Guest blogger: Debra Holland
In many of my stories, healing from grief is a theme. Grief is a complex emotion, and some losses of loved ones always stay with us. In my ‘other’ life, I’m a psychotherapist and corporate crisis and grief counsellor, and the author of The Essential Guide to Grief and Grieving. I drew on my years of grief counselling to write Healing Montana Sky.
I’ve always been fascinated with historical accounts of marriages of convenience that happen soon after the loss of the original spouse or spouses. Antonia Valleau and Erik Muth’s marriage of convenience after the deaths of their spouses was quite common in human history because both the man and woman were needed to deal with the laborious tasks of survival and raising a family.
The idea for Healing Montana Sky came about when my cousin Mindy went into labour with her (now four-year-old) son, Adam. The baby became stuck and ended up being suctioned out while a team of nurses pushed on Mindy’s belly. Only the miracle of modern medicine saved Mindy from the fate of the first wife of my hero, Erik Muth. One hundred and twenty years ago, Adam probably wouldn’t have survived, either.
Nowadays, we take for granted that women rarely die in childbirth and we forget how, for much of human history, childbirth (and the complications from giving birth) was a primary cause of death for women of childbearing age.
In writing Healing Montana Sky, I had to strike a delicate balance between portraying the grief Antonia and Erik suffered from and also giving them a chance to fall in love again. Those who have lost spouses know that recovery takes several years. Often, the second year after the death is the hardest because the loss becomes more real. The second year is also when others think the bereaved spouse should be ‘moving on’—a painful message to receive. At least in our modern times, husbands and wives have resources, such as grief books and support groups, and the time to fully mourn their spouses before choosing if they want to move on to a new mate.
Psychotherapist Debra Holland, PhD is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Montana Sky series, sweet, historical Western romance. She’s a three-time Romance Writers of America Golden Heart finalist and one-time winner. In 2013, Amazon selected Starry Montana Sky as a top 50 greatest love stories pick. Her latest book is Healing Montana Sky, from Montlake Romance.
Debra is also the author of The Gods’ Dream Trilogy (fantasy romance) and the nonfiction books, The Essential Guide to Grief and Grieving and Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude: a Ten-Minute eBook. She’s a contributing author to The Naked Truth About Self-Publishing.
Excerpt from Healing Montana Sky
Antonia Valleau cast the first shovelful of dirt onto her husband’s fur-shrouded body, lying in the grave she’d dug in their garden plot, the only place where the soil wasn’t still rock hard. I won’t be breakin’ down. For the sake of my children, I must be strong. Pain squeezed her chest like a steel trap. She had to force herself to take a deep breath, inhaling the scent of loam and pine. I must be doing this.
She drove the shovel into the soil heaped next to the grave, hefted the laden blade, and dumped the earth over Jean-Claude, trying to block out the thumping sound the soil made as it covered him. Even as Antonia scooped and tossed, her muscles aching from the effort, her heart stayed numb, and her mind kept playing out the last sight of her husband. The memory haunting her, she paused to catch her breath and wipe the sweat off her brow, her face hot from exertion in spite of the cool spring air.
Antonia touched the tips of her dirty fingers to her lips. She could still feel the pressure of Jean-Claude’s mouth on hers as he’d kissed her before striding out the door for a day of hunting. She’d held up baby Jacques, and Jean-Claude had tapped his son’s nose. Jacques had let out a belly laugh that made his father respond in kind. Her heart had filled with so much love and pride in her family that she’d chuckled, too.
Stepping outside, she’d watched Jean-Claude ruffle the dark hair of their six-year-old, Henri. Then he strode off, whistling, with his rifle carried over his shoulder. She’d thought it would be a good day—a normal day. She assumed her husband would return to their mountain home in the afternoon before dusk as he always did, unless he had a longer hunt planned.
As Antonia filled the grave, she denied she was burying her husband. Jean-Claude be gone a checkin’ the trap line, she told herself, flipping the dirt onto his shroud.
She moved through the nightmare with leaden limbs, a knotted stomach, burning dry eyes, and a throat that felt as though a log had lodged there. While Antonia shoveled, she kept glancing at her little house, where, inside, Henri watched over the sleeping baby. From the garden, she couldn’t see the doorway.
She worried about her son—what the glimpse of his father’s bloody body had done to the boy. Mon Dieu, she couldn’t stop to comfort him. Not yet. Henri had promised to stay inside with the baby, but she didn’t know how long she had before Jacques woke up.
Once she finished burying Jean-Claude, Antonia would have to put her sons on a mule and trek to where she’d found her husband’s body clutched in the great arms of the dead grizzly. She wasn’t about to let his last kill lie there for the animals and the elements to claim. Her family needed that meat and the fur.
She heard a sleepy wail that meant Jacques had awakened. Just a few more shovelfuls. Antonia forced herself to hurry, despite how her arms, shoulders, and back screamed in pain.
When she finished the last shovelful of earth, exhausted, Antonia sank to her knees, facing the cabin, her back to the grave, placing herself between her sons and where their father lay. She should go to them, but she was too depleted to move.
Jacques appeared on his hands and knees, peering around the corner of the cabin. His dark eyes lit with pleasure when he saw her. The baby flashed Antonia his wide grin and scooted toward her. Only in the last two days had he gone from pushing himself across the floor to a hands-and-knees crawl.
Henri trailed so close behind Jacques that he had to walk wide-legged so he didn’t step on his brother.
The baby reached her, placed his hands on her legs, and pressed himself up, grabbing at the front of her tunic. “Maa.”
Antonia hugged Jacques. He’d soiled his rabbit skin diaper and smelled, but she held him close, needing to feel the baby in her arms.
He wiggled in protest.
She dropped a kiss on his forehead and reached up to her shoulder to unlace the leather ties of her tunic, pulling the flap down to free her breast. He began to suckle greedily.
Henri dropped to her other side and leaned against her.
Antonia put her arm around him. Just holding her sons brought her comfort but also increased her despair. What do I be doin’ now?
Should I be takin’ the boys and leave? Head for Sweetwater Springs?
Antonia shook her head. No! I won’t be leavin’ Jean-Claude. Cain’t leave my home.
But without her husband to provide for them, she didn’t know how long she’d be able to manage on her own.
Somehow, I’ll be findin’ a way, Antonia vowed.