Discussion Guide

Through a Shattered Looking-glass



Talking about it helps! So, I’ve developed this guide to encourage conversation around some of the challenges of mental and emotional suffering as presented in the novel Through a Shattered Looking-glass. Granted, this is a very difficult subject to address, but our aim is to seek new wisdom that will free us to be more understanding, gain sensitivity that leads to compassion, and refine our hope in a way that encourages healing. 


While this resource might be helpful to those reading the book on their own, it is designed for use in a group setting. That’s because community is an essential component of healing. As you share your thoughts about the story and add your personal insights, as you ask questions and reveal your concerns, others will be as strengthened by you as I trust you will be by them.


So, consider finding a few people who might like to do this with you. You may already be part of a community group, a book club or church organization that might be willing to explore these issues together. Examining these matters in community can forge caring relationships that could become meaningful later when such support is needed most.  


It is important, therefore, that this be a group in which trust thrives and loving sensitivity is of top priority. These may be very sensitive issues for members of the group, some of whom may have had, or are having, struggles with mental or emotional challenges. 


As in all groups of this sort, it is important to covenant with one another to protect confidentiality and provide mutual support as you create an environment dedicated to the pursuit of spiritual, mental, and emotional well-being. 


A personal note from the author: 

Through a Shattered Looking-glass is a fictional account of a deeply personal experience of mental suffering endured by a young woman from New York City. And however we may identify with her struggle, we know that what she endures is experienced by far too many people these days. As you read the story and follow the Baxter family, you will likely brush up against events that evoke remembrances of your own difficult experiences, sensations of pain, and expressions of hope. My prayer is that you will allow this story to nurture your personal narrative in new ways.


It was a hard story to write. And people have told me it is a hard story to read. Mental illness is an exceedingly difficult topic to talk about, or even think about. So, let’s begin in a comfortable place. Let’s begin with gratitude as we move toward greater hope. 


Your participation in these conversations is deeply appreciated and, I pray, will be deeply meaningful for you. These will not be easy discussions, but we will be building new muscles as we strengthen our understanding, compassion, and faith. 


There are countless souls now suffering in ways you may not comprehend, and there are not enough professionals to meet those needs. Someone you know may be among them, though you may not realize it yet. But as we share in these reflections you will come to see just how important your sensitivity is, and how essential your love and presence may be. You can be thankful that God is able to equip you to care in new ways. And you can trust that God will be with you as you move more deeply into a healing relationship with someone suffering in their mind or emotions. As Tamara Baxter will learn to say, “We have a duty to keep. And we aim to keep it.”


Yours in faith 

     -- Clay






Suggested Group Process

Thank you for leading a group discussion based on one of the Tamara novels. This introduction is designed to offer some general suggestions for hosting a group that will be addressing some issues that may be very sensitive for some people. Discussing personal struggles, painful experiences, or challenging questions of faith and spirit can be difficult any time. But when matters of mental illness and emotional suffering are included in the mix, the challenges will multiply rather quickly.


But that’s why we want to talk about them! That’s also why using a fictional narrative to help frame the conversation can be beneficial. You’ll let Tamara’s struggles form the focus of the group’s initial discussion then, as the story encourages personal reflection, group members will introduce their own life experiences as they feel able. 


As the group leader, you will want to be extra sensitive to how people are interacting with the story and allow them all the room they need to absorb and discuss matters that are of importance tot them. The objective here is not to hold a literary conversation to explore the novel’s merits (and faults), structure, or style. The objective is to allow the story to free group members so they may address those challenges they might be facing and seek the encouragement of the group.



Group Process


Ideally, the group will be led by someone familiar with group processes, but that is certainly not essential. What matters is shared interest among a few who would like to discuss these matters together. If a group does not have a designated leader, or if the leader would like to share the task, then this can be rotated from session to session if the group is open to that. 


Begin simply. Each session might profit by taking some time to settle in as participants reclaim a comfort level together. A time of silence or guided prayer, depending on the group’s preferences, may help some people center their thoughts and calm any emotions they may have as they arrive. 


Participants will be asked to read a certain amount of the novel before each session (the session headings will indicate the latest chapter you will want to have read by that point in the conversation.). The guide which is provided will supply the focus for the session, but before you dive into that material, allow for some general conversation about what they read. Let them respond to the story in their own way and react to the narrative by offering their own impressions of the events. As you are able, gently guide the discussion into the specific topic at hand and focus on those issues outlined in the guide.


In later sessions, some recap may be offered at the beginning of the meeting, and participants may be invited to share any insights they may have had since the last time the group met.




Topics for discussion


Rather than follow a chapter-by-chapter outline of the narrative, each session will focus on a topic that often presents us with difficulties as we address the challenges posed by mental illness. As the story unfolds, new circumstances present new challenges. 


The discussion guide used by the group is designed to encourage readers to identify and acknowledge some of those significant issues in a safe space with others who may be facing them alongside you. Groups should be encouraged to focus on those matters most important to them, so the prompts are simply that, suggestions that point the way toward deeper communication, insight, and community care. 


