Company Loves Misery

At the small Colorado Springs offices of Bereavement: A Magazine of Hope and Healing, the excitement started last year, when a writer for the prime-time show Promised Land placed a call to publisher Andrea Gambill. The television drama is a spinoff of the surprise CBS hit Touched by an Angel. Both programs feature angels that perform miracles--or some lesser but still kindly acts--to help people out of predicaments of their own design. Lessons are learned.

The writer was seeking permission to use a poem called "Rise Up Slowly, Angel" in a script for the show. Gambill had published the verses in Bereavement in 1992 and then again a year ago in a compilation of 51 inspirational verses called Food for the Soul. "The writer promised to call to tell me when the show was going to run," she recalls.

He forgot. The episode ran on November 19; Gambill went to the movies and missed it. But the following day she received a frantic call from CBS. "They told me that their switchboard had been lit up by people calling to ask where they could get a copy of the poem," she recalls. "The network wanted to know if they could give out my address."

That started a stream of response. Three months later Parade magazine ran the first four lines of the poem. "And that," Gambill says, "started the tidal wave. Before that, everything was nice; it was just right." Other publishers should have such troubles: The 5,000-copy first printing of Food for the Soul sold out in four weeks.

In the subsequent rush of orders, Bereavement Publishing ran out of stamps, envelopes and metered postage. "We have two phone lines, and they were just ringing constantly," Gambill says. "And while we were on the line, the messages would just pile up. We had to clear our voicemail after every call because it had filled up." When the company recently took shipment of its second printing of the poetry book, 700 back orders were waiting to be filled.

For Gambill, a 62-year-old grandmother, the hubbub was an affirmation. "At any given time in this country, there are thirty million people who are grieving so much that it interferes with their everyday life," she says. "They don't show it. But they are searching for something, anything, to help them."

Gambill has tried to provide spiritual reassurance for a decade now. She started Bereavement, which she calls "a support group in print," in Indiana in 1987, eleven years after her seventeen-year-old daughter, Judy, was killed in an automobile accident. Five years ago Gambill moved the operation from Indiana to Colorado Springs.

In the past decade the company has grown slowly but steadily. In addition to the magazine, which features poems and stories submitted by grieving readers and ten regular columns by various experts on death and sorrow, in 1990 Bereavement began publishing eight-page pamphlets that address specific varieties of grief. "Perinatal Death--An Invisible Loss," "Homicide--A Brutal Bereavement," "Suicide--The Tragedy Compounded," and "Tinsel & Tears--Help Through the Holiday" are some of the titles.

A year and a half ago Gambill also began printing and distributing Bereavement Cards--Words of Love and Support. Each of the series of sixteen messages was composed by Gail Kittleson, an English teacher in the tiny (population 1,000) town of Greene, Iowa.

"I began writing the verses in 1991," recalls Kittleson, the wife of a Lutheran pastor. "My family was going through a very painful time, and I wrote to survive. All I could do was pray and write. So I wrote verse after verse after verse. And when I was done, I literally could not put them away in a drawer."

Using a $50 savings bond given to her by her grandmother when Gail was born 47 years ago, Kittleson paid the local newspaper to print her words on its press. Petrified that she'd wasted the money, she immediately made her first sales call--to the local drugstore, which purchased $204 worth of the cards on the spot. The clerk cried when she read them.

"I seem to have a gift for voicing people's pain," Kittleson explains. "People tell me my cards say what they don't know how to."

"Gail has a gift for verse," agrees Gambill, "but not for marketing." So the two women teamed up. Last year Kittleson sold 30,000 cards.

Following in the tradition of the best inspirational writing, the verses on Bereavement Cards are lyrically ambiguous. "Sometimes we think the pattern for the tapestry of our lives must have gotten lost," reads one. And inside: "At those times, we must stop and listen to the sound of the weaving that still goes on."

There are cards for particular occasions as well. "Losing a loved one is always difficult...but when they have chosen to leave, the pain is magnified," one begins, continuing over the flap: "We acknowledge your overwhelming loss and grieve with you."

"How does one say goodbye to a beloved pet?" asks another.
Like any niche publisher, Bereavement has its own peculiarities. Most of the magazine's 5,000-plus grieving subscribers will be, by their nature, temporary. (Happily, they later give the magazine as a gift to mourning friends. "It doesn't die, like flowers," Gambill points out.)

And while all writers have some emotional bond to their work, those who submit manuscripts to Bereavement for publication can produce pages wet with raw emotion--but dry of literary merit. As the person responsible for upholding editorial standards, it is up to Gambill to let the hopeful authors down very, very gently. "It's a lot more difficult than if you're the editor of Good Housekeeping," she concedes.

The business of grief publishing has soared in the past ten years, and Gambill finds that she must be on constant guard against sorrow shlock--syrupy, slick verse that contains the language of heartache but doesn't deliver the emotional goods. "It's definitely a judgment call, and there are opportunists out there," she says.

There is also a tendency in the despair-recovery field to tilt toward the religious--an inclination that Gambill politely but resolutely rejects. "I am a Christian, and I have my faith," she says. "But not everyone has to sit in my pew. I will not publish 'preachy.'"

That was part of the appeal of "Rise Up Slowly, Angel." The eight-stanza poem was penned in 1991 by a distraught Boston woman named Diane Robertson whose 22-year-old daughter, Martha, had been killed in a car accident two years earlier. She'd never written a poem before, and this one was built on scraps, slowly.

"Often, I didn't sleep all that well during that period," Robertson recalls. "I'd get up in the darkness, trying not to wake up my husband, and I'd scribble out the phrases that were in my mind during the night. I'd write them on an envelope or a piece of paper and then stuff it into my pocketbook. Eventually, I pulled them out together, and the phrases seemed to me to make sense, to follow a believable line."

Robertson had seen a copy of Bereavement at a support-group lending library, so when she completed the poem, she sent a copy to the magazine, which quickly published it. The outpouring of congratulations and support from friends and readers was...nonexistent. "There was no response," she says. "That was the end of it."

Robertson heard from Gambill only once more--when the publisher asked her permission to print the poem in the compilation Food for the Soul--before she was asked if Promised Land could incorporate it into an episode. "I couldn't even imagine how they'd use it in a script," Robertson recalls thinking.

The Promised Land show in which the poem appeared is about a teenager who becomes pregnant; she and her boyfriend don't tell their parents about the pregnancy. The girl miscarries, and the teens secretly bury the child. Later they tell their parents, who hold a proper funeral, during which "Rise Up Slowly, Angel" is read. "I think it's a very nice show," says Robertson. "Very well done."

This spring, strongly in need of a vacation, Gambill and her husband flew to Boston to meet Robertson for the first time. "It was wonderful," says Robertson. The Gambills stayed at the Robertsons' Cape Cod vacation home. The two women walked on the Atlantic beaches and exchanged small talk. But much of the time they spent together was used to compare common stories of grief and comfort.

"We talked about it all the time," Robertson explains. "We both lost our daughters, and you become afraid that people will forget your loved one. You need to keep them alive. So we had our tears. But we also had our joy."

"People have asked me if this kind of work is depressing," adds Gambill, who says that Bereavement Publishing has become profitable, though not wildly so. "No. It's sad sometimes, but that's different than depressing. Sadness can co-exist with peace and hope and joy. Depression cannot."

Since Robertson completed "Rise Up" five years ago, she says, she hasn't spent much time writing. It is an unhappy fact of grief writing that "when the pain is greatest, that's when you're the most creative," she explains.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer