Virginia A. Simpson, Ph.D. earned a Fellowship in Thanatology by the Association of Death Education & Counseling (ADEC). Dr. Simpson was cited in the July 2007 issue of Town & Country article on grief, numerous times in Palm Springs Life Magazine and The Desert Sun. Her articles have appeared in publications throughout the world. Dr. Simpson began her informal grief studies at the age of 12, after her 48-year-old father died suddenly of a heart attack. In 1982, she embarked on her formal education in death, dying and bereavement, and started counseling the dying and bereaved in 1984, including creating a special program for at-risk grieving teens in Redwood City, California. Upon completion of her dissertation on the psychosocial variables affecting the long-term adaptation of bereaved parents, Dr. Simpson received her doctorate in psychology.
In an effort to create meaning out of the sudden death of her beautiful stepson, Douglas William (Doug) Simpson, in 1991, Dr. Simpson founded The Mourning Star Center, a place of hope and healing for grieving children and their families in Palm Desert, California in 1995. For ten years, she trained all grief facilitators and led every support group for grieving children, teens, parents and spouses. Although intending to stay involved in the organization, the prolonged illness and subsequent death of her mother, along with unforeseen events, moved her life in other directions.In 2006, Dr. Simpson was honored for her work by the Cities of Indian Wells, Palm Desert, Palm Springs, and Rancho Mirage. Dr. Simpson brings more than a quarter of a century of experience and expertise to her work helping grieving children, teens and adults cope with the loss of a loved one due to homicide, suicide, accident or illness. She has appeared on numerous television and radio programs, is a sought after public speaker, and is also a consultant to school personnel, psychologists and other mental health professionals.
Virginia A. Simpson, winner of the 2016 May Sarton Award for her book, The Space Between: A Memoir of Mother-Daughter Love at the End of Life, grew up wanting to be an actress—almost a given because she grew up in Los Angeles in an area located between MGM and 20th Century Fox studios. She also thought about becoming a hairdresser, like her mother.
“The desire to be a writer came later,” says Virginia.
“My parents would call me into the room to sing for their friends. Their favorite was ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ from .My Fair Lady.’ I thought I sounded like Julie Andrews, English accent included. I had a great childhood…never simple because I had an abusive older brother, but it was balanced by a wonderful group of friends to play with who lived on my block. My friends and I loved to sing, dance, and make up stories to act out.”
But it was her dad, Virginia says, for whom she performed and whom she wanted most to please. She strived to get all As in school for him, as anything less was met with anger and disappointment.
“Anyone who saw or heard the musical, ‘I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road,’ may recall the song ‘Smile.’ I related to the character wanting to please her dad: ‘I was always Daddy’s smiling girl, I always tried to please. I could make him happy, put him at his ease. I would smile for Daddy, sing a little song. Daddy would take care of me, that’s how we got along.’”
Virginia’s dad died when she was twelve, however, and with his death Virginia’s childhood was no longer wonderful. She felt she had lost not only her dad, but also her mother and the way of life she had known. She had even lost her best friend who moved away about the same time.
“I was left to figure everything out on my own. I didn’t do a very good job of it because I thought I had to be miserable, and being happy would mean I didn’t love my dad. Once my father was gone, no one seemed to care about what I did. I lost all motivation and reason to achieve. I spent many years of introspection and hard work to learn to heal myself, and find my own source of motivation,” Virginia relates.
Writing, meanwhile, was always waiting in the wings of Virginia’s life. It just took a while for her to have the confidence to do it. While an elementary school teacher praised her writing, and gave her A-pluses, she recalls her junior high teachers being less interested in her writing ability than wanting her to “think like them. I now got Cs. I began to shut down.”
As an adult in her early twenties, Virginia enrolled in a writing class, but dropped out because she was too afraid the teacher would not like what she had written. “I stopped writing stories…only journaling provided me the freedom to express myself without fear of being found out.”
A second attempt at enrollment in a journalism class went a bit better, but then the professor, who supported her writing even after the class was over, died suddenly. Virginia was once again left with the need to cope with her phobic fear of death, which had haunted her since her father died.
“I began to read everything I could locate on death and grief. After marrying and moving to Northern California, I went back to college…and this time stayed until I completed my doctorate in psychology. My emphasis in all the years I studied psychology was on learning about death, dying and bereavement.”
A few years after her graduation, and following a divorce and a move to Indian Wells, CA, Virginia founded a nonprofit center that provides free support for grieving children and their families.
“The work was rewarding and I spent eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, focused on the needs of the children and the survival of the nonprofit. It was during this time a life-threatening condition necessitated that my mother come live with me,” Virginia relates. Writing, meanwhile, was still in her head.
“I always thought I had time. After all, my writing professor had said that some famous writers didn’t publish their first book until they were in their fifties. But one day I woke up, and I was in my fifties and still hadn’t written my book. I realized I needed to act now, or I might run out of time and never accomplish the one thing I always said I wanted to do—write a book.”
Six months after her mother died, Virginia enrolled in a six-week Artist’s Way workshop, and following that a memoir class. For the first time, she shared her writing with others, until she broke her shoulder and became housebound.
“Although I could only type using one hand, I finished the book I’d started in the memoir class. Then I read it and realized it was flatter than Texas. My broken shoulder and the pain I was experiencing somehow gave me courage. After doing some research, I learned that a NYT bestselling author, whose book I’d read and admired, was offering her services to writers. I contacted her and we began working together on a one-on-one basis, and after a few months I joined her online group.”
Virginia says her career played a large part in the issues covered in her book.
“I wanted my story to be one that would help anyone who ever was (or would be) a caregiver. With the aging of the baby boomers, the numbers of caregivers are going to swell throughout the world—there are more than 45 million caregivers in the United States today. I intentionally included the tough issues and some of the unpleasant and sometimes personally appalling thoughts I experienced during the years my mother lived with me, knowing that my personal story was also a universal story shared by millions.”
Virginia said she learned a tremendous amount about her mother as she wrote their story. “I was able to see her with new eyes and with a more compassionate heart. I had to forgive myself for what I was incapable of knowing while she was alive. Anyone who has a mother knows that this is a complex relationship. As my mother would have said: ‘I was the perfect annoying mother, and you were the perfect annoying daughter.'”
It was while writing her book that Virginia came to understand the true story of the years she was her mother’s caretaker. It was about her race against time to heal their relationship. “By the time of my mother’s death” she says, “the only space between us was filled with love.”
Virginia says her writing space is her head. Ideas, she finds, must be written immediately. Sometimes she even uses her phone to email herself notes. As for the best writing advice she received, she says it came from the journalism teacher who encouraged her. “Just write. I know no other way,” he told her.
And from Jennifer Lauck, bestselling author of Blackbird, Virginia says, she learned not to take criticism personally, but rather to use it as a gateway to learning and improving. And Linda Joy Myers, SCN member and president of the National Association of Memoir Writers, taught her the benefit of digging deeper to find the underlying story. There’s always more, “even when you believe you’ve excavated as far down as you can go.” Receiving the Sarton Award, Virginia says, has given her the validation and the encouragement she needed to restart work on her next memoir, although she admits its story line is still hazy.
As for her advice to other writers, Virginia says, we should never give up our dreams. “Often when we’re at the edge of our capacity and feel we can’t go on, we’re actually closest to the opening that gives us wings.”