The five stages of grief are a well-known reaction to loss, but Stéphane Gerson added a sixth when his 8-year-old son, Owen, died in a commercial rafting accident on Utah’s Green River: He decided to write about it, “in expiation, in homage, in remembrance.” The resulting book, Disaster Falls, is an excruciating read—and an invaluable emotional resource.
Few of us, fortunately, experience a loss comparable to that of Gerson and his wife, Alison, and surviving son, Julian. But as Gerson makes clear, no one wakes up in the morning anticipating disaster. Seemingly inconsequential decisions can have far-reaching ramifications, sometimes resulting in death. So it was with Owen, who was in a small craft known as a ducky with his father when it flipped.
The decision to take an 8-year-old through Class III rapids can and undoubtedly will be debated by parents who read Disaster Falls, but what of the countless other decisions we make? What constitutes crossing the line when it comes to protecting our children or letting them stretch their world? Or is there not really a line but a kaleidoscope of random, inexplicable occurrences?
Gerson, a cultural historian and professor of French studies at New York University, writes unflinchingly of the accident, its immediate aftermath and its effect on him and his family. If you wonder how couples stay together—or break apart—after a devastating loss, his insights are illuminating. And how should you respond to a family that’s going through such a tragedy? Gerson’s reactions to well-meaning attempts at connection might surprise you.
Not so surprisingly, a legal battle emerges toward the end of the book, bringing with it some of Gerson’s most powerful writing. For the Gersons, as with all families, the journey continues along life’s never-ending river.