Focusing on what remains after a tragic loss


By Gary Morton

Special to The Dialog

Thirty-six years ago Paula D’Arcy found herself in a strange predicament, shrouded by death yet absorbed by new life.

In 1975 D’Arcy, in her second pregnancy, survived a wreck caused by a drunk driver that left her husband, Roy, and 21-month-old daughter, Sarah, dead. Six months later D’Arcy’s second daughter, Beth, was born.

“It was a period of stark contrast,” D’Arcy recalled last month before speaking at Resurrection Parish in Wilmington. “There was death all around me and there was new life, so I was holding both, really.”

Her personal world all but destroyed, D’Arcy, a Catholic, searched for faith and meaning. Her quest led her to the mystics and to people who discovered healing despite adversity.

“The common threat that I saw was that no matter what the circumstances, the people who had the life I would like to have … all seemed to find, ultimately, the beauty in what they were given,” D’Arcy said. “They recognized the loss, but the focus wasn’t on what they had lost; it was on what remained.”

Her search led D’Arcy to work for Dr. Normal Vincent Peale, a Protestant minister and author who promoted, as the title of one of his books stated, “The Power of Positive Thinking.” She later helped form the Red Bird Foundation, her ministry to help those in need grow spiritually and to help those in prison or who live in underdeveloped countries and disadvantaged cultures. The weekend she spoke at Resurrection, she participated in a retreat for homeless women at Jesus House Prayer and Renewal Center..

“For some of us you can almost identify, like me, this accident, that loss, but within the context of a life that’s really been very fortunate,” D’Arcy said in an interview. With the homeless at the retreat and with those in prisons where D’Arcy works, “there are so many layers of pain because there have been many things that have not worked out and so many advantages they haven’t had.”

When the wreck occurred D’Arcy was a counselor at a community college in Watertown, Conn., which helped as she wrestled with questions about her future. “Would this pain shut me down in life? Would I just close my heart in order not to ever be hurt or vulnerable in this way again? I came to a place where I knew I didn’t want that to happen. … I didn’t want to diminish my life especially because I was pregnant with my second child. I wanted to emerge a larger person, if it were possible.”

Her husband’s and Sarah’s deaths had shattered her “picture of God and a certain way I interpreted what love meant and what protection meant, from God.” As she re-evaluated faith, “very quickly I understood I didn’t know much. I kept praying, ‘Show me. Teach me.’”

God, she believes, provided new insights to faith slowly, sometimes through an encounter with another person, sometimes in a book she read, sometimes through a new understanding a Scripture passage.

A journal about her experience as a newlywed and a young mother that she had started before the wreck also helped. “My thought was that for my daughter Sarah, it would one day become a journal that she could read to know what the early years of her life were like. When the accident happened, I just kept writing. It was my way of managing pain, really; a way to give the pain expression.” The journal became her first book, “Song for Sarah/A Mother’s Journey through Grief and Beyond.”

D’Arcy came to understand that people need to find some way to “express and give voice to pain. The most important thing is that the pain needs to move; it has to get from the inside to the outside. Tears accomplish that, or speaking about it. For me it was writing.”

She wanted to help others find their own voice, which led to the Red Bird Foundation that she said works “to bring healing and hope, to reach hearts and let people know that the final say is not pain; the final say is love.”

Her goal is to provide a conversion of hearts that will overcome the challenges of today’s world: war, destruction, pain, “diminishment of the environment and the earth. … We’re all in this together.”