Archives

Surviving a difficult daughter-in-law: Am I an advice columnist? Sure.

A BRUISED MUSE reader wants an answer to her dilemma.  “Doris” writes:

Dear Fran,
I read your article on how to help the bereaved in Bottomline Secrets email and found it really helpful.

My situation is a little different, but I’m sure someone else has been through it and you may know how to help me.

About 2 1/2 yrs ago I met a wonderful widower. We fell in love and married 11 mos ago. We are both in our 60’s and each have 2 grown children. All the adult children seemed very happy for us except his daughter. She is still very much grieving her mother’s death of nearly 6 yrs ago. She would not come to our home at all. She finally agreed to let her husband bring the kids over a few times last fall.  After the wedding last summer she was still pretty “cool” but has gradually “warmed” to me over the winter. What really hurt me was a long letter she wrote to me just before the wedding last summer, where she went on and on about how she felt that I was taking over her mother’s house and taking her father away from her. (We have since sold the house and moved to another state). Anyway, it has gotten a little better over the last 6 mos, but I notice there is still a tension between us. I tried not to take her words and feelings personally, realizing that she is still grieving. Her father felt protective of her (even though she is 36, married and has 6 kids of her own) but I have to tell you it nearly caused me to call off the wedding and definitely took some of the joy from it.

She still visits the gravesite regularly, which seems strange to me as that is not my custom. I have never visited the grave of a relative.

So if you have any advice for the 2nd wife I would love to have it.

Thanks,

“Doris”

* * * * *

BRUISED MUSE replies:

Dear “Doris:”

Thanks so much for writing.  I’m very happy you’ve found true love at this point in your life. How wonderful, adorable, stimulating, reassuring, life-affirming, and even (I hope) sensual.

After my mother died, my father, believe it or not, took up with the woman who had been my mother’s hospice nurse.  My father was 78, Mary wasn’t even 60. It was a little weird to see my father affectionate with a woman who was not my mother, especially since he’d never been affectionate with my mother, but, well…all I could say was “Good for Dad.”  Mary was just a lovely person; she was, after all, a hospice nurse.

It sounds to me as if your new daughter-in-law may be suffering from complicated grief. CG is “an intense and long-lasting form of grief that can take over a person’s life. It’s natural to experience acute grief after someone close dies, but grief usually recedes into the background, and over time, healing diminishes the pain of loss.  People suffering complicated grief often say that they feel “stuck.”  “Complicated” refers to factors that interfere with the natural healing process, often related to characteristics of the bereaved person, to the nature of the relationship with the deceased person, the circumstances of the death, or to things that occurred after the death.” (I took this definition from www.complicatedgrief.org, the website of Dr. Katherine Shear’s program for CG at Columbia University in New York City.) CG can include intrusive thoughts about death; uncontrollable bouts of sadness, guilt and other negative emotions; and a preoccupation with, or avoidance of, anything associated with the loss. Complicated grief has been linked to higher incidences of drinking, cancer and suicide attempts, and it can be quite distressing not only for those who are experiencing it, but for those who are witness to it.  The fact is, complicated grief can destroy two lives at once, and it can get really, really ugly, especially when there’s anger and guilt.

I have the sense you don’t live near New York, where Dr. Shear’s program is located, but if you want to help your daughter-in-law and possibly change the situation, I highly recommend that you take the following two steps:

1) Research psychotherapists, bereavement counselors, thanatologists, psychologists, and/or social workers in her area, and find one who is trained or knowledgeable in the treatment of complicated grief. Many people, sometimes even therapists, are very uncomfortable with grief, and regular talk therapy isn’t always helpful. Research has shown that the most helpful treatment involves, among other things: role playing; narrative therapy; tape recording the bereaved person as she recounts the details of the death and the loss and then replaying it; and journaling.

2) Ask your husband to suggest that she see that therapist. Or perhaps the other sibling, if he or she has been more accepting, could be enlisted in suggesting this.