Group members should be encouraged to read through the guide in preparation for each session, and to give some prior thought to the prompts.


As the discussion begins, the group may simply want to move through the guide point by point and pause for conversation. Or they may prefer to read the notes and questions in their entirety at the outset of the meeting, then group members may plunge in wherever they wish. The leader may return to particular points and challenge deeper engagement if the conversation lags.



Encouraging Self-reflection


These conversations are designed to encourage personal reflection on matters we may often try to ignore otherwise. The hope is to build new strength and confidence around a part of life we prefer to walk away from. We usually avoid something because it frightens us, or we feel incapable of addressing its demands. 


After a discussion focused on the narrative presented in the novel, we turn to our own personal stories. Time should be allowed for people to turn from the fictional material to face those matters that may be all too real. 



Closing each session


At the close of the discussion, allow for a season of quiet reflection so everyone can further absorb what has taken place in the session. As the group feels led, it is encouraged to pray in a way meaningful and comfortable for the group to invite God’s help and wisdom as we proceed together.


In closing, introduce the topic of the next session so we can be alert to some of the issues confronted in the novel as we read, reflect, and prepare for the next session.




Session One:
The Miracle of Story
and the Lure of the Looking-glass

From the moment God said, “Let there be...” stories were born and became central to the human experience. And they are essential to human well-being. Together, we will be reflecting on several stories. First, there is Tamara’s experience described in the novel. But we simply can’t read any story without considering our own. And, if you know of someone who is in some form of mental distress, their story will always lie in the background, too. 


We are participants in these stories, and it is critical that we not get that confused. We are not therapists, nor are we equipping ourselves to be cheap substitutes for the clinicians others may need. We are not going to fix anything for anybody. Instead, we will focus on becoming a part of that indispensable community of compassion, without which healing and hope simply cannot exist. That is not a secondary role! Each of us can be an essential and primary partner in someone else’s care. And we may even strengthen our own mental well-being along the way.


Sharing the stories of our experiences in community can become an act of healing. By paying close attention and seeking to understand another’s experiences, you may instill hope that that person is not alone. You don’t need to be a licensed clinician for that. You need love, sensitivity, and patience. Some people need to tell their story and know they are being heard. It is a crucial component in community, and a significant act of compassion. Trust that your listening ears may do more for a person than your bright ideas or clever insights into their situation. 


Listen. Listen. Listen. And when that feels inadequate, listen some more. 


As you listen to others tell their stories, it is important not to judge, evaluate, or comment in ways that will diminish or alter that person’s expression. We are here to listen to one another, not to fix or change one another. 


To help you listen, ask the sort of questions that will clarify what is being said or invite responses that help you understand the experience. Ask every question out of love!


So, let’s begin by telling some of our story. Introduce as little or much of yourself as you wish. What inspires you and brings you a sense of purpose, well-being or joy? Continue by sharing a few reasons why you chose to read the book, why you are here in this group, and what you hope to gain from the experience. 


If you feel comfortable doing so, describe your own experiences with emotional or mental pain (either your own or someone else’s, being sensitive to issues of respect and confidentiality). Share a few things that confuse you, intimidate you, or frighten you about being with those who are facing psychological difficulties. 

The Lure of the Looking-glass


As the story unfolds, we discover why the metaphor of Alice’s looking-glass is so important to Aimee. In Lewis Carrol’s story, Through the Looking-glass, when Alice stared into the mirror everything was backwards, turned around upon itself in mysterious ways. Mental distress distorts our perception of what is real. When it impacts us, either as patients or caregivers, life is disrupted in profoundly disorienting ways.

Yet holding our perceptions and experiences up to reflection may help us understand them better. So, in each session we’ll invite you to take your own trip into the looking-glass as you seek to discover why life feels so backwards when you are confronted by mental pain or psychological disorders. 


And one of the best ways of entering that world is to do it with others you trust. The community around us often serves as an effective emotional mirror and helps us see ourselves better than we could if we were reflecting on these things alone. Perhaps, together, you’ll explore some possible avenues forward that will help your world begin to make sense again. 


So, I invite you to become a “reflective” community with one another. Consider this to be a group in which you can be real in ways that will help you learn more about yourself. Trust the others to maintain a space in which each member can explore honestly their own challenges with the subject matter. 


You can begin to forge such a community by honestly addressing questions like these: 

How do you feel about being transparent to others? In this first session it might be helpful to acknowledge if sharing personal issues is difficult for you. If you feel awkward about revealing sensitive thoughts or feelings, you can help others understand the kinds of boundaries you may wish to maintain (so they will respect your needs during the conversation). 

Or, if sharing your story and experiences usually helps you, can you describe what that is like for you? (Does it energize you? Strengthen you in some way?) Why do you think such transparency works that way for you?


Everyone is different when it comes to sharing. So, try not to push or pressure people to talk. If someone is being silent, then be sensitive and patient. It may take a while for some people to open up. If you need to remain quiet or feel it’s not the right time to share what you are thinking or feeling, then know you have permission to say so.  



