The summer that I was nineteen, my boyfriend and I were doing long distance, I had adopted a strange basset hound and christened him Mr. Jones, and my beloved dad was quickly dying of Acute Myeloid Leukemia. When the doctor told us that it would be soon, I thought that I was convinced. When dad died in our living room, I thought that I was convinced. When we buried him and my friends and boyfriend returned to their homes, I thought that I was convinced. But coming to terms with dad’s death happened more slowly, and it was as much about understanding the physical and emotional loss of him as it was understanding the eviscerated landscape of what used to be our family.
Julie Buxbaum’s YA book Tell Me Three Things gets so much right about teenage grief—specifically losing a cherished parent—and that’s part of what I love about it.
You’ve probably heard about—or experienced—the hole that’s left behind when someone you love dies. It’s a real thing. But what you might not have thought about is how difficult it is to manage that hole, how there are acceptable and unacceptable ways to do so, and how angry you can get at your fellow grievers when they’re not managing it the way you think they should.
You don’t always think about grieving as a family process, and like it or not, part of it is.
You’re supposed to try to fill the hole in some ways—you can’t leave it gaping wide open, for all the world to see—but you’re not supposed to fill it all the way because you lost a person you love very much. [And anyway, how could you?, when they were so amazing and irreplaceable and gone.] You’re supposed to observe a mourning period, but you think that they should probably mourn a certain amount of time and you another, because you were a daughter who thought he hung the moon, and she was a wife. You feel like they’ve betrayed everything if you think they’ve moved on faster than they should have. [Later, you’ll understand why you were so upset but also how different it must be to lose a parent versus losing a spouse and how crippling that particular loneliness might be. How devastating the betrayal of losing your partner too soon might feel.] And when you’re angry, you’ll wonder who lost the most here?—definitely you—so why does everyone assume that someone else’s grief should be deferred to?
No one tells you how utterly devastating it is when you feel like a lost person isn’t being respected, and when their partner moves on and you feel like you lost both parents. Lost everything, and no one cares but you, and people are angry at you for caring so much.
But Julie Buxbaum’s utterly amazing Tell Me Three Things does tell you this, and so much more, and it’s all part of this beautifully devastating story. This book hit me where I live when it comes to my experience of grief: as a person who experienced a beloved parent’s illness at a relatively young age, and who was then faced with the aforementioned family grieving matters. I was several years older than the main character, Jessie, when I dealt with my dad’s illness and death, but I recognized parts of her story like they were mine.
This book is incredible.
A couple of years after her mother dies of cancer, Jessie’s dad suddenly re-marries and moves them from Chicago to California, without asking Jessie how she might feel about that. It’s an entirely different world there, and Jessie finds herself without friends and even bullied. But one day, not that long after starting her new school, she gets an email from Somebody Nobody (SN), and SN volunteers to be her “virtual spirit guide” throughout her new high school experience. It will be an anonymous relationship--she won't know who he is--but SN can answer her questions and tell her everything she needs to know about surviving there.
Jessie finally accepts SN’s offer because it turns out that life at her new school is pretty brutal. Emails turn into texts, and she learns that SN lost someone too, a sister. But his loss and loneliness and isolation have worn away at him too, and he’s nervous about taking their relationship from a screen to real life.
Meanwhile, her real life relationships are even more complicated. Jessie has trouble identifying with her new stepbrother and her best friend back home, she resents her new stepmom and her generically designed room, and she feels like her dad has selfishly abandoned her to the new life she didn’t even want.
Tell Me Three Things deals with the big things, like being a teenager, dealing with grief, and falling in love, and it does so brilliantly. This is a story of light and shadows, of great nuance, and we’re left feeling torn apart and built back up and like we’ve been seen and maybe we can see other people better, too. It’s an empathetic story and made me feel more compassionately toward who I was/am as a griever but how others were/are, too. It reached to the deepest parts of me.
About the Author
When my toddler and infant sleep--or are otherwise engaged--I write, read, and eat lots of chocolate.