Beyond taking those two steps, there simply isn’t much you can do, except to understand your husband’s ambivalence, and try to approach your difficult daughter-in-law with as much warmth, empathy, and kindness as you can. I realize that this could be very difficult.  Perhaps you could write her a letter, in which you honor her mother and reassure her that you aren’t trying to “take over.”

Your instinct not to take what she says personally is probably right, but at the risk of offending you, I would also ask you to consider your own role here.  You may be completely innocent, but here’s Survival Tip #1, from February, 2011.  It’s one of my favorite quotes from the brilliant psychiatrist (and novelist) Irvin Yalom, from one of his shorter works, The Gift of Therapy.  He says:

“Once an individual recognizes their role in creating their own life predicament, they realize that they, and only they, have the power to change the situation.”

The Bruised Muse has found, in her life and in her psychotherapy office, that life gets a whole lot easier when an individual finally recognizes that she (or he) ONLY has the power to change how she behaves in the world, and how she responds to others’ behavior toward her.  She does NOT have the power to change the others’ behavior.  And so, with that in mind, I’d suggest you ask yourself seriously if you have offended this woman in some way. (I mean other than by your existence.)

On the other hand, I’d ask: How far does she go in offending you?  Does she call you names?  Just ignore you?  Accuse you of things you haven’t done?

Try to separate what you wish for the relationship with her and her children, from what’s happening, from what’s possible.  And do set boundaries.  If her behavior is truly abusive–ie, for example, if she calls you names–explain (using “I feel” statements) that this hurts your feelings and you simply won’t tolerate it.

On the other hand, this could have NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with you.  Remember what I said above about the factors related to complicated grief.  One factor is the nature of the relationship with the deceased.  Was her relationship with her mother particularly difficult, strained, or ambivalent?  I certainly don’t suggest you take this up with her, but just knowing the truth of things (the actual truth, not the idealized truth) can help.  Knowledge is not only power, it can be comfort too.

As for visiting grave sites, some people find comfort in this. Regular visiting of a mother’s grave after six years MAY be a sign of complicated grief. After 17 years, I’m still OCCASIONALLY drawn to my son’s grave, but I usually stand there for a few minutes, place some small stones on the brass marker, wince at the hollow sound of stone on brass, and leave. I simply do not find my baby there.

Good luck, and let me know how it goes.
Fran Dorf (THE BRUISED MUSE)

Writing for Survival: Fran on She Writes.com

I wrote the following piece on writing and my new book for a great writerly website called, shewrites.  As usual I’m out there with honesty.


I’ve just completed a memoir in essays I’m calling “How I Lost My Bellybutton and Other Naked Survival Stories,” in which I try to make sense of the ridiculous amount of “tsuris” I’ve had in my fifty-seven years. As I begin sending it out into a publishing world that’s become quite weird, I’m feeling surprisingly Buddhist. Of course I want to entertain, illuminate, and move others with published work, but finding and telling my own story in my authentic voice, sometimes using my (recovered) sense of humor, has helped me accept that I actually write to survive. Writing is my solace, therapy, coping tool, refuge, calming mechanism, path to healing, and way to make sense of life.

So what have I survived? Well, who’s counting, but just for starters we’re talking a husband’s brain tumor (1 time), the same husband’s cancer (2 times), my own miscarriages (3 times), breast cancer and a mastectomy whose aftermath nearly killed me (1 time, so far), a brother who thinks he’s the Angel of Philadelphia from the Bible (He’s not unlovable, but 1 deluded brother is plenty), and familial mental illness that I realize now pervaded every corner of our house in the Philadelphia suburbs, however in denial my father was. (3 mad aunts, 2 depressed parents).

None of it comes even close to the 1994 death of my three-year-old son, Michael. Surviving that is, I believe, one of the two greatest accomplishments of my life.

My relationship with writing has been explosive and fickle, beginning when I wrote to cope as a teenager, secretly. Like a junkie who keeps going into rehab, only to relapse every time, I’ve stopped when I lost focus on process, suffered rejection, envied another writer’s talent or success, had to abandon a project that didn’t work out, didn’t realize that everything you do, even that which fails or hurts, can teach.
I’ve even condemned and ridiculed my Muse without mercy, beaten the poor thing over the head until she shuts down, rebels, abandons me, or even hits back. Here’s a Survival Tip She-writers might find useful:

Survival Tip #1: Do not beat your muse. She’s sensitive, and doesn’t respond well to bullying. Who does?

