LAFAYETTE -- After the passing of the love of her life, her husband of 38 years, Sue Hickman found that even the simplest of things were the hardest to bear.
She paints a vivid portrait of loss in her recently released memoir.
"My experience going to the grocery store is a prime example," Hickman wrote. "Sounds so simple, doesn't it? But why didn't everyone in the store understand what I was going through? What did I want there and how was it I could leave without buying anything?"
Shortly after Hickman lost Dave in 2005, people she knew gave her all sorts of books about coping with grief.
"Nothing seemed to resonate with me," she said.
She couldn't relate to the in-depth research, studies, stages, charts and graphs on the grieving process. All she sought were comforting words from other women going through the same feelings of loss while struggling to get through the routine of daily living.
"You can't put grief in little cubicles," Hickman said. "Everyone's story is going to be a little different, but there's something we have common in experiencing loss."
Then friends suggested she write a book. A very private person who didn't wish to bare her soul to the world, Hickman initially balked at the idea.
"It has never been my dream or ambition to be a serious or published author," she wrote in her book's introduction. "Except for writing this memoir, it still is not. But after the passing of my husband Dave, I sought books that would give me some comfort in the knowledge that I was not alone in losing a husband far too early in life, and that I was far from the first woman to manage a life after loss."
So great was her need to help others heal as she healed herself that Hickman drew inspiration and strength to write her memoir "Be Happy, Life After Loss" from seven years of journal writing that overlapped the time she wrote the book.
"Having it published really put my feelings out there," she said. "I was opening my heart."
A longtime artist who was raised in Moraga by parents who were artists, Hickman's painting of a poppy -- her husband's favorite flower -- adorns the book's cover. Poems she composed specifically for the memoir complement each chapter.
"The poems helped summarize my place in the grieving process," said Hickman, a mother of three who also writes about grieving over the loss of her daughter.
Going back through her journal entries helped "bring back things I'd forgotten about the depth of my grief," said Hickman, who serves on the boards of directors of Soroptimist International of Diablo Vista and East Bay Services to the Developmentally Disabled. She also serves on the board of directors of VoiceFlame, Inc., a nonprofit organization providing writing workshops, leadership training, school scholarships and publication opportunities to Malawian women.
Hickman is known for helping others in the community, and it comes as no surprise she has legions of stalwart supporters.
"As the days after the funeral went by, we did have conversations -- the type where friends ask, 'Is there anything I can do?' But Susen has always been, in my mind, a private person, and didn't share her deepest feelings," said longtime friend Sue Manning. "I knew that she was working on putting her thoughts into a book for a long time, so when it was finally published, I got my copy from her, went home, got comfortable in a chair and read it from cover to cover that day. I wanted to know how she felt, what was going through her mind, and how she did learn to 'Be Happy.' She put herself onto those pages. I can hear her speaking when I read her words. Her poetry interspersed with the story adds to the beauty of the book. It was very brave of her to bare her soul and I do hope her story helps others."
Kari Kynard Ridge, a VoiceFlame colleague who traveled to Malawi with Hickman and who also edited her memoir, said Hickman's story soon made an immediate impact on her. At the time, Kynard Ridge was grieving the death of her beloved 98-year-old grandmother.
"I was comforted by the strength of Sue's words and by the understanding that others had undergone similar experiences and worked through their grief," Kynard Ridge said. "I felt connected with Sue on every page and better able to move forward. Sue's memoir, written with an open heart and the wisdom of experience, helped me work through my own grief, and her beautiful poetry lifted my spirits."
Hickman said she hopes to reach as many people affected by loss as she can.
"Perhaps if someone sees my journey and how I came out on the other side of it ... they will know that they are not alone and it doesn't have to be experienced in total darkness," she said.
SUE HICKMAN BOOK SIGNING