Resources for further exploration


Education is a key ally in supporting those suffering with mental and emotional stress. We are all in this together, so equipping ourselves with as much information as possible is a certain source of new confidence and strength. Ignorance contributes to fear, stigma, and denial, which in turn contributes to neglect and potentially tragic outcomes.


Each section will include some pertinent resources for those who wish to pursue the topic further. While these internet sites may be helpful, nothing can replace those “in-person” resources that might be suggested by your own doctor or local mental health professional. 


Here is a great place to start your investigation….


The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
Link:  About NAMI | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness


Because these conversations may be painful to some, I encourage you to be aware at the outset of a few resources dedicated to suffering and suicide. The “Now Matters Now” website offers good concrete information and exercises that can be beneficial to those struggling in their minds and emotions. Additional resources will be found following session 4.


Now Matters Now
Link:  Now Matters Now



















Session Two
Barriers to healing: Denial, Stigma, and Fear
(Please read up through chapter 5)

Denial is a gift from God. Surprised at that? Consider: overwhelming circumstances are overtaking you, and you are not ready to face them. Someone essential to your life has just been diagnosed with cancer or has suddenly died. Your child is seriously ill, and you are not ready to cope with what your soul knows to be true but your mind rejects. 


Denial is a slow valve that lets in the truth one manageable drip at a time. It gives us the space we need to cope at a reasonable pace. It’s when that valve gets stuck that we may need more help. Where do you see forces of denial at work in the Baxter household? What is preventing Aimee from acknowledging her daughter’s true needs?


Denial can be a powerful ally for those who don’t want to face the truth, or a psychological fortress we dare not leave, especially if we perceive that what awaits us “out there” is a lot more pain. Denial keeps us safe for as long as we feel we need to protect ourselves.


What is going on in the parents’ minds that reinforce their blindness to the truth? What do Aimee and Terrance seem to lack as parents as they struggle with Tamara’s behavior and attitudes?


Stigmas are usually constructed (often unconsciously) by the cultures we inhabit and may be experienced as a form of shame. Various stigmas are reinforced by our society and may define what a particular group feels to be weak and unacceptable. Stigma underpins denial and may incite our fears of failure which something like mental illness represents for many people.


What evidence do you see that Tamara may be the focus of stigma? How do stigmas surrounding psychological disorders impact the way she is being treated? How are they hindering her parents’ ability to accept what she is experiencing? 


There are times when we feel the need to construct a mental framework that explains why we hate what we hate, because what we hate fills us with foreboding and dread. This is how stigma operates. We tremble in the presence of that which feels overwhelming, so we teach our minds plenty of reasons why we shouldn’t go there in the first place.  


As you identify the stigmas at work in the Baxter household, what do you think they are trying to protect? How might wealth and status feed the stigma of mental illness?



Stigma and denial work hand-in-hand with fear. The emotional forces that lay behind mental illness can quickly peel away those layers of protection and leave us feeling exposed to a mystery beyond our comprehension. Fear and foreboding set in and are stoked by what we stand to lose. We fear pain in ourselves, so we usually fear facing pain in others. 


What do Aimee and Terrance fear they will lose if they acknowledge what is happening to Tamara? What will they lose if they don’t face the reality of Tamara’s existence? What will Tamara lose? Where do you see fear in her, and how does that fear express itself?  What are the unexpressed fears which no one wants to name?


Reflections in the Looking-glass


Now for the uncomfortable part. The disquieting images which Aimee will see in her own personal looking-glass will change her life forever. But what she discovers will open the way, finally, for healing to occur. So, let’s take a glance and see what we can see as we look at ourselves in the emotional mirror.


Remember, be patient with yourself and those around you. Opening the valve on these emotions and mind-sets is hard but important work if we are to become a compassionate partner with those who are suffering. You may not even want that yet. That’s okay too. It’s important to be honest about that. In the meantime, we can all grow in our awareness of what others are facing. 


And don’t forget: It’s perfectly okay not to be perfect at this! None of us are! But we are beginning to succeed when we can be honest about these matters then set about to confront those shadows within. 


A few questions to ponder: 


We all harbor denial. We all have attitudes shaped by stigmas surrounding mental illness. And, if we try, we can name our fears. What are they for you? Can you describe them? 


When has denial worked for you? Perhaps you experienced trauma and hesitated to face it. What was that like? How did the situation unfold so you could gradually come to terms with it?


Describe a time when you utilized some form of stigma to protect you from personally engaging with someone threatening to you. Do you feel you have set those stigmas aside, or are they still working on your behalf? Have you ever been the victim of stigma? If so, can you describe what it felt like and how it hindered your progress or healing?


How would you describe your fears surrounding mental illness? What do you feel you will lose (or are losing) if some form of mental distress impacts you, either in your own mind or in someone you love?