Even during my most successful period, when I had multiple book deals, foreign translations, a German best seller, film options, nice sales, great reviews, I kept beating my Muse for not being better. I kept trying to quit.

And then came December 7th, 1993, my version of Pearl Harbor Day, the day my son had a seizure. My husband and I rushed him to a Hospital, but we arrived with our baggage in Hell.

At the time of my son’s death I had a two-book contract that I tried to fulfill by frantically finishing the second book in a few weeks. What a sight I must have been, pounding on the computer, a wild-eyed zombie—in a bathrobe, since I hardly ever got dressed. The editor rejected that violent mess of a book, and I lost my deal.

Was I thinking I could plow through such a loss, or maybe put off grief until later? This kind of grief makes you insane. And in my insanity, I stopped writing again, just when I needed it most.

I spent the next three years walking around wearing only my bathrobe and my grief, only vaguely aware of my daughter and husband, like floaters in my field of vision. People suggested I write a journal, but I became enraged at anyone who presumed to tell me how to cope. One desperate day three years later, I scrawled the words “Help me” over and over in a notebook until they dissolved into unrecognizable strokes. Eventually I turned that journal into my unconventional third novel, “Saving Elijah.” Writing that book saved my life. Even so, when my next novel didn’t sell to a publisher, I gave up writing again.  Here’s another tip:

Survival Tip #2: Rejection and failure come with the territory. Art is subjective and interactive. 

I went back to school for social work, and now have a clinical practice I love. I also facilitate “write to heal” workshops. And writing eventually lured me back, first poetry to cope with the trauma of sitting with other people’s trauma, and then after surviving the breast cancer (barely), I started the bellybutton essay, to which I added Other Naked Survival Stories, including several about my son, what Hell is like, how I escaped it. The book is part memoir, part self help, with 70 or so Survival Tips based on all I’ve learned about psychology, resilience, and coping with emotional pain. Writing the tips—the real ones and even the bits of schtick I threw in for fun—was instructive for me, and I hope will be for readers, too. Here are a few tips more for writers that aren’t in the book:

Survival Tip #3: Banish all self-censorship, whether you’re “writing-for-healing,” or writing a first draft.

Survival Tip #4: Draw blood. This is the (oddly) healing part. Corollary: It helps to examine and unpack your psychological baggage when you’re forced to deal with trauma in your life, and/or when working with it in your writing.

Survival Tip #5: Learn craft. Learn more. Craft (and even art) comes with practice and study, and with a willingness to write and rewrite, examine and reexamine the material (along with your mind and heart) to shape it so it resonates emotionally with other readers. Corollary for Older Writers: Do not be dismayed that on the Internet, your writing is called “content.” Fuss with it anyway. Writers fuss because they care about each word.

Survival Tip #6: Learn to distinguish between criticism or honest reaction, and snark. Criticism can help you in your work. Snark is about the person giving it. Corollary: Don’t become overly fond of your words, but learn to stand your ground on the words that work.

Survival Tip #7: Tell the truth. Or your truth, anyway. But don’t expect to be thanked. Corollary: To tell your truth, find your authentic voice.

Survival Tip #8: Count your blessings. One blessing is that you have the gift of writing to see you through this life.

Semi-reformed cynic that I am, I feel blessed to have been able to use my writing to see myself as a survivor, rather than as victim of emotional (not to mention physical) suffering. I’ll be thrilled if readers find my new book moving, wise, funny, and (God forbid) inspirational, but whatever happens out there in the big bad publishing world, I know that I can no sooner give up writing than give up my nose. I’m definitely keeping my nose, since I no longer have a bellybutton. As for how, exactly, I lost my bellybutton, that, Sister Survivors, is a long story, which I hope you’ll read about in the memoir.

