When a Child’s Heart is Turned Upside Down

By: Susan Smith
Monday, November 9, 2015

Susan Smith, writter and editor, shares her interview with Eileen Douglas whose husband Jeff completed suicide. Eileen tells how it impacted her life and the life of her then 4 year old daughter as they struggled to put the pieces of their lives back together.  Eileen shares how she watched her daughter with other friends and saw her drawings where all her hearts were upside down because as Rachel told her friends, "That's how I feel." This poignant story shows how that little girl's heart turned right side up again.

by Susan Smith

Eileen Douglas says that she woke up one morning a happily married woman and went to bed that night a widow. The sudden death of her husband, Jeff, in 1975 left her shattered, brokenhearted and lost.

“I felt like I’d fallen into a black hole,” she says. “Nothing mattered like it had mattered before. I wasn’t just losing Jeff, I was losing our hopes and dreams for the future.”

She also was losing the father of her and Jeff’s 4-year old daughter, Rachel.

Soon after Jeff’s death, Eileen and Rachel moved from what was the ideal life in Louisville, KY, where she and Jeff were successful television and radio broadcasters, to what she hoped would be a dream life in New York City.

“I had always wanted to live in New York, a city where dreams come true,” Eileen says, Rachel, however wasn’t so enthused. She missed the rolling green yard, the friends, her two big dogs, and her swing set from Kentucky.

Eileen quickly snatched a job in radio in New York and she and Rachel set about making their way in New York. “Being a single mom in a new city with no support system made life very challenging,” Eileen says with a laugh. Then, more seriously, she adds, “I was making an adjustment to a whole other kind of life that I never expected.”

Eileen and Rachel, now 7, had lived in New York about three years when they went to the theatre one night to see a show about Broadway songwriters. As Eileen took in how these artists find and create stories in song, she suddenly realized that, “I have a story, too!”

“I started scribbling all over our programs, making notes, watching a story – Rachel’s story – play out in my mind like a movie.

That night, Eileen was “so inspired” that she gathered all her notes and began writing Rachel and the Upside Down Heart, the tender true story of her daughter’s journey through the grief of her dad’s death. In two nights, she wrote nearly all the book, but stopped when she didn’t have an ending for it. “I put it away for a few months and waited.”

In a few months, the ending came when one of Rachel’s classmates came to Rachel for comfort after his dad’s death. Seeing her daughter able to help this friend with his grief assured Eileen that Rachel had arrived at a resolution of her own grief.

"You might have a few sad dreams and a few bad feelings, like that you will die or your mommy leave you, but after a LONG, long time, you will get over it, like I did. He’s still inside you, but if you’re having a good time, then you don’t remember." 

Those are the words Rachel shared with her friend, and some of the closing words of the book telling the story of Rachel who drew hearts upside down all over the pages of her drawings because, as Rachel said, “that was the way her heart felt.”

In Rachel and the Upside Down Heart, Eileen writes simply and profoundly of death and how a child – her child – feels while living through grief. “Having written radio news copy, I had learned to use the simplest words to convey very complicated subjects,” Eileen says. “The book just came out the same way I wrote radio copy, simply telling a very feeling story with depth.”

In the book, Eileen describes Rachel’s sadness: When Rachel was four and her daddy was first gone, she was very sad inside. She was very sad for a long time. That year she would cry sometimes, like when it was her birthday and she remembered how he used to put the decorations on the cake. And how he wasn’t there to do it anymore.

She explains Rachel’s dad’s death: Mommy said Daddy could never come back again. Not ever. Daddy got broken, she explained. He couldn’t get fixed. Not here, anyway. He had to get to a place called heaven. Now that he was in heaven, he wasn’t broken anymore. But he couldn’t come back, because here he’d be broken again – and that would be terrible, wouldn’t it?

She paints soft yet vivid pictures of Rachel drawing upside down hearts, writing letters to heaven, going to dance class, starting school, making friends, taking pictures in Riverside Park, and ice skating in Central Park. She tells of Rachel making hearts right side up and sometimes not making hearts at all. In short, she shows Rachel living and growing in her grief until, eventually, she grows through and, in some ways, out of it rediscovering happiness while never, ever failing to hold her father in her heart.

Today, Rachel is 24, is a television producer in Los Angeles who just completed a Master of Arts degree in writing from the University of Southern California.

Eileen says she didn’t set out to write a critically acclaimed book that would help children and adults alike in their grief. When it was published in 1990, 10 years after she had written it, Eileen started receiving letters and notes from people across the nation telling her of how her book was helping them.

“I wrote the book to put down in a cohesive piece outside of me what was inside of me,” Eileen says. “I didn’t realize that it would help so many others.”

But it does. The Dougy Center for Grieving Children features it in its library. The Grief Recovery Institute praises it for painting a picture of grief as normal and natural. Calvary Hospital uses the book in therapy with the children there. And then there are the many people who have written Eileen notes, and the countless others who haven’t who know firsthand of the comfort found in Rachel and the Upside Down Heart.

Eileen, now remarried and a partner in the independent production company Douglas/Steinman Productions, says, "Jeff’s death is still the worst thing that every happened to me.”

Even so, she says, any lingering sadness is overpowered by the joy and reward of having written a book that gives children in grief the time and the room they need to rediscover happiness and allow their hearts to once again be upside up.

What others have said…
[Your book] manages to strike a sensitive balance that I have never seen before—it conveys the finality and tragedy of death without making it frightening and scary. This is an important book.
Ari Goldman, The New York Times

It is a rare book that shows what [losing a parent] is really like and how a child can feel part of the world again. Rachel and the Upside Down Heart is such a book. It is a treasure.
Patty Dann, Author of Mermaids

This is a tender and well-crafted story about grief and growth.
Children’s Literature Journal

A delightfully written story! Margaret Loesch, Fox Kids Network Realistically delivers a message of optimism and hope.
Funeral Director Magazine

Buy This Book
Rachel and the Upside Down Heart is still in print. If you are interested in ordering a copy, call New Leaf Resources, 1-800-346-3087.

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