Resources for further information and help


If you wish to understand the forces of denial, stigma, and fear, then consider checking out these on-line resources:



“Denial – What You Need to Know:
7 Common Signs of Denial”
Link: Denial and Mental Illness – What You Need to Know (mentalhealthcenter.org)

“The stigma of mental disorders:
A millennia‐long history of social exclusion and prejudices” 
by: Wulf Rössler
Link: The stigma of mental disorders (nih.gov)

“False beliefs about mental illness can cause significant problems.
Learn what you can do about stigma.” 
By the Mayo Clinic Staff
Link: Mental health: Overcoming the stigma of mental illness – Mayo Clinic

“Stigma, Prejudice and Discrimination Against People with Mental Illness”
Link: Stigma and Discrimination (psychiatry.org)


Session Three
A Crisis of Identity: Who Am I Now?

(Please read up through chapter 9)

Aimee and Terrance Baxter thought they knew who they were and where they were headed in life. But a series of unplanned circumstances began to overtake them that completely rewrote the family script. For one, Aimee got pregnant! Yet you may have noticed just how competently they addressed that unexpected good news. 


But no one anticipates mental illness will overtake us. No one aspires to it, prepares for it, saves money for it. Consequently, as it engulfs someone we love, sensations of crisis may disorient us. Quickly, we realize we aren’t prepared with the proper tools. But even as we equip ourselves with therapists, clinicians, doctors, medications, etc., another reality creeps in upon us, one of personal identity: Who am I now? What does this mean for my future? How will others relate to me? And how will I relate to them?


Aimee seems constantly preoccupied with her personal sense of identity. How does she see herself at various times in her life? What does success look like to her? How has she mapped out her life? What has she sacrificed along the way to become the person she thinks she has to be? And, how might that prevent her from facing the realities now overtaking her family, and especially her daughter?


Motherhood poses a particular challenge for Aimee, and throughout the story, her identity as a mother is threatened repeatedly. What are some of the realities Aimee can’t seem to account for? She has great instincts that serve her well on the New York Stock Exchange; there, she knows who she is. But what about as a mother? What instincts does she seem to lack? Why does she have such a hard time seeing herself as a mother?


It hasn’t been any easier for Terrance. His family name and position in society has defined much of his response to all that has happened in the family. What are some of the implications of status, professional roles, and family tradition where mental health may be concerned? How has this affected his role as a husband and father? What steps might he take to help address some of the disconnect he feels from Aimee and Tamara?


As we move through the Baxter’s story, we’ll discover that it is not just their personal circumstances that are at stake. Their professional and family relationships will be impacted. Others will struggle to relate to them and that will influence the way they see themselves. We take powerful cues from those around us, and when others take a step back or start treating us differently, we wonder how they must see us now. What must be running through Aimee’s and Terrance’s minds as they sense their relationships being reconfigured by their family circumstances? What solutions do you imagine they have at their disposal? And which relationships are going to win, professional, extended family, marriage, parenthood? Which are most in jeopardy right now?


One aspect of our identity that may feel threatened is our sense of competence. In our professions, hobbies, families, we feel strengthened and equipped to succeed. We have the tools and know how to use them. We possess confidence in our abilities and in ourselves. What are gifts and emotional tools the Baxter parents bring to their professions? To their marriage? And are they sufficient for parenthood?


Aimee often wonders about herself and others: Are you a powerful person or a person of power? What do you think that phrase means to her? From where does she derive power? How tentative a hold does she have on power? What does the loss of personal power represent to her?


Terrance comes from a powerful family, and he derives much of his personal identity from that. Where do you see that identity shaken? And how is that impacting the decisions he needs to make on behalf of his family?

As we’ve seen, the metaphor of the looking-glass repeatedly pulls Aimee into periods of self-reflection and new discovery. And as she often realizes, clarity only comes after periods of disorientation. As Aimee looks at herself in the mirror, what does she struggle to see? How has her sense of personal power been impacted? And as she examines herself more thoroughly, what might she also discover about her husband, her daughter, and her identity as a professional? 


The Apostle Paul once wrote, “when I am weak, then I am strong.” It has, mercifully, been the experience of many people that in the throes of suffering we realize new strengths within us. Before that happens, however, our sense of personal identity may be severely threatened. We may realize that some of our strengths were not as solid as we thought. Some of them may have been rather superficial, held in place by daily force of will. Those strengths propped up our persona and sense of self-worth. As we watch those strengths crumble under the weight of mental suffering, the erosion of that self can create sensations of hopelessness, meaninglessness, and despair.


What is crumbling before Aimee’s eyes that she can’t sustain any longer? What does that represent to her and her family? On the other hand, what does Aimee stand to gain by letting go and releasing some of what she held to be so essential to her identity?



Looking-glass reflections


When circumstances require us to reinterpret our sense of self, we may become disoriented for a while. Forced to be introspective in those sorts of ways can induce a form of mental or emotional pain that compounds all we are already enduring. 

Can you recall and reflect on a painful time in your life that forced you to re-examine your identity as a person? You may have found yourself asking questions like these: What do I look like to others? Am I now a victim to be treated in special ways? Am I to be trusted to carry out my responsibilities? Do people feel they need to make special accommodations for me? What steps might we take if we find ourselves confronted by such personal identity confusion? 


Do you feel powerful? From where do you draw personal strength or power? What is it like when that power is challenged by circumstances beyond your control? How do you handle moments of emotional or spiritual weakness? 


