“My whole, entire life, I have been 50 percent creative and 50 percent scientific,” says Karen Swisher-McKee, who graduated from Bloomfield Hills Schools (Lahser) in 1984. “The scientific side decided it was going to be the boss, and we were going to be a podiatrist because we needed to make money. But the creative side in me was always like this squeaky voice inside saying, ‘But what about me?’”
Today, the creative side is dominant. Swisher-McKee is a published author with a growing professional photography business. But the road to that new career has been unimaginable and filled with grief. Swisher-McKee and her husband, Jon, lost their 12-year-old son, Jonathan, to an apparent suicide in 2014, with no note and no answers to this day. They also have a daughter, Jessica, who is in college currently, but who was in middle school with Jonathan at the time.
Swisher-McKee’s book, One Year Without Jonathan, is a compilation of the writing and photography therapy that took place in the first year after Jonathan died. “I used my journal entries which were initially just for me to get out my feelings, but then I made it into a book,” explains Swisher-McKee. “It was cathartic for me to do that...not only the journaling, but also the writing and putting it all together. For my readers, the goal was first to help people who were going through something similar. When you lose somebody close to you, you really go into some dark places. I was brutally honest with my thoughts and my feelings. It’s a very isolating experience because not many people are going through this, so it’s good to know that other people experience the same things.”
Swisher-McKee hopes that people who know someone who is going through grief will read the book as it provides insight and information on how to help. “I think that there’s definitely not enough support because people just really don’t know what to do,” says Swisher-McKee. “I was either crying or trying not to cry for the whole year. The first year is very brutal, and people want a happy ending. For me, and for people who have grieved, just to get through the first year is amazing.”
Swisher-McKee understands that life continues, but says that understanding the perspective of someone who is grieving is important. “I wanted people to know that the grieving process is very long. I think people know that, but people don’t really think about it. They see that you are working, you are going to things, and they think that ‘she’s fine, she’s better.’” Swisher-McKee notes that the historical process of wearing mourning clothes would have made it easier, especially in public places. “In our world where everything is 24/7 and you have to do all this stuff, people aren’t very understanding. There were moments where I just wished that I could say to people, ‘I’m just really grieving right now so give me a break.’ I feel like as a society we could be a little bit more empathetic.”
Swisher-McKee fortunately was surrounded by close family and friends, particularly her sisters. Her sister Paula (Swisher) Maas (BHS Lahser 1982) encouraged Karen to publish One Year Without Jonathan.
“Paula has been with me closely on this journey. I had these signs and visions that happened to me that were truly extraordinary. I had an out-of-body experience, where I feel like I saw Jonathan’s heaven, I saw him, I saw angels; and I don’t really know 100 percent how that happened to me, but I believe in the possibility that I saw something, and it was very reassuring to me. It’s probably the thing that helped me the most, and it probably would be reassuring to other people who were dealing with the loss of a close loved one. I think that it’s helpful just having hope in life. Paula had her own spiritual situations, so we used to talk for two hours a day. She would read this book, and I would read that book, and we would commiserate. Others have been really supportive of this book, but it does also bring up an element of sadness that he’s not here.”
Shifting from medicine to the creative arts wasn’t as big of a leap as Swisher-McKee had anticipated, but proofreading didn’t come as naturally. “I did pretty well in English at Lahser High School because I had a lot of creative ideas. My favorite teacher was Mr. Dull. He always loved my ideas, but he would write on my papers, ‘Great ideas, work on the punctuation.’ I’m not a person who really cares about rules very much, and that’s the thing about grammar and punctuation. It was a concern to me when I was writing that people were going to think I am a terrible writer because of that. And there probably are some people who do, but I hope the majority of people are getting the message instead of how I wrote it.”
The photography which comprises the illustrations of the book also was key to the healing process. It took nearly two years to go through the process of writing and publishing. Swisher-McKee says there were months at a time where she couldn’t look at photos or process any memories from that first year. Eventually, though, photographs would trigger happy memories. It was those photographs that had her thinking about switching careers to photography.
Swisher-McKee explains, “For a long time, I did not think I was creative any more; I did not think it was in me at all. It really took this drastic event in my life to spark the interest. I might have done a little hobby here and there, and, like maybe, maybe have taken a pottery class or gone to more art institutes or bought art, but I never would have tried to make photography my career. I think I found my happiness elsewhere, and not in my career. Now I feel like I want all of my life to be happy, and I want to always do something that really makes me happy.”
The new business, Karen Swisher-McKee Photography, has been the outgrowth of allowing creativity to flourish. “When Jonathan died, it was like lightning struck me, and I was cracked open,” Swisher-McKee discloses. “Everything was exposed and the creative side of me just started growing because I was free of constraints. So then I was like, ‘ok, scientific side, you are making me a lot of money, but I’m much happier when I am over here because I’m so sad.’ That just grew and grew and grew to the point where I felt like I could make a living doing this because I had to be happy. So now I do a lot of senior pictures, sports photos, and prom pictures, but I also like to take more artsy or unique pictures that can be framed.”
“It’s definitely a challenge,” Swisher-McKee notes, “because I’ve never done anything like this before, but I’m so happy when I’m doing this that it’s important to me to keep doing it. Especially when you come from a place of complete darkness, you yearn for that more than you yearn for anything else...to be happy again.”