Book Review: Twentyone Olive Trees

My move to retirement in 2019 has given me a lot of time for reflection. While the gift of reflection can generate warm feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction, it inevitably leads also to contemplate the impact of close friends and family lives that have been cut short.

Death is not unfamiliar territory for me.  I’ve shared my experience with military funerals, parents dying, cancer stealing an 8-year-old’s life, Naval Academy classmates’ deaths, and drug overdose/suicide stories.   It’s never easy, particularly in the last category, as I’m led down a path searching for a magic phrase or gesture of kindness that would have made a difference.

I recently picked up the book, “Twentyone Olive Trees – A mother’s walk through the grief of suicide to hope and healing” by Laura Formentini.  I met Laura by chance in Costa Rica earlier this month. She introduced herself as a philanthropic photographer (Photographers without Boundaries) born and raised in Milan, but now lives in the San Francisco Bay area.  She gave off light and breezy air with her disarming smile and warm, engaging countenance. She casually acknowledged she had authored a book that had recently been published. As genuine and authentic as a person you could meet, she gently redirected the conversation to another topic. I was very surprised when I later learned the topic was as heavy as it was:  Her 21-year-old son Blaise committed suicide and the release was relatively recent.  I knew I’d check out the book but quite frankly had no idea how authentically familiar her story of personal transformation would echo with a sometimes-uncomfortable familiarity.  I know my own writing about personal loss is gut-wrenching, exposing cracks in my faith, and tends to push me into a whiney, attention-grabbing, victim mode. 

Laura, however, lays out a template for her healing journey.  Her message is not about her grief as it is about transforming her grief into unadulterated love celebrated in the eternal connections she has, and will always have, with Blaise. This book outlines how Laura found her peace. And along the way, you will learn about an awesome mother-son relationship. 

“But peace came when I understood Blaise’s beingness had transformed, like the caterpillar hanging upside down within a chrysalis, radically transforming into something crazy beautiful, finally emerging as a colorful butterfly.”

This is not to say her path of healing was a straight line.  She credits her meditation practice for helping her find this peace, as well as inspiring the beautiful letters, poems, and parables she shares.  This is as heartfelt and instructive a book as I’ve ever read. Laura shares her open heart and healing soul through this beautiful transformation from inconsolable grief to, in her words, “understanding and healing”. 

 I won’t go as far as to say everyone should read Laura’s book, but I will say everybody who reads it through the filter of their own basket of grief will benefit. Greatly.  Yes, you’ll need tissues, but you’ll also laugh, smile, giggle, and reflect deeply on the human condition, a mother’s love, and how death can teach us lessons that the best-lived life never could.  Laura’s ability to create and articulate 21 parables woven together by “Naeltim, the sylph of the air” and tie them into her own poems and letters for Blaise is astounding. Through the journeys of gnomes, birds, ogres, and all the characters that teach us in parables, Twentyone Olive Trees is a phenomenal, heartwarming, sense-making read.

I cannot even pretend to fathom what the loss of a child or grandchild would be like.  But I know TwentyOne Olive Trees will be a companion reader with my own meditation practice as I continue to reframe my past, present, and future losses.  I found this book to be truly beautiful.

And the poem 9-year-old Blaise wrote about his Mom… for this, you will need tissues.  

For more on how Laura is changing the world, please check