In chapter 7 (“What Those Eyes Can See”), it was not her mirror but a long look at a stained-glass window that forced Aimee to search deep within. As she stared into the colorful eyes of Christ, she felt God’s gaze penetrate and probe the depths of her being. 


A healthy faith and spirituality will encourage such soul searching as we consider our relationships with God and others. It can be very beneficial as we seek to mature, or heal, or discover new wisdom through our experiences. Aimee had little faith to bring to that experience, yet it stirred something inside her she wanted to pay attention to. Later sessions will further explore the challenges which ideas like God, faith, prayer, and hope introduce into experiences of mental suffering. 


For now, do you sense God paying attention to you, and if so, can you describe what that is like? And if you don’t, what are the sorts of questions or doubts that arise as you consider God’s role in your experiences? 


Do any of these statements describe you, and can you elaborate on why you feel that way?

            This illness is strictly a medical issue and God is not involved.

            God seems distant and disconnected. I feel alone in this.

            God is doing this to punish me for some reason.

            God must have a reason for this, I just don’t know what it is.

            God is interested and engaged in what I am facing. 

            God is nudging (or urging) me to pay closer attention to my own pain. 

            God is encouraging me to pay more attention to those around me. 

            God is preparing me in some way to face this and be of help to someone.



Resources for further exploration

What is the Connection Between an Identity Crisis and Mental Health? | Oceanfront Recovery

Mental Health Stigma and Your Identity – I Am Not My Illness | HealthyPlace

Mental Illness And Identity (theodysseyonline.com)

A great website dedicated to addressing mental health specifically in men:
Man Therapy | Men's Mental Health Resources

 Session Four
When So Much Seems to Be Dying
(Please read up through chapter 15) 

Suicide is one of those topics we put off as long as we can until we can’t put it off any longer. But wherever mental suffering exists, the threat of suicide is no longer hiding, or even just below the surface. It is staring us squarely in the face. Suicide is aided by stigma, encouraged by denial, enabled by fear. How often have we heard the words: “We never saw that coming”? 


If no other catalyst compels us to seek help, this one must. Sadly, the signs are too easily ignored, shrouded by denial, or intentionally overlooked.

As Terrance and Aimee confront this reality in Tamara’s life at such an early age it doesn’t seem real at first. But their denial can’t last. They have to take a hard look at that possibility. How well do you feel they accomplished that? If you were Tamara’s parent, and she became preoccupied about her own death, what would you have done? 


Tamara began to make blatant overtures about her own death, and she turned those ruminations into a violent outburst when she lashed out at her stuffed animals. What was that all about? What do you imagine Tamara was feeling? What was she saying through her actions she couldn’t put into words? And was anyone listening? 


There is often a lot of grief associated with the onset of mental illness in someone we love. Anger, dismay, and frustration erode our generally positive outlook as we seek to cope. Powerlessness, disorientation, and a loss of meaning conspire against us. There may seem no way out. Suffering spreads throughout the family. Death may feel immanent.


How do you see Tamara’s condition threatening the fabric of their family? What else seems to be dying in the Baxter household? What needs to die before they can move on? What are they clinging to that will destroy them if they don’t let it go?


When such suffering is present in the family and the potential for suicide rears its head, we may intuit that other parts of our lives have begun to die prematurely as well. Our emotions erode and our ability to cope frays. A breaking point may feel near at hand. Through these discussions, however, we are seeking the sort of wisdom that will alert us before that happens, along with the tools we may need to use before the situation becomes desperate. 


By now, in Tamara, the signs are no longer hidden. But what is the catalyst Aimee needed to act on her observations? What do you feel like she had to finally relinquish before she could reach out for assistance? Why did it take so long?


As painful as such a moment may be, that act of surrender to one’s reality can become a transitional moment into a new future. The Baxters were a long way from realizing any relief, but as Aimee contacts Dr. Samuelson, what do you sense changing in them that will allow for the possibility of healing?


Dr. Samuelson is presented as an oddity in the psychiatric profession. His methodology is not “orthodox” nor is his approach endorsed by any of the other professionals in the book. His perspective is presented to encourage us to think long and hard about the complexity of our human experience, especially as we feel our existence threatened by seasons of suffering, either in ourselves or one we love. Most disturbing may be his observations about the value of suffering. What do you make of Dr. Samuelson’s suggestion that suffering is a “gift” they haven’t unwrapped yet? What does Aimee find in their initial conversation that inspires hope in her? From this early point of the story, what potential for healing do you see for this family as they meet with him?


The final catalyst that nudges the family into bold new territory comes as Tamara lashes out at her parents and blows the lid off their relationship. The family is in tatters. Her intuitive sense becomes a weapon she uses against them. What are the conflicting emotional forces at work in Tamara that cause this behavior? What is she trying to force from her family they will not offer voluntarily? And what could possibly be the “gift” they are about to unwrap and discover in the throes of all this pain?



Looking-glass reflections


Tragically, the rates of suicide today mean that few people are left unaffected by it. What experiences have you had with suicide? Is it a topic you avoid? Have you been forced to face it personally in your family or among close friends? Have you considered it for yourself? If you can answer yes to any of those questions, would you mind sharing your thoughts about this?


