Justifications for that addition include increased accessibility of services for the bereaved. I’m all for increased accessibility to services, yet is pathologizing grief the best way to go?

An adult with PGD is said to experience “intense yearning/longing for the deceased person” and/or “preoccupation with thoughts or memories of the deceased person” that persist at least one year after the loss. Collins certainly fits that bill: “I’m sometimes still, after 20 years, preoccupied with memories of you . . . The experts led me to believe one year would be a turning point. That when 365 days and nights had passed, I would be able to pack you away like yellowed letters from a long-forgotten lover . . . I’m no science denier, but I fear the experts may have missed the mark here.” They sure have. Collins writes that in the twenty-plus years she’s been without Lydia, she’s never met a bereaved parent who does not know, in their every cell, there will be no end to their grief. “(A)re we who refuse to sever ties with our beloved dead, the ones in need of treatment?” she asks. “Instead of labeling us with a disorder, I wish they’d ask your names.”

Lydia, a beautiful name. Love in the Archives, a stunning book. Eileen Vorbach Collins, a mother who grieves, still. A writer who has used her pain to create art—to honor her daughter and her own life and grief. And who, in doing so, masterfully educates those of us fortunate enough to have never had to say we’ve lost a child and provides a bit of solace for those who have.

About the Reviewer

Diane Gottlieb is the editor of Awakenings: Stories of Body and Consciousness (ELJ Editions). Her words appear in 2023 Best Microfiction, River Teeth, HuffPost, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Rumpus, Barrelhouse, Identity Theory, and Hippocampus, among many other lovely places. She is the winner of Tiferet Journal’s 2021 Writing Contest in the nonfiction category, on the longlist at 2023’s Wigleaf Top 50, a finalist for the 2023 Florida Review’s Editors Prize for Creative Nonfiction and the Prose/CNF Editor of Emerge Literary Journal. You can find her at and on social media @DianeGotAuthor.