Writing Prompt: Here’s an idea I explored in my novel, “Saving Elijah.” I recommend it for anyone who’s suffered trauma, loss, illness, or emotional pain. (That would be just about everyone!) With all the creativity and imagination in She-Writes-Land, I trust we’ll see some interesting results. Post and tag your efforts so we can all enjoy them.
Imagine a scene in which you (or a character) meet God, or God’s emissary. Place the scene in any era: the 1950’s or 1500’s, the future, now. Any locale: France, Detroit, your kitchen, the New York Stock Exchange, a dusty road. Dress God in any guise: someone meaningful from your (or the character’s) past, a dead father, a purple angel or demon, a crooked old man. Now write the scene, with dialogue. You might (but don’t have to) start with your character imploring to God, “Why me?”
Why me, indeed.

The Death of Empathy: Surviving the Culture of Snark

Surviving?  Given the death of empathy for each other as fellow human beings, if we make it through the century it will surely be a miracle.

Hey, Bruised Muse readers, I tend toward cynicism myself at times, and have even been known to be kind of funny in my real life (if not particularly so far on this blog), but my humor is generally directed toward myself, as in self-deprecating, if you know what I mean.  It seems we’ve arrived in the last few years at some kind of a PEAK OF SNARK in this culture, in which so called humor is used as a weapon to destroy others, rather than as a coping mechanism to help and heal ourselves.  You have to now call ours a Culture of Snark; one writer has even gone so far as to call it the Culture of Sadism.  He isn’t far off.

You see the culture of snark and sadism in the songs the kids listen to, lyrics that regularly label women bitches and ho’s.  You see it all over the Internet, in “comments” so vile that you have to wonder if the people saying such things in public had mothers. You see it in these dreadful bullying episodes that have resulted in teen suicides. You see it in politics, of course. I see it in my psychotherapy office, among kids who call each other names as standard practice, even between husbands and wives who are supposed to love each other.  But what disturbs me the most is when vile comments are EVEN directed at people who have suffered misfortune, tragedy, or trauma, as if some people deliberately reject the “intellectual” or “psychological” idea that blaming the victim is wrong, and try to blame the victim and heap abuse on her (or him) as much as possible.

Because I’m alert to the horror of maternal bereavement myself, I first became aware of this when I heard the unbelievably nasty things people were saying about Cindy Sheehan, who lost a son in Iraq. I mean the woman lost her son! I don’t care what your politics are. How can ANYONE justify let alone SAY in public the following sentence (written by someone who calls him or herself 12th Monkey), which I found after a one minute search of the Internet: She (Cindy) reveals (in her book) that her son’s death in that war almost drove her to take her own life: “Every night I had to restrain myself from taking my entire bottle of sleeping pills instead of just one.” Cindy, please reconsider.

Cindy, please reconsider?  12th Monkey, where were you raised?

It’s as if people’s internal censors are no longer functioning, as if they’ve completely lost their empathy for their fellow human beings. Are we turning into a nation of sociopaths with no conscience?

There’s an important piece by Maureen Dowd called Stars and Sewers in today’s NY TIMES about this issue. It asks the question: “Are our brains being rewired to be more callous by the Internet?” The piece in part talks about the terrible snark that has come out against reporter Laura Logan, after her terrible rape in Egypt. It references two new books I intend to read.  The first is by Evgeny Morozov, “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, and the other by Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.”  Here’s one of Dowd’s quotes from the latter book: “Researchers say that we need to be quiet and attentive if we want to tap into our deeper emotions,” If we’re constantly interrupted and distracted, we kind of short-circuit our empathy. If you dampen empathy and you encourage the immediate expression of whatever is in your mind, you get a lot of nastiness that wouldn’t have occurred before.”

The Bruised Muse wonders where all this is leading.  Can it really get WORSE than Dowd’s example of a Feb. 3 snipe from the conservative blog Mofo Politics, after Logan was detained by the Egyptian police: “OMG if I were her captors and there were no sanctions for doing so, I would totally rape her.”

I would totally rape her?