These may feel like blunt questions, but the time is long past that we should turn away from them when so many lives are at stake. So, consider: Are you prepared to face the possibility of suicide in someone you love, or in yourself? Do you need some help dealing with this? Are you willing to equip yourself with tools that could save another’s life? If you feel resistance in any of these areas, can you discuss why that is and what you may need to move beyond it? 


Suffering is not a stranger to any of us. By varying degrees, we have all known mental and emotional pain, whether it be significant loss and the grief associated with it, physical illness, alienation from those we love, rejection by others, abuse, etc. In hindsight, see if you identify and share with the group an experience of pain that contained some sort of a gift you unwrapped that revealed something in you which you didn’t realize was there? What was that gift, and how have you made use of it?


As we become conscious of the gifts hidden within our suffering, we may realize a new confidence when forced to deal with suffering in ourselves or in those we love. What gifts born from your suffering do you now have to offer someone else in pain? 


Some of those gifts may have been given by others, gifts of compassion that reshaped your experience, gifts that would also become a new part of you. Consider what you needed most from your family and friends in your time of suffering. Was it advice? Encouragement to seek medical intervention? A listening ear? A compassionate heart? The simple presence of someone you trusted? The understanding of someone who’s “been there”? And how freely was that gift given? What lasting impact did that gift have on you?



Resources for further discovery

QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) Suicide Prevention Course
QPR Institute | Practical and Proven Suicide Prevention Training QPR Institute (en-US)
Suicide is Different
Suicide Is Different
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
(suicide education and prevention programs)

In case of emergency, keep these numbers on hand:

National Suicide Lifeline

Addiction Treatment Helpline
1 (800) 633-5357

Veterans Crisis Line (for veterans, press 1)


Text SIGNS to 741741 for crisis counseling

It is strongly suggested that a list of local resources be provided to each group member at the close of this session.
Such resources might include local phone numbers or website addresses for:

Clinics and mental health care facilities
Emergency rooms
Hot-lines set up through police departments or other rescue organizations.

 Session Five
As Hell Falls from the Sky and 
Truth Thunders in the Soul
(Please read up through chapter 18)

We spend much of our lives learning how to hide our insides from others. This is as true for families as it is for individuals. The family “brand,” shaped over time, is a carrier for those values and aims we hope to pass down through the generations. It is the face we want others to see. That reputation can become a mechanism for stifling the reality beneath the surface. How did this dynamic affect the way Aimee and Terrance related to their daughter’s emotional needs?


The protective layers we construct around our emotions, and the narratives we compose about ourselves for others to enjoy, become frighteningly vulnerable when threatened by serious emotional trauma. There is always more going on inside us than we want to show others. Much of it we tuck away to avoid discovery. But there is a threshold to what we can endure, and when that threshold is crossed it may pour out in destructive ways, especially for our relationships. When we become agitated by forces beyond our control (like the onset of mental distress) then our relationships suffer stress at levels that may require intervention if they are to endure.


Dr. Samuelson suggested a vacation so the family could reconnect and learn to relate to Tamara as a daughter again, not as a psychiatric patient. As Aimee manipulates her family into taking this getaway to the White Mountains, what do you think she imagines she can accomplish by this? Is it a wise decision? 

Throughout the novel, Tamara’s mental state has been the most obvious issue in need of attention, but it also became a wedge driven into her parent’s relationship. Why? Do you think her behavior is conscious on her part? Or is it a subconscious attempt to gain something from them? And what might that be? What were the warning signs Aimee and Terrance should have seen that might have strengthened their marriage rather than threaten it?


Mental anguish, searing pain, the final shattering of trust, these can set loose tremors inside that begin to shift the tectonic plates of our existence. That’s what causes earthquakes. And emotional breakdowns. Even failed marriages. No one predicts them, and by the time they finally appear on the horizon it often feels like it’s too late. Too much is already broken. But is that really true? 


Earlier in the story, Dr Samuelson struggled to convince Aimee and Terrance that Tamara was not the only one who needed therapy. Until this point, they may not have grasped how fragile their marriage was. As the Baxters settle into their mountainside cabin and night begins to fall, the onslaught of the lightning storm erodes the last bit of cohesion and resolve they brought with them. The lightning storm comes at that moment when everything was in jeopardy. As thunder batters their nerves, they see in one another truth that had been hidden for too long. 


What did those flashes of light show them? What new truths are thundering in the Baxter’s souls they need to reckon with? What now comes to light about this family that they never brought out into the open before? And by the harsh glare of that lightning, do you see hope for them? If so, how would you describe that hope? What help is available to them?


In the quiet of the morning, by the soft light of a new day, Terrance and Aimee open their eyes. An expression of grace. A moment of realization. Sensations of dawn. After all that happened the night before, what glimmers of promise do you witness as they rock slowly on the porch? 



Looking-glass Reflections

A looking-glass is placed before our mind’s eye, lightning bathes our inner landscape with a glaring light, and thunderous truth roars through us. Suddenly, we see into our existence with widened eyes. And we suspect that nothing will be the same again. Can you describe such a moment of illumination in your life?


