Losing loved ones

“Do You Think I Cried Too Long?” takes the reader through a traumatic experience that changes lives forever.


A single shot changed 8-year-old Lily’s life forever in Elaine Kelliher’s “Do You Think I Cried Too Long?” The author writes, “A shotgun blast pierced Lily’s ears, causing her temples to pulse and her slight body to propel itself upward from the front porch steps. Her brother, Deenie, stood up, eyes wide with fright, and stared at his big sister …The frightening blast left Lily’s heart pounding so hard that she thought it might jump from her chest. She could hear her mother moan from inside the house, and she thought she heard a car at the end of the driveway, but they were alone; her stepdad, Orville, had already left … Lily freed herself from her little brother and ran inside.”

So opens the first page of Kelliher’s novel. What Lily found when she ran inside was horrific — her mother Ellen lying face-down in a pool of blood that poured from her stomach to form a red river, about to touch her bare feet, with Lily’s baby sister Lorna in the room, letting out a piercing scream.

What unfolds is Lily’s journey over the next few years and the slow unraveling of the mystery of how her mother dies — murder or suicide. The authorities insist, given they were a poor Black family in rural California in 1954, the incident was not worth the cost to investigate. Orville, Ellen’s dangerously jealous husband, claims he’s innocent, but abandons the children and pretty much disappears.

None of the extended family will take on the responsibility of all three children, and Lily is farmed out alone to her ornery maternal grandmother. Pet, as she likes to be called, is a gypsy, always dragging Lily to the next town when she gets antsy, which is terribly hard on Lily as she’s thrust into one school situation after another.

Pet is mean and strict, and shuts down Lily’s desire to hear about her mother, telling her, “Let the dead be dead.” But Pet does not come across as a villain, but rather one whose own pain causes her to act the way she does with Lily. Her granddaughter’s sense of loss strikes awfully close to the deep hurt Pet carries around from her own childhood, when Pet’s mother forced her to quit school and go and live with her older sister to help care for the children.

Pet is also greatly tormented by Ellen’s death, and part of Pet’s running from the pain takes them to live with different families, which plays a significant role in Lily’s life. An important one is the Broussards, where we can’t help but fall in love with the loving, wise grandfather who profoundly cares about Lily, and where she also befriends his half-dozen grandchildren, feeling like she has a temporary home. Another family is Ellen’s brother and sister-in-law, who also play a prominent role in the story’s unfolding.

Kelliher narrates the story primarily through Lily and Pet’s eyes, bringing depth to their personalities and nuance to the narrative. She keenly conveys Lily’s sorrow, the trauma of her mother’s death, and the dreadful loss of being separated from her siblings.

While “Do You Think I Cried Too Long?” is a novel, it strikes close to home. Kelliher was born in Tulare, Calif., to a teenage mother, Ellen, who tragically died by supposed suicide, leaving Kelliher and her siblings to cope with life without her. Growing up, reading library books was her escape, and she populated the books with colorful characters inspired by those she knew in her youth.

Kelliher explains on the Black Books Show podcast, available through her website, “It has taken me decades to come to terms with her death and my immediate family. In this book, I tell the story of my mother’s apparent suicide, how I survived … and the feelings of not being loved by the close relatives who were left to care for me … What I found in writing the novel is that it freed me to be able to tell my story without being worried about what people thought or looks of pity … I felt like it made me a better person to get all this off my chest. Growing up, it was a big secret … The family did not want to deal with her death. All my life, I had been told to be quiet about it.”

In a recent email, Kelliher told me she hopes readers see “that there are good, kind people in the world who can make a positive difference in a child’s life. That losing a loved one, especially for children, is a profound event that our society should recognize, and make more resources available to those children and those left to care for them.”

To that end, Kelliher has created a “Guide to Helping a Child Survive Grief and Prosper” PDF, available free on her website, which, after reading her moving book, is something you will feel compelled to see yourself.

“Do You Think I Cried Too Long?” by Elaine Kelliher. Available at Edgartown Books and online. The “Guide to Helping a Child Survive Grief and Prosper” is available at elainekelliher.com/resources.