JACKSON, Wyo. — Caryn Flanagan can check off quite the list of divergent boxes in life. Skier? Yeah, she is one of the few females even inducted into the ranks of the legendary Jackson Hole Air Force.
The mother of two is also a certified paddleboard instructor, nonprofit consultant to Teton County Search and Rescue Foundation, as well as a former leader of Womentum and Off Square Theatre Company.
And, now, she’s a first-time author.
Her new children’s book, “Heaven in Your Bones,” illustrated by Kelly Halpin, dropped in September.
It is based on a real-life experience of loss and how she shared that delicately but directly with her young kids. How children are more resilient than we give them credit for, and how they learn to navigate through grief and trauma and emerge on the other end into a healthy place of understanding and peace. And, sometimes, they just might bring their parents along for the journey.
Behind the story
Caryn Flanagan lives by a personal credo popular with mountain bikers and downhill skiers: “Eyes up, roll through.”
Navigating difficult terrain, pushing through a challenging time in life—it’s all the same—don’t focus on obstacles that represent the pitfalls in life. Stare at them long enough and you will fall into them and they will consume you. Keep pointed toward the finish.
As an avid skier and outdoor enthusiast, the mantra has served Caryn well. As a young mother struggling with the loss of her parents to a plane crash in 2000, she was barely hanging on, looking for a soft place to fall.
Before Caryn and her husband Tim had even begun to work through their own grief following that late-night phone call, they agreed they had to tell the kids—Katy, 6, and Sarah, 4. They would be straight with them. They always had.
“We had that hard conversation. We tried to be sensitive to what they could handle at that age but we told the truth,” Flanagan remembers. “Every time you ski powder, grandpa Alan is going to be right in your tracks,” we told the girls. “And when you see a stunning sunset, grandma Ellen is sitting right next to you pointing out its beauty.”
It was their response, their reaction, their curiosity, that led Caryn to go further. The more she shared with her girls, the better she felt. They talked through things and it soon became unclear who was helping who with the healing process.
“Little Sarah, at four years old, blew my mind,” Caryn remembers. “She said, ‘Mommy, I have one question. Does this mean that heaven is in your bones?’ It was such innate and profound wisdom. I never forgot it. I tucked that nugget away for all these years.”
Caryn didn’t know then the simple but profound question would become the title of her children’s book dealing with heavy subject matter. So heavy, she considered it too personal, too dark to live anywhere but on her home computer where it remained for nearly two decades.
The answers came slowly for Caryn if they came at all. But she watched her girls grow up and flourish and deal with the loss of their grandparents by leaning into the questions and embracing uncertainty.
Last August, on the 20th anniversary of the day her father and mother perished, Caryn combed through a box of mementos concerning the plane crash—newspaper clippings, NTSB documents, letters of condolence. In one card, she read a quote from German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
“Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. The point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
It is what she saw her daughter Sarah do naturally, and what she herself has come to in a more painstaking manner.
With her cathartic journaling complete, Caryn began showing the ‘story’ to people she trusted. One, a professional family therapist, encouraged her about how powerful the message was. Feedback from the publishing industry also verified very little literature dealing with traumatic loss exists, at least it is not often found in the children’s section for such a young age group.
Emboldened to pursue it further, Caryn decided to self-publish. She knew she would need an illustrator but hadn’t given much serious thought to it when she found herself staring at a piece of public artwork while waiting for the ski bus to the Village.
It was the work of Jackson native Kelly Halpin who had landed one of her pieces as a wrap of an electrical box near a START Bus stand, commissioned by JH Public Art.
“It featured a young girl running barefoot with a snowboard under her arm,” Flanagan remembers. “I just kept looking at it thinking that is the feel I want—light, airy, magical.”
Halpin signed on and the project came to fruition last month. The first batch of signed copies sold out almost immediately. Flanagan is planning a book signing event in the coming weeks.
Whether a sudden pain is brought on by the death of a family member or a by-product of the times we are living in now where so much taken for granted has been taken away, especially for kids, the answer is the same.
Don’t dwell on the answers. Live the questions. ‘Eyes up, roll through.’
“It is my deepest hope that this book brings comfort and understanding to families struggling to explain sudden loss to very young children” Flanagan says.
Proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to ACCESS, a national nonprofit that provides emotional support resources and services for people who have lost loved ones in aircraft accidents.