Does lightening strike twice? Sometimes. Here, Nancy Freund Bills talks about this, healing after loss, complicated grief, and so much more in her award-winning memoir, THE RED RIBBON


By Leslie Lindsay 

Clear, incisive memoir about death, grief, and the power to survive, THE RED RIBBON is a tender and tragic exploration of one woman’s experience. 

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Memoir has such power to shape and inform and this is why it’s one of my very favorite genres. THE RED RIBBON opens with author Nancy Freund Bills’s experience growing up in Montana–the rolling hills, the great expanse of sky, and yet, those out-of-the-blue tragic storms that swept in from the west.

And then, many years later, in 1994, Nancy, now a New Englander, is notified that her son, Teddy, and recently-separated husband, Geoff, are caught in a freak thunderstorm. They have both been hit by lightning, one survives. This staggering news shocks and makes its way throughout several newspapers, affecting locals and family alike.

But THE RED RIBBON isn’t just about this horrific accident.
It’s about navigating the effects of grief. It’s about family and culture, customs, and the past. Nancy not only loses her husband, but also her father, later her mother, and mother-in-law. She goes through a series of relationships, and struggles to find meaning in this seemingly senseless act–that is a true rare occurrence.

The writing is pellucid, uplifting, and healing. Many of the chapters are short, and gorgeously written, could stand alone (and some have–as award-winning essays in literary journals). Bills weaves that red ribbon throughout them all, tying together heartfelt reflection on bereavement, and also coming through on the other side. 

Please join me in welcoming Nancy Freund Bills to the author interview series.

Leslie Lindsay:

Nancy, welcome! I am so struck with this story. Both your son and your husband are hit by lightning in a freak thunderstorm. Can you set the scene for us?

Nancy Freund Bills:

On July 23, 1994, the day that my husband and younger son were hit by lightning, I was living in our family home in a town halfway between Concord and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. That morning I hugged and kissed my son as he loaded up his sea-kayak. I called my husband and offered him raspberries when he came to cut the grass. (He and I had been married for twenty-six years; for the last four months, we had been separated.) Later in the day, I drove up to Cape Elizabeth on the southern coast of Maine to help my brother-in-law and sister-in-law move into their summer/retirement home. It was a beautiful day with no hint of the freak thunder and lightning storm that struck farther down the coast where my husband and son were kayaking. I didn’t learn that my husband and son had been hit by lightning until 3:00 am, the morning of July 24.

person riding on kayak
Photo by Tobias Bjørkli on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

This news is simply staggering. You list some statistics in THE RED RIBBON about the likelihood of being struck my lightening. It typically happens in Florida or Texas, to young men between the ages of 15-19 years old, and in the summer months. There’s more, too…and you’ll have to remind me. But your son was twenty. Your husband forty-eight, and this was in Maine. Are you still scratching your head on that?

Nancy Freund Bills:

Yes, it is still almost unreal to imagine members of my family being hit by lightning.

Lightning has so many associations—Biblical, mystical, mythical. I am still wondering what it means that my husband was killed by lightning and that my younger son was spared. As I write in my chapter, “The Myth,” I would like to make sense of the event by believing that my husband sacrificed his life to save my son.

Leslie Lindsay:

You talk about your need to write THE RED RIBBON within the narrative—and I think this is often the case—because we sometimes are just so haunted, so propelled with a certain story. Can you share a bit of your writing journey? I especially like the writing retreat…

Nancy Freund Bills:

Writing has been helpful to me in recovering from my grief. Like many people who are grieving a loss, anniversaries of the “lightning accident” have been particularly difficult. In my chapter, “Stone House,” I describe my response when on the seventh anniversary of “the accident,” the leader of a summer workshop began by declaring, “Sometimes, lightning strikes. It strikes, and a writer has no choice. He or she has been chosen to write.”  I remember feeling blindsided, not having words to respond. And yes, I believe that I was chosen to write about my experiences. And once I began, I couldn’t stop.

lightning during nighttime
Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

Memoir…oh! It’s tough. What did you learn about yourself as you wrote? Because every book should teach you something but also the reader.

Nancy Freund Bills:  

Writing and sharing my memoir have taught me so much. It was initially a surprise that complete strangers were moved to tears by my words and that they wanted to hug me. Sometimes, my stories, like “Planting Iris,” even make my readers laugh, and that is the best! My readers describe my book in ways that I can’t; they are convinced that my book can be helpful to others. My story is unique, even quirky, but I have learned that it touches readers’ minds and hearts. I love that capacity of mine; it’s worthy of respect, and I can hardly take credit for it. When THE RED RIBBON received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews, it taught me that my writing is a special gift. Being called “a talented author,” was transforming.


