Shining a Light on Grief: Carole Geithner’s novel, “If Only”

Carole Geithner’s novel, “If Only”

I was honored last night to be part of a panel discussion, “Shining a Light on Grief,” with Carole Geithner, author of “If Only,” a young adult novel I thought was enchanting. I’d recommend Carole’s book to anyone, young or old. I’d especially recommend it to bereaved young people, and those who want to learn more in order to help a bereaved friend.  Some may find a novel like this more helpful than even a “how-to” book because it organically teaches what, and what not to do and say. “Showing” (as in a novel) is always more effective than “telling.” (as in a “how to”)

Carole’s a professor and social worker who works with the bereaved, and she said she wrote the book, at least in part, to help her deal with her own experience of grief.  As Bruised Muse readers know, I too wrote a novel inspired by my grief, “Saving Elijah.”  I inscribed a copy for Carole. She and I have a lot in common, it seems, both in our professional interests and in our understanding of the power of writing to heal.  (We may also have some personal things in common, since both of us are social work types married to successful businessmen. Okay, so maybe that’s a stretch, since Carole happens to be married to the US Treasury Secretary.)

Carole Geithner

Anyway, Carole is lovely and calm and knowledgeable and reassuring (all good things for a social worker), and her book is wise and accomplished and real.  It brings to life and gives voice to a believable thirteen-year-old named Corinna as she makes her way through the very difficult first year of aching loss and grief after the cancer death of her mother, Sophie.  In scene after scene, often with humor, Carole believably, enjoyably, and instructively depicts many of the situations and dilemmas you encounter after the death of someone you love. As a writer I particularly admired the scene in which Sophie is listening to a private conversation between her father and her aunt about her mother.  I was also struck by the range of experiences Carole managed to get into the book.  This includes everything from the feeling that nothing is normal and you’ve arrived on an unknown planet called Planet Grief, to the need to create new rituals, to the natural attraction to people who’ve experienced similar situations or just know how to “be with” you, to all the strange and hurtful things people say to you.

What is helpful/What isn’t

Carole has put into the novel wonderful examples of what’s helpful, which fit with my own suggestions:  Be present.  Be humble.  Be patient.  Observe. Reflect.  Give witness. Allow silence.  Don’t judge. Don’t try to fix it.  Accept.  Listen.

As for what to say, “I’m sorry” is fine, or even, “I don’t know what to say.” Some people are instinctively gifted at compassion-giving, while others need instruction.  It takes commitment and stamina to sit with the truly bereaved.

Carole also put in quite a few examples that nicely fall into the categories I’ve described for all the people who mean well but say the wrong things, including: babblers (Let’s talk on and on—about anything else); advice givers (It’s time to clean out the room…start dating again…get over it…); platitude-offerers/pain-minimizers (God must have wanted him…he’s in a better place…you did everything you could); pseudo-empathizers (I know just how you feel); lesson-learners (Everything happens for a reason…life is short…) and last and worst, abandoners.

I experienced most of these myself and I see them echoed over and over in the experience of others, so much so that at one point I was thinking of writing a book called: The Ten Worst Things to Say.  The key is: Don’t say anything that de-legitimizes whatever the bereaved might be feeling.

The evening was jointly sponsored by the Jewish Family Service, Jewish Community Center, The Den for Grieving Children, Family Centers, and the Center for Hope.  I have associations, one way or another, with all of these wonderful institutions in the community.

The audience included many professionals who work with the bereaved, and quite of few bereaved too.  I was thankful for some wonderful questions, such as this one (I’m paraphrasing):  “I understand it’s really hard to know what to say when people ask you how many children you have.”  Yes, indeed, this is always a loaded question. It’s one of the many real dilemmas of grief, particularly at first.  If someone asks how many and you leave out the dead child, you might feel as if you’re betraying that child. But if you include that dead child you might then be forced to answer the follow up questions, which might lead you (and the asker) where you might not want to go.  It’s always awful to find yourself suddenly talking about your most profound pain to a stranger who was simply making conversation, or even actually breaking down in tears in the cheese aisle.  There’s also the concern that you might ruin someone’s day.  Anyway, eventually most bereaved people figure out and make peace with how they want to handle this dilemma, which is one that’s going to be with them for the rest of life.  It’s a case by case decision.  It gets easier with time.