When we combine snark and/or sadism with a general dumbing down, anti-intellectual strain of the culture, we find ourselves in a truly scary place.  Big consequences not only for our relationships but for civilization itself. For example, although we can trace a relatively straight line directly from the behavior and music beloved by many members of my generation, including myself, to the current generation, who in the world would have ever guessed that in just thirty years, popular culture would devolve to the point where songs with lyrics considered racy at that time, like the Rolling Stones’, “Let’s spend the night together” are played on loudspeakers in supermarkets for all to hear, and the kids are now listening to songs with lyrics like 2 Live Crew’s, “Nibble on my dick like a rat does cheese?” Now THERE’S poetry. I sure hope future shoppers won’t be listening to THAT while picking up the Gouda.

Yes, I’m making a joke here, but this really is dead serious.

Does the Bruised Muse have a “Survival Tip” for dealing with this disturbing tendency? Obviously the Internet isn’t going away, but public awareness is always the first step toward action and/or change.  Research may say that our brains are being rewired, but other research (read, for example, Life Unlocked, by Srinivasan Pillay, MD) says that you can outsmart your wiring, in other words re-re-wire, by thinking different (ie better, in this case nicer) thoughts. The Bruised Muse says: Speak out out against the culture of snark.  Breath deeply.  Think of the other.  Be nice.

Surviving Sarah Palin’s “Mourning” in America

As a bereaved mother who mourned and still mourns the loss of her three year old son, Michael, in 1994, I cringed when I heard former Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, in reference to the families of the victims of the terrible shooting in Tucson, say offhandly, “May God turn their mourning into joy.”

In my view, such ostensibly nice little sentiments, which seem so commonly held in this religious country, show a complete misunderstanding and even a kind of contempt for both mourning AND joy, and maybe even for God too.

Let’s leave politics aside for the moment, along with my personal feelings about Sarah Palin. I’m sure (I hope) Ms. Palin meant those words to be comforting to the suffering families, the poor parents of little Christina Green, the parents of Gabe Zimmerman, the three sons and wife of Judge John Roll, and families of Dorothy Murray, Phyllis Schenk, Dorwan Stoddard, not to mention the children and husband of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, and the other injured people.

Yet such apparently harmless sentiments, much like that deeply offensive and overused word “closure,” are a misguided attempt to shrink-wrap and even deny the enormity of losses like this. They imply that grief is an event rather than a lifelong psychological process in which you gradually figure out a way to incorporate your losses into your life and move on from there. There actually is something to be gained from loss, but knowledge of what it is only comes from long suffering and deep searching.

Yes, Ms. Palin is no doubt relating her own and many others’ understanding of God’s goodness, or perhaps talking about joy that one’s loved one is now in Heaven. But consider the implication of the statement. When you’re in pain over the loss of a child, you might hope or even pray that God will take away your pain. But turn it into joy? What God would want to deny the enormity of your loss and the meaning of the life you lost by taking away your authentic emotions and feelings that your loss is real and important, and replacing them with an inauthentic happiness?

Just like those old standby cliches, “Time will heal,” “It’s time to get on with your life,” and “God must have wanted another angel,” such comments as Palin’s have a kind of delegitimizing effect on the griever.  They imply that there is something he or she can do that will end or take away grief. They suggest that the pain you are feeling isn’t what you should be feeling and if you would just take this advice you wouldn’t be feeling it.  This is the opposite of what the person who attempts to comfort the bereaved should do.  My favorite definition of compassion is a Buddhist one: Compassion is willingness to be close to suffering. This doesn’t means denying, deflecting or babbling your way through it, but sitting with it, no matter how uncomfortable intense emotion makes you feel.  And this means:

Be present. Be humble. Observe. Reflect. Allow silence. Don’t judge. Accept. Listen.

After seventeen years, my grief is no longer a hissing monster, it’s quiet now. I have found the way to move on and learned the lessons my life has offered.  But the idea that I would ever, even now, experience joy in connection with my loss is offensive. While that sort of “feel good immediately” sentiment is consistent with the increasingly short attention American span, and might even be popular in this country (at least among those who haven’t suffered major losses), Palin’s words aren’t; in my view they’re an insult to me, my son, my family, and to all those suffering families in Tucson.

Turn mourning into joy? Do we really want God to transform us into smiling Disney characters?

