Healing From an Unbearable Grief

Book Review: A Better Place – A Memoir of Peace in the Face of Tragedy
Pati Navalta Poblete
Nothing But the Truth Publishing, 2018

to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty

instead of ashes,
the oil of joy

instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise

instead of a spirit of despair.” – Isaiah 61:3

"A Better Place – A Memoir of Peace in the Face of Tragedy" by Pati Navalta Poblete

"A Better Place – A Memoir of Peace in the Face of Tragedy" by Pati Navalta Poblete

On September 21, 2014, journalist Pati Navalta Poblete lived out every mother’s worst nightmare when her 23-year-old son, Robby, was gunned down in broad daylight in Vallejo, California. In A Better Place – A Memoir of Peace in the Face of Tragedy Poblete narrates her on-going journey towards healing and wholeness. A two-time nominee for the Pulitzer Prize for her editorial series on the need for foster care reform in California, Poblete, a skilled storyteller, weaves a raw and heartbreaking story of loss and eventual redemption.

It is a book about a tragic loss as it is about a mother’s undying love and how that love saves her.

She begins her story by telling the reader that is not an easy read, more so if one is going through a tragedy or has recently survived one. “I’ve come to realize that the most deeply wounded among us are the most vulnerable to other people’s suffering. We feel our own hot tears, our own hearts breaking, our own world’s crumbling when we see other people experiencing pain. Because we’ve been there. We are there. We know what it’s like.”

She brings us back to the day of Robby’s death and the strong emotions that ripped her heart upon learning of his passing. “Imagine being trapped in your worst nightmare, knowing that you will never wake from it…Imagine that feeling you get when you’re awake but your body won’t move, and you have that moment of pure panic. Imagine all of that – and imagine it being far worse.” Anyone who has lost a loved one, especially if it was to a sudden or tragic death, can fully relate to the rawness of Poblete’s narrative. “When you go into shock, when your heart is shattered and pulverized, when a part of you is taken so suddenly and brutally, something takes over.”

Poblete, born and raised a Catholic, struggles with her spirituality, her relationship with God, and begins to question his existence after her only son’s death. It is a spiritual struggle that people who have lost loved ones are very familiar with. “I was in a spiritual Catch-22. If God did not exist, then how could I pray for Robby’s soul? I had to have faith that my son was in the hands of a kind and loving God, even if the circumstances of his death told me otherwise. I needed to believe he was in a better place.”

Pati Navalta Poblete (center) with her children Julienne and Robby (Source: Facebook)

Pati Navalta Poblete (center) with her children Julienne and Robby (Source: Facebook)

Like many other bereaved parents, her journey takes her through many roads and healing modalities. “In two weeks I had read eight different books on near-death experiences.” A visit to a psychic yielded the impetus for this book. “He wants you to write a book,” the psychic told her towards the end of their session. “He says to write a book about what it’s like as a mother living through this kind of tragedy.”

Loss changes a person and the loss of a child often brings about an extraordinary transformation that would not have been made possible if not for the death of the beloved child. It is a long, slow, and oftentimes painful process that takes the bereaved parent often to the abyss, and requires an extraordinary strength and grit to climb out of that hole. Poblete demonstrates these extreme highs and lows over the course of two years after Robby’s death.

“I had changed overnight. Pre-tragedy, I was known among friends and family as the loud, funny one. Post-tragedy, I couldn’t be that person anymore. I had no jokes left in me, no desire to make any meals…I was put on psychiatric disability and didn’t work for nearly four months.” There was, as expected, so much anger that would often consume her. “It’s a different type of grief, not to say it is any more or less painful. But it’s a grief that begs for survivors to come together and share in the trauma of losing a child at the hands of another person.” An advocate for children and the environment, Poblete felt as though all the wind had been sucked out of her. “People expected me to channel my grief into what I knew: advocacy. But there was no hope and no fight left in me.”

Forgiveness, Poblete says, was essential to her redemption, but it would take much time before she would come to this point.

It took her several months to find a way out of her depression because she refused to take the medications prescribed for her for fear of becoming dependent on them. Gardening and taking long hikes with her partner, Cicero, helped set her on the road to healing. Time in a Buddhist monastery in Northern California put her further on the road to moving forward. “The pain of losing Robby was there, and would always be there, but the suffering that came with it, my guilt, shame, anger, pity, regret --- although natural – was something I could acknowledge and release, eventually. Rather than accept my suffering as God’s will, I was allowed to show myself compassion.”

Forgiveness, Poblete says, was essential to her redemption, but it would take much time before she would come to this point. Exactly a year after Robby’s death, the suspects were arrested, and coming face to face with them re-opened the wounds that had already begun to heal.

In a letter to a close friend after the suspects had all been caught, she wrote, “What I have taken away from this may seem so simple, but is so profound to me. The world is filled with darkness, ignorance, and hate – those are what took Robby away. But I have been shown that the universe is full of love, compassion, and light. It can be so easy for me to channel my grief into anger and vengeance. But I choose to emulate the light and the goodness that I have been shown.”

Almost three years after Robby’s death, on June 30, 2017, Poblete launched the Robby Poblete Foundation whose mission is to get unwanted firearms out of circulation through an annual gun buy-back program, and transform them into instruments of hope and opportunity through art and vocational skills programs. Shortly after the foundation’s launch, a reporter asked Poblete what it felt like to return to Vallejo; she replied, “I couldn’t bear driving down the same freeway toward a city that only reminded me of tragedy. But now, I am driving toward hope.”

“A Better Place” is an excellent companion for anyone who has lost a loved one to an accident or a violent death, more so bereaved parents.  It provides the reader with an intimate view of what it feels like to lose an adult child so unexpectedly and what the journey towards healing and moving forward entails. Poblete is a gifted storyteller who is able to make the reader feel like she is accompanying her on her journey through grief. 

To learn more about the Robby Poblete Foundation, go to www.robbypobletefoundation.org

To get a copy of the book: https://www.amazon.com/Better-Place-Memoir-Peace-Tragedy/dp/194670699X

Cathy S. Babao

Cathy S. Babao

Cathy S. Babao, mother, author, columnist, grief educator and counselor works as a communications consultant for various multinational companies, and teaches grief education at the Ateneo de Manila University.

She writes "Roots and Wings", a weekly column for the Philippine Daily Inquirer. She has written two books, Heaven's Butterfly, a children's book on grief, and Between Loss and Forever: Filipina Mothers on the Grief Journey, a finalist for the 2011 National Book Awards.

More articles by Cathy S. Babao