In a family or close-knit community, when one person is suffering everyone is feeling pain on some level. The duress can have serious consequences if it goes untended. How have you or your family ever faced this? Do you know families that may be enduring this right now? Was there anything in particular that helped you? What might you offer others?


Normally, no one wants to endure those new awakenings when they are happening. They are all too often brought about by a lot of pain as we endure circumstances that force us to face new truths or confront very difficult challenges in ourselves. When someone we love is suffering, it pushes us into ourselves in very uncomfortable ways, perhaps forcing us to face our own stability, mortality, or other personal issues we prefer not to pursue. 


On the surface, we may be capable of maintaining a semblance of normalcy. To everyone else, we appear to be a happy family. Enormous emotional resources may be expended to keep that façade in place. Yet be aware. It may not last for long, simply because most of us are not capable of sustaining it. The coming storm may be too severe to handle alone. 


Perhaps you have firsthand experience of this. Have you ever been “struck by lightning” and suddenly saw something in yourself, or in someone you love, and you wished it were still hidden? What do you look like under stress? What do you reveal about yourself when under duress that surprises even you? 


The onset of mental illness may happen over time with the stresses building incrementally as a person’s condition worsens or changes course. Then suddenly the reality of it may overtake us like a bolt of lightning: the unexpected emotional surges, the unlooked-for crisis-in-the-moment that occurs again and again, the heightened sensations of vigilance or fear. Have you experienced those before? If you have, how did you cope? What helped you in those moments when you felt so helpless? Did you notice the tensions or strain affecting your relationships? 


Hope may feel most tenuous in moments such as this. A breaking point may have come. It can be a dangerous time in a person’s encounter with mental illness. If you were suddenly confronted by circumstances seemingly beyond your control, how do you feel you would handle it? Who do you trust that you could call at any time day or night? What resources do you have at your disposal? 



 Resources that may be of help for families

 Family Support in Mental Health Treatment (mentalhealthcenter.org)

Resources for Families Coping with Mental and Substance Use Disorders | SAMHSA

NAMI Family Support Group | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness




 Session Six
Finding Faith
Where You Never Thought to Look

(Please read up through chapter 23) 

Faith in God comes hard to a lot of people, even under the best of circumstances. It can be much more elusive in seasons of suffering and may not make much sense for those enduring mental pain or emotional trauma. To so many who suffer, God may be experienced as distant, unconcerned, or even punishing – if he can be experienced at all. For others, God emerges gradually as a source of hope and healing.


How do you see faith beginning to dawn in this family? As the story has unfolded, what glimmers have been offered that suggest a new awakening about God’s presence in the midst of all they are enduring? Where do you see Aimee’s latent faith beginning to reassert itself? What do you feel she is looking for? 


Terrance is a self-professed and well-practiced atheist. Aimee is an agnostic who feels faith made life more complicated than it needed to be. Both walked away from the Episcopalian upbringing of their childhood, so they never had those resources to draw upon as they sought to raise their daughter. Yet, as the realities of Tamara’s distress began to sink in, Aimee tried grasping for something beyond her. Recall that after her encounter with the stained-glass window (chapter 7), she briefly suggested that God (or returning to church) could be an answer, but they dismissed that possibility rather easily. What was she hoping that might offer her family? And why do you think it was so easily dismissed?


Quite unexpectedly, the family finds itself standing by a river watching a baptism. In your own imagination, place yourself there and watch each member of the family as they realize their own discoveries about the event. What do you see? What did Terrance experience when he ran into Pastor Toby earlier that morning he never expected (or wanted) to face? 


Aimee, Tamara, and Barb all encountered something transformative on that bank. What do you see in each of their experiences that might become central to them in their quest for healing? How is God presented, and how does he seem to be present in those experiences?


After lunch, we join the family on a hike to the overlook, where jolting revelations about Barb’s family powerfully impact the family. Why does such emotional intensity overtake them? How might these sensations of utter helplessness come to impact their sense of hope and healing? How might their vulnerability eventually help shape new faith in God?


That night, seated on Barb’s porch, there comes a moment of reckoning. Truth is faced and it doesn’t look good. The realities of both the Baxter and the Fletcher families feel overwhelming when laid side by side as they are. What new realizations do you sense they are discovering? 


Who is God, and can he be found in emotional suffering? Does prayer invite help, or does it simply expose your soul to more pain? These are some of the questions implied at this point in the story as Tamara engages Barb in a challenging conversation about God. How do you respond to those questions? What do you make of Barb’s struggle to teach Tamara how to pray and address her other questions about God? 


Looking-glass Reflections


When life’s challenges overwhelm us and we fear that our existence is very vulnerable, God may become a new possibility for help and a fresh source of hope. Just as likely, in the face of such dire circumstances, God’s existence is as easily questioned, doubted, or dismissed. 


Have you ever found yourself doubting God or questioning his existence in times of personal suffering? Can you describe and reflect on a time when you faced circumstances that either pushed you in God’s direction involuntarily, or drove a wedge into your relationship with the God you thought you knew, but suddenly felt very different, or far far away? 