MY TAKE: Butterflies and Bull. Channeling Messages from the Dead?

A few days ago I went to see a performance by “channeler” Roland Comtois, when he appeared locally before a group of about forty parents who’ve lost children.  I’ll admit up front that I’m very interested in this sort of thing, but highly skeptical.  My novels, including the two I wrote before I lost my son, Michael, at the age of three, employ supernatural elements.  My heightened ambivalence in this case stemmed from factors over and above my usual skepticism about all things supernatural, spiritual and/or religious.  First, I’ve done quite a bit of research on psychic phenemona, originally in l988 for my novel, A Reasonable Madness” and more recently and specifically for “American Psychic,” the novel on which I most recently worked (but haven’t finished), which took its title from one of its characters, a television psychic and channeler.  As a result of my research, I am well acquainted with the methods people like Comtois and John Edwards use.  One such trick from the many in their remarkably similar bags: They fill the air with a lot of general talk with a few specifics thrown in, then carefully watch the audience for positive reactions to the specifics, and zoom in on the reactors who have freely offered directional cues. This strategy is very effective with people who want to believe and don’t realize or care that they’re providing cues, and no doubt would be particularly effective with a group of people so hurt and full of need to “see” their children again. Which brings me to my second ambivalence.  On the one hand, as someone who lost a child myself, I certainly can’t object to anything that brings relief to such pain.  On the other hand, if channelers like Comtois are consciously using tricks such as the one I describe above, I simply can’t justify exploitation for money.

Comtois impressed me somewhat by announcing that he wouldn’t keep the $25 per person everyone had paid to see him, but rather return it to be put back into the sponsoring organization’s fund. (This is a modest fee anyway; some of these people changes hundreds of dollars.)  On the other hand, I’m sure he charges for most other performances, since this is apparently how he makes his living (along with writing books).  He may have been to some degree humbled by the level of loss in the room.

As for his performance, it looked–at least to me, although certainly not to the other parents in the room–like standard issue generalizations made somewhat more specific using audience cues, as described above, and I found his filler, a steady stream of reassurance to parents that their deceased children were “settled,” and/or “happy,” just awful–basically telling people what they want to hear.  The session was enlivened by Comtois’s odd mannerisms and by constant references to his mother, whom he admitted several times thinks he’s “crazy.”  Hmmm.  Which is worse: crazy or charlatan?

To all this, Comtois added what is apparently his signature technique.  Prior to the performance, he writes “messages” in magic marker on lilac paper printed with the words “Channeled Message for the Soul” along with his name, number and website. The messages, which include crudely drawn pictures, are dated anywhere from several years ago to as recently as the day of the performance.  For this part of the performance he does the same thing described above, finds someone in the group who reacts to his carefully chosen generalizations, zooms in, makes some educated guesses using cues provided, and then says something like, “Yes, I have a message for you.”  At which point one of his two assistants “finds” the message he’s already written from within the pile.  The pile is thick, and judging from the papers he waved around before handing them to the parents for whom they were “intended,” were mostly general scenarios one would expect to fit the horrific, emotional stories of any group of parents who’ve lost children, like a pool or an ambulance.  Ugh.

On the other hand, as far as I could tell, he did convince most of the folks in the room, and judging from the reactions comforted, reassured and impressed nearly all of them, even if I thought most of his comments were laughably general.

On the other hand, I’ve done write-to-heal sessions with some of this same group and knew quite a few of the loss stories of the parents in the room, and there were a few specifics that did impress me, like the women to whom he said something about seeing her son polishing cars (her son restored old cars), and a few other “manner of death” stories I don’t feel comfortable naming here.