I hope the newly bereaved who were brave enough to come felt supported and cared for.  I admit that while I wasn’t surprised I was a bit disappointed by the lack of attendance by more non-professionals perhaps looking for information on how to help a friend. I guess I’m so comfortable with this topic, and with offering compassion to the suffering that I forget how much most people really just want to avoid it.

Here’s the link to Carole Geithner’s website, which has some great resources about grief in addition to info about the book.

7 thoughts on “Shining a Light on Grief: Carole Geithner’s novel, “If Only”

  1. Thank you Fran. Thank you for your genuine commitment to provide an avenue of ‘healing’ for bereaved families. I have a question. How can I help my oldest sister as she continues her grieving over the death of her daughter approx. six years ago? My niece is named after me. We were called Big Kim (me) and Little Kim (my niece). Kim had a severe asthma attack, went into a coma, and never came back to us. Fran, I know you have what I need to share with my sister. In addition to my love, and my care, my comfort, and even my humor, I want to give my sister more. Thank you in advance for helping me help my sister and my family. Bless you.

  2. Thanks for writing, Big Kim. I am so sorry for your loss. Really, there is no way to fix this for your sister if she hasn’t yet reinvested in life. If she seems to still be incapacitated by her grief six years later she might need counseling by a professional knowledgeable in the treatment of something called “complicated grief.” All you can do is be there for her, and as I said in the piece above: Be present. Be humble. Be patient. Observe. Reflect. Give witness. Allow silence. Don’t judge. Don’t try to fix it. Accept. Listen.

    Humor ain’t bad, either!

      • Kim, I have been in the position of your sister. I know that my own sister has been frustrated many times over the years in her seeming lack of ability to comfort, help, and connect with me following the death of our son. It just takes time, sometimes a lot more time than one could ever imagine. My sister is a “fixer.” The problem following Jason’s death was that I was so absolutely crushed by his death…and then practically everyone we knew disappeared. I was so deeply grieved on so many levels that I couldn’t let anyone in to try to tinker with my heart and try to fix me. I am still very guarded most of the times…one can only do what one can do. I am a product of what I have been through, and am no longer the person my sister knew before Jason’s death. The death of a child takes many, many years to integrate into our lives. Fran’s advice is solid. Time and acceptance for who she is now is the key. Don’t give up and don’t push. She needs you now…and for the years to come.

      • Thanks so much for sharing, Rebecca. I’m so sorry for your loss. I myself spent more than two years sitting around wearing only my bathrobe and my grief, and I would say that I was still highly bereaved, terrified even, when I was writing “Saving Elijah,” and I think that shows in the writing. Yes, it does take many years to integrate the death of a child into our lives, and yes, some people seem to want to always fix things, even THIS, which cannot be fixed. I think people want to fix things because they want to assert control, or avoid sitting with your suffering, but remember that’s about them, not you. When you lose a child, among other things you’re forced to confront the fact that your previously held notion of control may be an illusion. The first thing people need to know about dealing with this kind of grief is that there is no way to fix it; you simply can’t impose your own sense of control, which probably continues, upon the suffering person, since they have lost theirs. A grieving person is on a journey, and all you can really do to help is be there, listen, witness. Trying to talk a person out of feeling what she’s feeling may even make it worse because it may seem to de-legitimize what the person is feeling. Of course your letter arouses the need in me to ask questions. How long ago did your son die? What do you mean by guarded?

      • Thank you Rebecca… One thing is certain, I love my sister and will never leave her. Never. One thing you said really rings true:
        “I am a product of what I have been through, and am no longer the person my sister knew…”
        Yes, my sister Patricia is not the sister she was before her daughter’s death, however, she is still a wonderful, beautiful sister whom I will always treasure.

  3. Pingback: Help! My Relationship is on the Rocks | The Daily Muse

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