“Still Breathing: My Journey with Love, Loss, and Reinvention,” by Katie Joy Duke

Katie Joy Duke

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

A memoir centered around a stillbirth hardly sounds as if it could be full of light and spiritually uplifting, but that’s exactly what Katie Joy Duke’s story Still Breathing: My Journey with Love, Loss, and Reinvention (New Degree Press, May 2022) is. Stillbirth is far more prevalent than most realize, affecting one of every 160 pregnancies. Duke doesn’t sugarcoat the depths of her grief following the loss of her daughter Poppy during labor. Nor does she underestimate the long process, the hard work, of dragging herself from the depths of despair. Yet this memoir, told with such love and compassion, will offer hope of recovery and rebirth to anyone who has lost a loved one. Moreover, Duke’s journey can offer others a variety of tools for coping with their own grief and rebuilding a worthwhile, joyful life following loss.

Reading this book lets you see the real Katie, the one hiding under the façade of the perfect straight-A, overachiever who became a topnotch lawyer. As you move through the chapters, you will meet a vulnerable and suffering yet strong human being. If you have lost someone you love, you will recognize and share her grief.

One reason the story is uplifting is that Duke shares the happy moments in her life. She shows us her joy as she and Eli decide to marry. In a most delightful passage, she includes the couple’s decision to incorporate dialogue from their favorite movie, The Princess Bride, into their wedding. At the couple’s request, the minister intones, “Mawage is what bwings us togethah today. That blessed arrangement, that dream within a dream.” When it is discovered the wedding rings have been inadvertently left in the car, Duke adlibs lines from the movie to the minister: “Man and wife! Just say man and wife!” It is easy to imagine the laughter ringing out from the wedding guests.

Even though Katie becomes pregnant earlier than the couple had anticipated, they embrace their prospective parenthood, which “magnified [their] newlywed romance and strengthened [their] bond as a team.” Katie admits that “For the first time in my adult life, I had purpose and value beyond my intellect.” They decide to name the baby Poppy. Katie reveals her vulnerability, as well as newfound strength: “Despite the accolades, the good job, and the salary, I struggled with feelings that I was never enough. But pregnancy was different; I didn’t have to think my way through it. My body knew what to do.” But that all ends during labor, when she is told the baby’s heart isn’t beating. Her whole world collapsed.

If you have lost a loved one, you will recognize the two camps Katie discovered people fall into when it comes to acknowledging your loss: those eager to express condolences and those who are uncomfortable and need a sign from you that it’s okay to talk about it.

One day Katie wakes up “from a vision of the phoenix rising—a powerful magical bird.” She tells herself she “can heal and rise above this pain and tragedy. [She] will meditate and breathe into and through this experience.” Meditation is one important tool in her recovery, a tool that anchors her “when the tidal waves of grief threatened to take [her] under.”

Travel, adopting a puppy, avoiding stress, couples counseling, individual therapy, journaling, blogging, and creating art are other tools Katie found useful. She also attended a retreat created to give grieving mothers a space to reflect, connect, and heal. The experience was transformational, as were sessions with a life coach. The point is, she worked hard to recover.

While Katie is still struggling with her grief, life dumps another loss on her when her father’s cancer returns. He has been a powerful support in her life, but by now she understands his spirt, just like Poppy’s, will always be with her. Once, her father told her he had one wish for her, that she could “enjoy the journey and trust that no matter [her] goal, [she] would accomplish it.” When she becomes too critical and demanding of herself, she reminds herself of his advice to embrace the journey.

Katie’s first child, her stillborn, was named Poppy because when the couple first discovered she was pregnant, they were told the fetus was the size of a poppyseed. Her second child, born several years later, is named Moxie. The name came to Katie in a dream, but how fitting it is. Moxie is defined as force of character or determination. Her second child is determined to be born and Katie is determined to become her mother, and not only to survive her loss, but to fully seek joy and live a full life again, to never give up.

If that’s not an uplifting message, I don’t know what is.

A graduate of Florida State University and Vermont Law School, Katie Joy Duke practiced social justice law for nine years before becoming a writer, life coach, and mom. She lives north of Seattle with her husband, daughter, and dog Wilson. She was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer on March 18, 2022, and looks forward to writing her next memoir about her healing and growth process through cancer treatment. We at Southern Literary Review wish her strength and joy as she embarks on this next leg of her journey.

Editor’s Note: In the interest of full disclosure, as a teacher at Thomasville High School in Georgia, I knew the Duke family and taught all of their children. It was no surprise to learn that Katie had become a successful lawyer and an outstanding mother and human being.

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