“…a heartfelt story of love and loss, rendered in clear and beautiful prose. Its music will resonate in your heart long after you’re finished reading.”
―Richard Cass, 2018 Maine Literary Award Winner


Leslie Lindsay:

I wanted to talk about the concept of ‘complicated grief.’ You and Geoff were estranged–separated–when the accident occurred. I think I understand this because I was estranged from my mother when she died by suicide. First, can you give us a little background in terms of your marriage? And also, what exactly doesn’t ‘complicated grief’ entail?

Nancy Freund Bills:

I am sorry to hear about your mother’s death.

Complicated grief is more of a descriptive concept than a clinical one. For many years, the grieving were expected to recover within a year. Now, many experts understand that the loss of a loved one is complex and that each response is unique. Families, workplaces, and medical and mental health professionals all need to respect the needs of the grieving. In my case, my grief was complicated because my husband and I were estranged at the time of his death. The grief process is complicated by a wide range of factors. They all deserve compassion.

red dahlia flower
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

You’re a former psychiatric social worker/psychotherapist, so grief is really no stranger to you. How did your work prepare you for this? Or did it? And how might you guide someone through freshly experienced grief?

Nancy Freund Bills:

Many of my patients over the years came to me because of losses, because they were grieving. It is ironic that I had so much experience helping patients recover from losses—the loss of innocence, the loss of love, the loss of identity. I do believe that my experience helped me on an intellectual and behavioral level; I knew I needed to go to work, to go to a bereavement group, and to avoid situations that would trigger difficult emotions. All of that helped, but I couldn’t prepare for the unexpected, and I would never have imagined how long grief could last. I try to help support friends who have profound losses, but I feel inadequate to take on a major role. These days, I leave that to others.

Leslie Lindsay:

You have to tell us about Teddy now. I know there’s a brief epilogue in the book, but we need more! What does he think about the book?

Nancy Freund Bills:

My readers have expressed a welcome concern for my younger son who is named Teddy in THE RED RIBBON. I tried to reassure them in my “Afterword” that he has recovered from his injuries and gone on with his life. Within five years after the “accident,” he completed his undergraduate degree, and he ran in a marathon. He went on to graduate school to become a P.A., a  physician’s assistant, and to work in a children’s hospital emergency room.  Now married and with children, his life appears normal, but he still has no memory of one critical week of his life. I believe my book has filled in some details for him; he has been wonderfully supportive and plans to go to a book reading with me. (We will read and discuss “Triage and Cows,” a story about him.) He says that one of these days he hopes to write a book about his experiences. That really pleases me.

potted succulent plants on the bookshelf
Photo by Huỳnh Đạt on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

Nancy, it’s been a pleasure. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?

Nancy Freund Bills:

I want to share that writing has been a healing experience, one I value and recommend. Leslie, I appreciate your articulate questions about THE RED RIBBON.  Your enthusiasm for memoir writing and my memoir is so infectious. Thank you for the opportunity to do this interview.

red canoe
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE RED RIBBON, please visit: 

Order links: 

NancyBills_color blmABOUT THE AUTHORAward-winning writer Nancy Freund Bills, MS, MSW, is currently on the faculty of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Southern Maine, OLLI/USM, where she facilitates the fiction writing workshop. She is also a retired clinical social worker; during her twenty-year-long career, she served both as a psychiatric social worker and a psychotherapist. Her full length memoir, The Red Ribbon, A Memoir of Lightning and Rebuilding After Loss, has received a Kirkus star from Kirkus Reviews; the review concluded that The Red Ribbon is “a keeper of a book by a talented author.” The Myth,” a chapter in Bills’ memoir, received first place in the memoir/personal essay category of the 83rd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. Her memoir, fiction, and poetry have been published in Reflections, The Maine Review, The LLI Review, The Goose River Anthology, and in The 83rd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition Collection. A member of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance (MWPA), Bills lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, with her two Maine Coon cats. Find her online at nancybillsmemoir.com.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:

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LOVE IT? SHARE IT!

#memoir #amreading #grief #loss #lightening #bereavement #authorinterview

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[Cover and image courtesy of Caitlin Hamilton Marketing and used with permission. Author photo credit: Julia Bishop. Artistic image of cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Find more like this on Instagram @leslielindsay1]

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