By EMILY SCHENDEL
Fifteen years ago, Erin Kelly of Viola endured perhaps the worst tragedy of one’s life, when she got the news that her young daughter Natylee Rianne Geary (NGR), had died in a car accident. In the time since that horrific day, Erin began writing, journaling and making voice records of memories, thoughts, and feelings of her daughter, whom she often affectionately refers to as Nat. After many years of creating these compilations, Erin has published her book, NRG: The Mourning After.
“It’s been about 13 years in the making,” Erin explains of the creation of her book. “I would get away from it for a bit, because it would suck me in and I’d have to step away. Then I’d sit down again and start writing bits and pieces and making voice recorder journal entries.
“I eventually worked with a friend to help put it all together into a book,” Erin recalls. “When people read it, they tell me that it sounds just like my voice talking, and that makes me so happy because I want this to be more of a conversation about what happened, my life, and Natylee and how much she loved her dad, and the grief that went with it all.”
Throughout the book, Erin speaks candidly about her time directly after the death of her daughter. She notes triggering points for her. She points to stopping at a roadside attraction the week after the funeral for her daughter and seeing ‘grab bags’ of trinkets and toys, something that was a favorite for Nat to nearly losing a lock of her daughter’s hair as a another triggering. Also touching on stories and traditions of her life, like the tradition of getting Nat’s dad swimming trunks for Father’s Day, or when Nat cut her own hair.
Erin also addresses the way she tried to cope with her daughter’s death, with direct honesty.
“I felt crappy,” Erin writes of the early days following her daughter’s death. “A lot of the days, I was depressed. I was on Valium, and I was drinking. That’s just the way it was.”
“The book really is a reflection of my life as well,” Erin points out. “I struggled some with how to explain some truths. I am a person who is big on the truth, but picking and choosing the truths about my family was hard. However, picking and choosing the stories about Nat was so easy. In the end it helped me realize how large of an impact this had on our small community, and people are going to judge anyway, but this is a way I can talk about what really happened and all of my emotions and truths around it. I told Jason, Natylee’s father, that I would never put anything in there that would make us feel less than. People can take the story for what it is, but Nat loved her dad more than anything else.”
The stories in the book are woven together and give you the easy feeling of sitting down and having a cup of coffee with Erin and listening to her tell you her life story. From touching on the developing relationship between Erin and Jason, to recalling baby shower gifts and Nat’s favorite Chippy Sandwiches, the 130 pages packs in a lot of memories, happiness, and sadness; while capturing Erin’s personality, feelings and voice throughout.
The accident that claimed Natylee’s life occurred on Father’s Day weekend, in 2007. Erin recalls in her book, feeling restless and “just not great” the day before the accident. Natylee had left with her dad, Jason, to go camping in Castle Rock for the holiday weekend. While Erin stayed home with her boyfriend and father of her second daughter, Gwenny. Although Nat and her dad spent time camping together and the situation wasn’t out of the ordinary, Erin just couldn’t seem to shake the feeling something was off.
“The most horrific part for me is that at that time Jason had a Tracfone and you had to load minutes onto it, and I was able to talk to Nat for just a short time before he ran out of minutes on that Saturday and it was the last time I was ever able to talk to her,” recalled Erin. “I never let him run out of minutes again, probably for the first five years of the accident. I would just refill his cards so I could message him,” Erin went on to note in her book.
When she didn’t hear from Jason, she was a bit worried, but also knew he had ran out of minutes and just assumed he and Nat had gotten back late that she’d hear from them in the morning.
After 11 p.m. on that Sunday, Erin heard a pounding on the door of her then boyfriend’s house and they had both figured it was just about the antics of Erin’s boyfriend’s unruly friend who was staying the night.
“Even when we looked outside and saw the cop lights, I would have never thought it was for ME,” Erin writes. Eventually, she heard her brother-in-law outside and decided to finally open the door. It was then, the news of what happened hit Erin like a freight train.
“They told me straight up there was an accident, and my daughter didn’t make it,” Erin recalls, noting that she just collapsed and ‘came to’ a while later and was tasked with traveling to Mauston to see her daughter’s lifeless body.
From there her life became a haze of sorting through life after Natylee.
“I just muddled through,” she says. “I kept trying different coping mechanisms, but finally I realized I was looking to cure a broken heart and there is no medicine for that. Grief like this makes you feel really invalidated as a person. And this (creating the book) helped me move forward. I was able to come from the mom of the dead child, to Erin, to a person, a sister, daughter, friend, and mother to two daughters.”
In addition to the publishing of this book, in the years that followed Natylee’s death, a bench has been installed outside of her Kindergarten Class at Kickapoo Schools in her honor and Erin was able to establish a scholarship fund which lasted 12 years and wrapped up two years ago on what would have been the year Natylee graduated.
“I tried hard to pick kids for the scholarship who reminded me of Natylee’s personality,” Erin notes.
Still, Erin and her daughter Gwenny as well as Jason celebrate Natylee’s birthday each year with cake, reading books at her grave, singing happy birthday, and indulging in Natylee’s favorite treats.
“I always make a big deal out of her birthday, I’ve found that focusing on the good makes a difference because if I dwell on the bad, I get caught there,” Erin explained.
As Natylee’s sister, Gwenny grows Erin has found it to be a bittersweet experience.
“After Gwenny turned five, I didn’t have as much to compare to with Nat anymore,” Erin said. “But I would look closer and see that Gwenny has my chin and sticks it out the same way when she’s mad that Nat did, and the way I do, and I realize it’s Nat, and it’s me, and it’s just so comforting. “
After completing the book, Erin shared that she felt both proud, and that a weight was lifted from her shoulders, knowing that Natylee’s memory will always be there.
“I did this to keep her memory forever,” Erin explains through tears. “This way, everyone will be able to know my snappy Nat and how much she loved her dad.”
Erin encourages people dealing with grief to take the time and talk about it.
“Even if it feels hard at first to talk to someone about it, talk into a recorder about it. If you bottle it all up, it will ferment inside you and eat away at you and you can’t try to move forward that way.”
Erin will be sharing her book and talking about grief and Natylee on Thursday, August 4 at Driftless Books in Viroqua. Her book ‘NRG: The Mourning After’ is available digitally on Kindle, E-Reader, Barnes and Noble and anywhere online books are available. Additionally, signed books are available (will be available at Driftless Books event) by contacting Erin at E.LKelly@yahoo.com Erin also hopes to share her book and do talks with grief groups in the future.