September Vaudrey is an author, speaker, and lover of all things family. She and husband, Scott, have five grown children and three grandchildren—and counting. September is on staff at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, where she teaches in workshops on parenting, grief, and marriage. Her book, Colors of Goodbye, details the loss of her 19-year-old daughter, Katie—and the journey to rebuild her life in the wake of this loss.
I met September at a Writer’s Boot Camp in Salt Lake City earlier this year. She had recently published her book and I bought a copy to have her sign it. I started reading it on the plane home, and found her story-telling skills to be mesmerizing.
Colors of Goodbye is a beautifully written, heart touching story of God’s faithfulness through loss. Michele Morin wrote a wonderful review of this book on lifelettercafe.com that I highly recommend. My intention here is to share a little bit more about September and her book. I want to thank September for the time she spent answering these questions and sharing a little more about herself.
Writing this book must have been painful as you relived those difficult years. How did you arrive at the decision to go through that process? What did you learn from it?
The writing began about 18 months after Katie died, as a way for me to process some of the more painful images—from the hospital, funeral home, etc. I needed those memories to live somewhere besides my head, where I kept replaying them. So I began putting them on the page, scene by scene.
I decided to turn these writings into a book about a year later, after a group of moms I led sat me down and told me others need to learn from how my family and I are navigating this grief journey. I had been sensing as much in my own soul, and this confirmed it.
By then, I was writing in real time—meaning I’d already captured the stuff from those first 18 months and was now writing as I lived through the various experiences. Slowing down to write each scene gifted me with the ability to truly digest what had happened. And in examining each experience—and fact checking with others who were there—I gained a lot of detail I would have otherwise overlooked. So yes, the writing was painful, but it also gifted me with small treasures, for which I am deeply grateful.
Many marriages do not survive the loss of a child. You spoke several times of how you and Scott grieved in different ways, and gave each other the space to do so. What are some other ways that you were able to stay together?
Going through the loss of a child exposes any cracks in the relationship, to be sure. Several years prior to Katie’s death, Scott and I navigated a pretty tough season of marriage and had grown and healed tremendously through that. So when Katie happened, we didn’t have many unexposed cracks left! We already knew how to do pain, which helped immensely.
The grief journey holds both communal and solitary elements:
We need a community to walk alongside us through the darkest of days. One person (a spouse) cannot possibly provide for our relational needs alone. Scott and I didn’t expect the other to meet all our needs. We leaned into our friends quite heavily—especially me because I am a verbal processor and an extrovert.
But the grief journey itself must be navigated by each individual alone. I don’t know what it’s like for Scott to lose his daughter. He doesn’t know what it’s like for me to lose my girl. We must walk our own paths of grief, alone.
And yet, while Scott and I cannot fully comprehend the loss of the other, he is the only person on planet earth who understands who I lost. He understands Katie’s unique inner beauty, how remarkable she was, what she offered the world. He understands the full depth of this tragedy as no one else does.
And that drew Scott and I together. On hard days, even today—eight years out—I can look across the room and lock eyes with him, and I know he gets it. No words needed. We share an unbreakable bond in our loss.
Colors of Goodbye concludes with two powerful stories: the graduation at Azusa Pacific University, followed by the birth of your first granddaughter. What are some of the more memorable moments for you in the four years since?
Perhaps the most meaningful moments have been those shared with readers of the book. I truly had no idea how our story would impact others who didn’t already know us. I have been blown away by how strongly people connect with Colors, and it has been a tremendous privilege to hear the loss stories of so many readers, to read their letters, and to hold those stories closely.
Most of the memorable moments these past four years revolve around the kids: college graduations; Sam riding his bike across the country to raise money for clean water in Africa; Matt & Andrea giving us two more grandbabies; Bethany getting her doctorate; Tember getting into law school; Bethany getting engaged.
One of the most fun moments happened on the day Colors of Goodbye launched. Our son Matt also had a book in the works—The Classroom Chef, a fantastic resource to help teachers spice up their classrooms. We thought his book wasn’t going to release for another few weeks, but it released on the exact same morning as Colors of Goodbye! I’ll never forget waking up, checking my social media feeds, and seeing his book there alongside mine. As a parent, that beautiful shared experience with my son made the release day of Colors all the more special.
And memorable family moments following the loss of a child—no matter how joyful—will always smell faintly of sorrow. That’s just the reality. Scott and I feel Katie’s absence the greatest when the whole family gathers, making new memories together. The goofy photos Katie should be in, the new nephew she should be snuggling, the bridesmaid’s dress she should be trying on—these real losses shout at us. We don’t deny them; we acknowledge them, allowing sorrow its say, giving a nod to our girl, whom we love so much and miss so greatly. And then we get on with the joy.
You’ve been able to meet one of the recipients of Katie’s organ donation. What has that experience been like?
Yes! Just a couple weeks ago, I got to meet Sandy, the woman who received Katie’s liver. Oh my word, it was just sheer joy to meet her. My friend Margaret and I met Sandy and her sister, Cindy, at a restaurant for breakfast and we had the most incredible time. It was absolutely fascinating to hear their story—and to be sitting right next to Katie’s living, thriving liver! I wrote extensively about it in a six-part series on my blog, which you can read here.
What projects are you working on next?
My next book is a parenting book. Working title: Teach Them to Play with Knives: Raising Great Kids Grown-Ups. Many readers of Colors of Goodbye have written me about the parenting aspects they noticed in Colors of Goodbye, which wasn’t by design—but probably speaks to my passion for parenting. I love speaking on parenting topics and it gives me great joy to encourage parents who are in the throes of raising their littles—and to share some of the wins and misses I experienced raising our gaggle of five kids.
Once again, I’d like to thank September for her time in answering my questions, and I look forward to your next book.