So what do I make of a performance that I thought was chock full of generalities with a few impressive hits, a performance that, as one parent told me, “blew him away?” I think I’d have to say what I would have said before I saw Mr. Comtois. It’s certainly possibly some people can “channel” psychic energy, or even messages from the dead; I’ve had moments of what I’d call “transcendence” myself, although these are not moments I’d ever try to convince anyone else about.  But NO ONE can do this reliably and consistently enough to fill two hours, over and over, and so performing channelers must count on being able to exploit audience gullibility and psychological desperation using fillers, tricks, and bait-and-switch techniques to supplement the occasional “real message,” random hit, educated or audience-assisted guess.  So do I think Mr. Comtois is crazy, as his mother apparently does, or do I think he’s a charlatan?  He may not be a charlatan. People can convince themselves of all kinds of things.  I’ve seen this in my psychotherapy practice and everywhere in life.  As a psychotherapist, I’d resist calling him crazy, although generally speaking we diagnose people who hear and see things we don’t (ie with auditory and visual hallucinations) as schizophrenic.  Then again, I don’t know him like his mother does.

On the other hand, here’s what happened when he finally came to me.  I tried to hide my skepticism, but apparently he picked up on it and avoided me.  Sensitivity in this regard is certainly not surprising, and is probably a requirement for the job.  He didn’t come to me until the end, when he was forced to, as he was going around the room, receiving photos of people’s children, making comments, and calling for last questions. I said I didn’t have any questions, and he said, “Are you sure?” or something like that.  I said that I too had lost a child, but that I didn’t have any questions.  He asked if I had a photo.  I said I didn’t. He asked what my child’s name was.  “Michael,” I said.  “How did he die?”he asked.  “A seizure,” I said. “How old was he?” Roland Comtois asked.  I said, “Three and a half.”  He said, “Talk to me at the end, I have a message for you.”

When I approached him after the performance, he asked me if I was a believer, and I admitted I was a skeptic.  He leafed through his pile of lilac papers, picked one, folded it and handed it to me, saying “This is a message from your son. Don’t open it now, open it later.”  (Likely he didn’t want me, a skeptic, to renounce or deny his message in front of the believers.)

The purple paper said, “I SENT YOU ALL THE BUTTERFLIES.”

Fifteen years ago, after our son died, we released butterflies during a service for him.  I wore a butterfly pin for years, as a tribute to Michael. Butterflies are, of course, a commonly used symbol of death and rebirth that might have meaning for anyone suffering from loss.  On the other hand, one day early in the spring of 2008, and then again in 2009, HUNDREDS and HUNDREDS of monarch butterflies landed all at once on a tree in front of our house. I came out to watch them every day, to marvel at my tree so beautiful in full bloom of monarchs with their distinctive orange and black markings. And then one day a few weeks later, the monarch’s left to continue their annual migration south. Do I find Comtois’s butterfly message amazing?  Not amazing.  Interesting, I’d say.

On the other hand, here’s a bit of info from a nice website about the INDISPUTABLY amazing natural (rather than supernatural) migration of the monarch butterflies.

Monarch butterflies are the only insect that migrates to a warmer climate that is 2,500 miles away each year. The monarch butterflies can’t stand the freezing winter and will spend their winter hibernation in Mexico and some parts of Southern California where it is warm all year long. If the monarch lives in the Eastern states, usually east of the Rocky Mountains, it will migrate to Mexico and hibernate in oyamel fir trees. If the monarch butterfly lives west of the Rocky Mountains, then it will hibernate in and around Pacific Grove, California in eucalyptus trees. Monarch butterflies use the very same trees each and every year when they migrate, which seems odd because they aren’t the same butterflies that were there last year. These are the new fourth generation of monarch butterflies, so how do they know which trees are the right ones to hibernate in?

Steve’s Shared Loss Story – Seriously disabled man still finds life good and interesting

This moving story shared by a very old friend reminds me of an interaction I had with a teenager a few days ago.  The teen told me she’d rather die than be blind. She said it the way she said everything, with certainty. I couldn’t let it stand, so I told her about Helen Keller, how Helen couldn’t communicate, had no idea what words were because she could neither see nor hear, and used to walk around the table grabbing food from everyone’s plate, until a dedicated teacher taught her, taught her about words, and she learned so well that she eventually wrote books and taught at Harvard University.  As I told this young girl the story of Helen Keller, how she overcame the odds, I watched the teen’s expression change from one of absolute boredom and frightening cynicism to one of actual interest and a kind of hope.  Here’s Steve’s story, and thank you, Steve.

