Storybook for children opens door to discussions about grief, loss

4 mins read
A pair of shoes that belonged to Owen Steiner, a 15-month-old boy who died suddenly in 2020, are now given a place of prominence in the Steiner family home in Hermann, Mo. "It's amazing how something becomes not just shoes but a cherished treasure," said his mother, Jeanette Steiner, author of the children's storybook "Owen's Light." (OSV News photo/courtesy Jeanette Steiner via The Catholic Missourian)

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (OSV News) — “In grief and loss, love’s light will prevail. Through shared support, we can mend and set sail.”

Jeanette Steiner wove lessons from her 15-month-old son’s sudden death into vivid couplets about how family members help one another cope with grief in her book, “Owen’s Light.”

A living memoir

She spent about a year gently shaping the words to fit the reality that she, her husband and her children were experiencing in that terrifying realm no parent wants to imagine visiting.

“This is more or less a living memoir of my son and a way to let my children know in a childlike way that it’s OK to be sad and it’s OK to talk about it,” said Steiner, a member of St. George Parish in Hermann.

The 30-page children’s book, imaginatively illustrated by Amelia Atika, introduces readers to a happy and secure family of barred owls, each representing a member of the Steiner family.

Jeanette Steiner, a member of St. George Parish in Hermann, Mo., displays a copy of “Owen’s Light,” a children’s book she wrote based on her family’s process of helping each other work through grief and loss. (OSV News photo/courtesy Jeanette Steiner via The Catholic Missourian)

Steiner gives insight into the ways different members of a family process their grief. “But in the darkness, they found strength anew,” the book says. “Together they stood, their love shining through.”

The sudden loss

Steiner and her husband were at work on Jan. 28, 2020, when healthy, 15-month-old Owen closed his eyes for a nap at a local daycare.

“He went to sleep at 12:30 and didn’t wake up,” said Steiner.

There was no time to prepare, no time to say goodbye.

“It just came out of the blue, and it was such a shock,” she told The Catholic Missourian, newspaper of the Diocese of Jefferson City. “When you don’t have any way to expect it, it’s that much more devastating.”

Spiritual struggles and healing

The mother had a major falling-out with God. “I was very mad for a very long time,” she noted.

“I have days when I’m still mad,” she said. “I will always have days that I question. But I also know that God is the reason I got the pleasure of getting to know Owen in the first place. … God is showing me how to heal. He’s the reason I wrote the book.”

The people of St. George Parish and the families, students and staff of St. George School “carried us through,” she stated. “My children tell me that school feels like a family, as it should.”

Community support

Msgr. Gregory Higley, who was pastor of St. George Parish at that time, prayed with Steiner’s mother-in-law at school upon hearing the news and then visited the Steiners at home.

The parishioners “are people we have grown up with,” Steiner added, “so they felt our pain and lifted us up with prayers and a meal train and hugs.”

Remembering Owen

Steiner called Owen “my strong-willed child.”

“He loved to climb, loved to play — he was a go-go-go baby,” she said. “He loved his siblings with a passion. He always wanted to be outside. At bedtime, he needed his compassion. He needed me to cuddle him and sing to him.”

Like with her other children, she and her husband would pray the “Our Father” with Owen before bedtime.

“We learned so many things from him,” Steiner stated. “And after he left us, I went through such an unbelievable spiritual journey. I feel like I’m learning from him still every day.”

Signs of comfort

The week of Owen’s death, she had no idea how she’d get through the visitation and the funeral Mass.

God comforted her and strengthened her with clear signs of his presence and power.

“There was a rainbow over the church,” she noted. “And I don’t really know how to explain this, but when we were walking him to the church, I felt like I was floating, like someone was actually carrying me, holding me up.”

Navigating grief together

Steiner and her husband learned that because they process grief so differently, they needed to ask each other outright each day how they’re holding up and what they need.

“We have so much love for each other, but you can’t just look at someone and know what’s going on in their head,” Steiner noted. “So, you want to be sure they’re OK.”

Together, with help from their extended family and the community at large, the couple learned to recognize and respond to their children’s evolving needs as each began coming to terms with the loss of their brother.

Four months into the journey, Steiner gave birth to a daughter, Sadie.

Writing “Owen’s Light”

Steiner began writing “Owen’s Light” in secret, hoping the finished story would bring comfort and clarity to her still-grieving family.

She recalled a daytime sighting of a white-faced barn owl in a neighbor’s tree when she and her husband were on their way to Owen’s funeral.

“I had never seen one before, especially not in the bright of day,” said Steiner. “But after that, I saw one at least once each week for over a year.”

That’s why she decided to tell her story about owls.

Drawing on what was occurring in her heart, she crafted each verse with the image of young owls in her mind.

The healing process

Writing the story became part of her healing.

“It’s a child’s story, so it’s supposed to be simple,” she noted. “I didn’t know how to put it all out there, so I did it at my own pace. Nothing was rushed. I felt completely at ease.”

Finally, she asked her husband to read the work, and then she shared it with each of her children.

Steiner wrote “Owen’s Light” to help heal her family, but her husband and mother-in-law recognized upon reading it that it could also help other people find peace.

The book, published earlier this year, is not overtly spiritual, the motivations behind writing it certainly were.

“The whole purpose is to help people heal,” said Steiner. “If it helps one child or an adult release some of that grief from their shoulders, then it’s all been worth it.”

Moving forward

Owen’s brother, Reid, is now 11; his sister, Quinn, is 9, and Sadie, the little sister Owen never got to meet, is 3.

“We know he’s in a good place and also with us always, and he’s happy,” said Steiner. “But it’s hard to live without him, and you’ve got to find ways to deal with that.”

She said it’s important for people of all ages to feel safe expressing their grief and loss.

“Grief is a big, heavy load to carry,” she noted. “It will build up in your body if you don’t talk about it and let it out. You just need someone to listen.”

Learning to trust

She realizes she’ll never understand in this life why her son died so suddenly and so young, but she’s learning to trust.

She’s committed to turning her family’s loss into a source of comfort and inspiration for others, and she’s now working with the same illustrator on a new book, titled “Where Did Owen Go?”

The last page of the second book will show Owen flying happily to the sky, with clouds and stars and rainbows all around him.

OSV News

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