On the evening of June 7, 2006, Suzy Taggart frantically drove her husband, Kevin, to Columbus Regional Hospital. He hadn’t been feeling well for weeks, and the pain in his abdomen was finally too much for the director of indirect purchasing at Cummins to bear.
What followed were three dizzying days of tests, X-rays, surgeries and diagnoses.
But in the end, the diagnosis of colon cancer was irrelevant. It was too late. Kevin, 53, succumbed to a sepsis infection on June 10.
It was not the first blow that Suzy, his wife of nearly 13 years, had been dealt in life — having grown up one of nine children of an abusive father — but it was the one that hit hardest.
“When I lost Kevin, I lost my soul,” said Suzy, now 50 and living in Edinburgh. She has since remarried and goes by the last name of Milhoan.
Milhoan’s grief made even getting out of bed a triumph; going to her information technology job at Cummins was impossible.
To cope, Milhoan bought a journal a few days after her husband’s death and began writing letters to him.
Some of them outline mundane details of the everyday and sound more like a note she might have left for him on the counter. Others detail the joy of welcoming their grandchildren, the sorrow of losing loved ones — both of Kevin’s parents died in the months following his death.
A few of the letters are gritty and raw, almost painful to read, expressing the agony of loss and anger of grief.
“It helped me get things off my chest,” Milhoan said. “I talked to him as if he were here.”
As the months and years following his death wore on, the fog slowly lifted. The letters became fewer and further between. The letters eventually introduced Kevin to Suzy’s new love, Merle Milhoan.
The final letter, a touching goodbye signifying a new beginning for Suzy, was written June 25, 2009, more than three years after Kevin died, and about two weeks following Suzy and Merle’s wedding.
Suzy never intended for anyone else to read them.
But in late 2010, Suzy dug out her journal as part of an assignment for a writing class at IUPUC. She had left her job at Cummins in February 2009 and decided to pursue a career in writing. It was a passion that had fallen by the wayside when she was busy putting herself through school and raising her three sons.
She had gone back to school with the intention of chronicling her troubled childhood, but when she was asked to write a paper for her creative nonfiction class, Milhoan’s letters to Kevin popped into her head.
“I was afraid to relive that rough time and open up that can of worms,” said Milhoan, who said that rereading the journals triggered another, albeit gentler, wave of grief. “But then I got through it, and I was better off than when I started reading them.”
As she relived her personal journey through the loss and grief and back to happiness once more, Milhoan said she saw a tremendous opportunity to share her story.
“When you go through something like that, you think you are crazy,” Milhoan said. “I want people to know they aren’t alone, and I wanted to share how happy I was later.”
Over the next year and a half, she compiled the letters, omitting only a few entries that revealed personal financial details, and published them in book format through Abbott Press in August.
She named the book “The Healing Game: A Story of Loss and Renewal,” after the 1997 Van Morrison song, “The Healing Game.”
“I didn’t even know she was writing these letters until she published the book,” said Michelle Martin of Columbus, Milhoan’s best friend of 30 years.
Martin, who said that she often wondered if her support during that dark time was helping Suzy, was heartened to see the change in her friend as she poured her heart out on the page.
“She is so much more at peace with herself,” said Martin, who added that she feels that journaling was instrumental to Milhoan’s recovery.
The book seems to be striking a chord with others as well. It has remained in the top 10 of Abbott Press’ best-seller list since its debut, and Milhoan recently embarked on a series of speaking engagements to share with others the merits of putting pen to paper to work through difficult events.
“If you keep (your feelings) trapped, it’s going to manifest itself some other way,” Milhoan said. “I truly believe writing facilitates healing.”
In many ways, Kevin’s death has given Milhoan renewal of her own life.
In addition to leading workshops on using journaling as a tool to work through grief, she is in the final stages of publishing a children’s book about a family of bunnies, titled “Where’s My Family?” She wants to try her hand at novels as well.
She attended a writer’s conference in Los Angeles in October and hopes to secure an agent soon.
Those close to her say that the same tenacity and strength that helped her recover from the tragedies in her life will ensure her success.
“When Suzy wants to do it,” Martin said, “Suzy gets it done.”