Again, and again throughout these novels we will find ourselves standing by this river, looking into its flowing waters and searching its current for new meaning. As she watched the baptism, Tamara’s experience suggested something new might be possible for her. Can you describe a place or moment in your life that represents such a turning point or moment of new birth? 


Reflect on this passage from Isaiah 25:6-9 quoted by Barb. What does it say to you? How is God lifting the shroud of death for all peoples, including you? Can you describe what the promise made by God means to you? 


On this mountain 
the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples 
a feast of good food,
a feast of well-aged wine well refined.

And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,

the veil that is spread over all nations. 
He will swallow up death for ever, 
and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, 
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth; 
for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day, 
“Behold, this is our God;
we have waited for him, that he might save us.

This is the Lord; we have waited for him; 
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”


Tamara intuits that prayer might offer a new source of hope. Have you ever struggled to pray in difficult times? How did you sort that out? If someone were to ask you to teach them about praying in difficult circumstances, what would you say? Do you find it difficult to pray with people who are in pain? If so, why do you think that is? And if not, how might you encourage someone who struggles to pray alongside others who hurt?


Barb used the “Shepherd Psalm” both to teach Tamara something about who Jesus is and how she might trust in what he has to offer her. The psalm also offers some important language and focus for prayer, especially in times of great need. What is your personal experience of Psalm 23? What do you see in this ancient song that might give you strength or hope? Which lines strengthen you most?

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want;
 he makes me lie down in green pastures.
 He leads me beside still waters;

he restores my soul.
 He leads me in paths of righteousness

for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the 
valley of the shadow of death,
 I fear no evil;
 for you are with me;
 your rod and your staff,
 they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
 in the presence of my enemies;
 you anoint my head with oil,
 my cup overflows.
 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
 all the days of my life;
 and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.



Resources for further exploration


Grace Alliance: Small Group Faith-Based Resources for Churches and Families
Grace Alliance (mentalhealthgracealliance.org)

NAMI Faith Connections on Mental Illness
Home (faithconnectionsonmentalillness.org)

NAMI Faith and Spirituality
Faith & Spirituality | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness

Faith and Mental Illness: 13 Things You Need to Know

 Session Seven
Going Home Again…
If That’s Even Possible

(Please read to the end of the book) 

As Aimee and Terrance discovered Tamara out in the barn with Barb, then watched her help prepare their breakfast, questions about home began haunting Aimee. Particularly, she began ruminating on where home might really be for her daughter. These sensations became acute on the plane ride back to New York City and nearly pushed Aimee into a maternal crisis. Where do you feel Tamara belongs? 


When mental illness overtakes a member of the family, the entire home may feel invaded by alien, hostile forces. In that one environment where everyone should feel at peace, nothing is as it should be. Will it ever be normal again? And what does “normal” even mean anymore? It may be the case that family dynamics become so rearranged that reclaiming a nurturing environment feels out of reach. How is the Baxter household beginning to rearrange itself?


Aimee and Terrance have been living with Tamara’s emotional condition for a while. But there in the White Mountains, so much transpired between them they may be confused about how to proceed once they get home. What do you see going on between the Baxters that complicates their transition back to the city to resume their lives there? What has changed so much that going back home becomes difficult for them?


As you watch Aimee’s inner conflict during the plane ride home, you might ask whether any wisdom has been gained by this family that would help them move forward. What do you think? Thinking back over the whole story, do you feel they are in a better place for all they’ve been through? What would be your diagnosis of this family’s collective mental health? What is your prognosis for their healing?


Throughout the plane-ride home, Tamara has been working on a drawing that has sent her mom into convulsions of regret, remorse, and further uncertainty about the condition of her daughter (and their whole family). What did you learn from Tamara’s picture? What did all those images convey to you regarding where Tamara is now in her personal struggles?


As the story ends, Tamara shares with her parents some of the wisdom Barb passed on to her:


There are some frightening things you should run from. 

There are some frightening things you should stand up to and defeat. 

And then, there are those frightening things you should let win.


What do you make of that? And how do you feel it pertains to the Baxter’s situation at this point in their lives? 


Looking-glass Reflections


Home is also where the heart hurts. Which is the last thing we want to encounter every time we walk into a room and stare into the face of the pain that also resides there. Have you ever feared walking through the door because you don’t know what awaits you in the mind of a loved-one? What was that like for you? Do you know of someone experiencing that at home? Can you describe and reflect on those sensations in a way that sheds new light on them for you now? 


We began this series of conversations talking about the miracle (and mystery) of story. How has your personal story been impacted, either by the book or the insights you’ve gained from others as you’ve reflected on this together? 


Our stories most always have some intersection with where we feel at home. Has your home been impacted by experiences similar to those described in this book?


What do you feel you take away from these sessions that has better prepared you to face circumstances of mental or emotional suffering? What questions have been raised for you that were never answered? What still haunts you about this subject? 


What are those frightening things about mental illness you still want to run from? Or stand up to and defeat? Or, even let win and allow them to change your life in positive ways.