by Nina Owen
Southern Fried Karma, 2020; 268 pp.; $17.43 (Paperback)Buy Book
Twenty-year-old Sam Owen took his life on February 25, 2016. His suicide was the culmination of a long struggle with depression and addiction, an act that shattered his mother and reverberated throughout the family. Devastated by the loss and unable to escape her feelings of guilt and recrimination, Sam’s mother, Nina Owen, began to search for a connection to her lost son that resulted in an unusual spiritual awakening and this book about the experience. The title comes from a note Sam wrote months prior to his death:
So sorry to be leaving in such an abrupt manner, but it really is
time that I get going. I’ve greatly overstayed my welcome on this
world. Whether or not you agree with me, I find a serene beauty
in throwing it all away
Owen is careful to present the reader with an honest and revelatory account of her son’s struggle with depression and what she perceives as her own role in the tragic events. In the preface, she cautions that “one thing this book did not do was heal me from the loss of Sam,” and admits she “will never be completely whole again.” Stating this upfront is her caveat that the account of her family’s tragedy is not meant to provide healing to others, only to explain the path she took to find meaning and a way to go on living without her son.
Throwing It All Away is arranged in chapters that deal with the day Sam died, then segue back to the years before. The time transitions do not intrude on the retelling of the tragedy; they shed light on Sam’s difficulties throughout his childhood as well as Owen’s sense of guilt. When she was in high school, she expressed a desire to have no children. Her own unhappy adolescence, she writes, led to the feeling that she “did not want a child to have to live through the same level of sadness and despair” as she experienced. However, after she married, her depression decreased and, Owen writes, “I could not really put voice to why I would ever have said that I didn’t want a baby.” In succeeding sections, she provides the sensory details that remain fixed in her mind as she invites us to accompany her through the hours of concern, panic, fear, and, finally, truth about what has happened to her oldest child.
As Owen chronicles the day of Sam’s suicide with a detailed account of her actions and those of her son, she notes little things that act as precursors of the tragedy. She writes that he leaves home “without saying anything, shutting the door hard.” Accompanied by the family dog, who refuses to leave her side, Owen texts her son repeatedly, calls her husband, and feels her heartbeat quicken. As the day passes with no word, she tries to sleep, paces, feels light-headed, and dizzy. Twenty-four hours later, the police call with a request that she and her husband come to the police station. There, a male deputy tells them, “I’m sorry to inform you both, but your son is deceased.” This open style invites the reader in, treating her as a favored friend and confidante, as the author bares the heartache and the personal sense of responsibility that accompany the knowledge that Sam has indeed taken his own life.
Dealing with the death of a child at any age is a trauma that marks a mother forever. “When it comes to a mother’s love,” Owen writes, “reason is not foremost in the mix.” Her need to understand Sam’s suicide drives her to search for clues to his mental state, to discover indicators she might have missed that will explain why he killed himself. She includes copies of his texts, journals, and Google documents in the memoir. These artifacts make Sam come alive for the reader and demonstrate his struggle against depression. As Owen, her husband Jeff, and their daughters Maggie and Claire, sort through Sam’s writings, she admits, “we will never have all the answers.” Committed to her family, driven by the desire to see her children succeed, she addresses the struggle to accept the unthinkable. “I thought,” she writes, “that by fiercely loving my kids, I would protect them.” All mothers can identify with such intense feelings and the belief that love will be enough to avoid disaster.
The narrative, surrounding Sam’s life and death and Owen’s anguished search for a way to live with the suicide, is written in simple, yet eloquent, prose. Each paragraph calls on the reader to process this family’s battle against despair and to accept the difficulties the loss presented to them. Throughout the book, the author offers counsel gleaned from the trauma over losing her son, including this regarding standing your ground when confronted with opposition to your parenting style: “My advice to anyone who will listen is to follow your gut.”
In addition to telling Sam’s life story from a mother’s perspective, the author includes pictures of her son and of the objects that came to signify his continued presence in her life after his death. The day after Sam’s funeral, she is wearing his watch as she cries and tells him how much she misses him. When the watch vibrates, she checks the alarm settings, but none are set. Comforted by the unexpected movement of the watch, she interprets it as a sign of her son’s spirit. Later, a similar event occurs with the mattress in his room. She has dreams that bring Sam back, and she notices the presence of cardinals in unexpected and meaningful ways. For Owen, these are signs that her child continues to communicate with her. It is perhaps these accounts of her spiritual journey that are the most unique and riveting sections of the book. As she consults mediums, Owen comes to believe that Sam’s essence and spirit remain with her. While this is perhaps a difficult conclusion for some readers to accept, she offers these words in the Afterword:
I have another hope for this book.
Regarding faith and the afterlife, I hope
you will inquire into your long-held doctrine and beliefs and see whether there
is room to explore. Certainty is dangerous. It prevents us the freedom of evolving.
As theologian Paul Tillich wrote, ‘The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.’
In this authentic and deeply intimate account of her son’s tragedy, Nina Owen shares the path she took to find solace and hope. Her words are uninhibited, her grief searing and heart-wrenching. Throwing It All Away offers a thoughtful, unstinting look at a young man’s suicide, the aftermath of his decision on his family, especially his mother, and the possibility of finding a measure of peace in an unusual and unconventional way.