PORTLAND — When her sister died of breast cancer, leaving behind a 3-year-old daughter, Mary Plouffe’s decades-long career as a clinical psychologist was not the bulwark she thought it would be when dealing with her own grief and loss.
That’s when Plouffe turned to writing down her thoughts and feelings, as well as recording those of her niece, Liamarie.
Now, nearly 20 years later, she’s written a book about the experience titled “I Know It In My Heart: Walking Through Grief with a Child” (She Writes Press, May 2017, $16.95).
“I was a psychologist with 20 years of experience when this happened to me,” Plouffe said. “But when I looked for materials to guide me and my brother-in-law after (my sister’s) death, I found nothing useful, nothing that described the raw reality of a grieving caretaker trying to soothe an abandoned child.”
Copies of Plouffe’s new book will be available at a launch party May 4 at 7 p.m. at Longfellow Books in Monument Square. Pre-ordering is also available on Plouffe’s website, maryeplouffeauthor.com.
Liamarie is now 22. She graduated from the University of Virginia in June 2016, is teaching at a British prep school, and thinking of going to law school, Plouffe said.
Liamarie was 15 when Plouffe first asked her if it would be O.K. to write a book about their shared experiences dealing with her mother’s death.
Her response? “’If the book will help other little kids,'” Ploufe said, “‘you should write it.’”
Plouffe described her book as “a memoir, telling our personal story, but using my lens as a psychologist to reflect on that story, explore child and adult grief, and hopefully, provide insight and help to others on this path.”
Maine-based novelist Monica Wood called the book “a searing, beautifully written story of unfathomable grief and unbreakable family bonds” in a pre-publication review.
Plouffe now lives in Cumberland and still has a private practice based in an office in Falmouth.
Plouffe has also had essays and other work published in a variety of industry magazines including, “On The Issues” “Brain, Child” and “Survivor Review.”
She has served on the faculty for Maine Medical Center’s psychiatry residency program and provided consultation to schools and for courts throughout Maine.
Plouffe said her sister’s death, and helping her niece through the tragedy, sent her on “a very unexpected journey … a journey that shook me out of my comfortable, behind-the-scenes role as clinical psychologist, teacher and consultant, and propelled me to become a writer.”
“When tragedy took my sister’s life, and left her 3-year-old daughter looking to me for answers, writing was my salvation,” she added. “It gave me comfort and solace. Sometimes it was the only thing that soothed my pain. In time, it became a vehicle to turn that pain into something worthwhile.”
Plouffe’s sister, Martha, was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 1997. She had surgery, which was followed by chemotherapy and radiation. Plouffe said it was when Martha began the final phase of her recommended treatment, in January 1998, that complications first put her into a coma and then took her life.
Plouffe first shared her writings outside the immediate family when Liamarie’s father, Herb, remarried in 2004.
“I wanted his new wife to understand what Liamarie had been through,” Plouffe recalled. “Her reaction made me think this might be useful to other families, as well.”
Plouffe said she hopes readers will “understand a bit more about the way childhood grief is experienced at different ages, how it evolves with cognitive and emotional growth, and how it’s woven into forming an identity.”
But, she said, “I think that anyone who has experienced profound grief will find something to relate to in this book. Cradling a grieving child while you are wounded yourself doubles the challenge.
“Therapists, clinicians and counselors may also find this a useful resource for their work with families and children, as it speaks specifically to how young children experience and express their grief, and how we can (best) respond.”
Liamarie lived with Plouffe for about four months during her mother’s last treatment. At the time, Plouffe was living in Freeport and raising three children of her own.
After her mother’s death, Liamarie returned to her father’s house in Herndon, Virginia, but, Plouffe said, “We traveled to each other on weekends every two to three weeks for years.”
Overall, Plouffe said she hopes readers “will see the resilience in my niece, and learn some ways to support that resilience in children of all ages, who are experiencing loss” of their own.
The cover of Mary Plouffe’s new book, “I Know It In My Heart: Walking Through Grief with a Child,” features a photo of her niece, Liamarie, who was only 3 when her mother, Plouffe’s sister, died of breast cancer.