When I saw my new house and the view of San Francisco, I cried. My wife & I had been living in a 1929, 2 bedroom, one bath home, and the new one, with 4 bedrooms and 3 baths, was spacious, even if it was post-War schlock. We had a great year, that year, traveling to New York; Chicago; Cincinatti; Philadelphia, where I grew up; Sarasota, Florida; France; and Mexico. A year later, my dautgher was born. I was such a proud father, but the day before her first birthday, I had a stoke. I spent the next 5 1/2 years in hospitals, unable to speak because of a tracheostomy.  My brother and his wife, and a few friends really rallied. I watched movies, did yoga, had a lot of books read to me, saw volunteers, and looked at the gorgeous view from the rooftop garden.
 The doctor in charge said I would never speak again. I went to LA for rehab, and the head speech doctor said I would not speak either, but a speech therapist believed in me. When I got home, I had my trach removed. After a lot of speech therapy, I did learn to speak again, although oddly, I can’t swallow well, and I can’t walk, and I have pain.
  Still, I’ve learned that love is really powerful, the brain is amazingly plastic, and most doctors know little, but mean well. I’ve learned that you can do all kinds of things if you want to. I’ve learned that there is always something to look foward to. I’ve learned that even with serious loss, life can be good & interesting.

Mary’s Shared Loss Story – Tragedy no one speaks of “lingers in the air”

This story, from Mary, moved me deeply.   Everyone has losses.  A loss doesn’t have to be a death. There are many different kinds of losses.  Loss of health, or part of health, or opportunity, or innocence, or even loss of heart. All of these are losses and if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that our losses are part of who we are and who we become.  Or who we can become. I hope other readers will share as Mary has. Peace to all, Fran

I was the last person my seven-year-old sister held in her arms before she opened the screen door, grabbed my five-year-old cousin’s hand and ran across the country road to reach the barn on the other side. Screech, boom, crash, the drunk driver hit the children, killing my sister instantly and my cousin a couple of days later. I remember nothing of that day or the days that followed, how could – I was barely two. The year was 1953, my mother was pregnant with her sixth child, Carol was the third.

This tragedy has lingered in the air my entire life, not avoided but never discussed. Souvenirs were tucked away in the cedar chest and a rug, woven with fabric from her dresses, covered the piano bench. How did my parents mourn with so many children and so much hard farm work that needed tending every day? Why did I never ask?

I know four things. My parents chose not to prosecute because the driver had young children at home. An auction was organized and we moved away from the farm. According to my father there was only one question left unresolved between my parents. Was this accident part of God’s plan? And 30 years later as Doctors surrounded her bed, I held my mothers hand as she explained the reason she had a scar on her heart was not because she had suffered from Rheumatic fever but rather because she had lost a child. And still I never asked.

On grief, with “Codependent No More” author, Melody Beattie…Friends are invited to tell a story of loss

Okay, so it’s been months since I last posted, and I feel like a neglectful blog-mother, but a lot has happened that has kept me busy. Mainly, most importantly, I’ve become a grandmother! The daughter of my daughter was born on Friday evening March 5th at 9:06 PM. But I’m not writing about that today, because I need more time to process it, old-school writer that I am.

Today, I’m writing about an interview for “Bottom Line/Women’s Health” I did with a true pioneer of the self-help industry, Melody Beattie, whose book, “Codependent No More,” introduced the country and the world to the term “codependency” way back in 1986, and essentially spawned the support group movement, which has saved so many lives. (Wow! We were all wearing big hair and shoulder pads back then, and none of us had computers, let alone blogs.) Just to show the longevity of Melody’s ideas and work, I checked Amazon, and found that  “Codependent No More” ranks at #242 today. It is truly impressive and rare that more than twenty years after the book’s publication, it still enjoys that kind of sales. By way of comparison, I’ll admit that back in 2000, “Saving Elijah” got up to #730 the day after a wonderful review appeared in the Wall Street Journal, but two days later sank like a stone.

During the interview, I discovered that Melody too had lost a child, a son named Shane, so we got to talking about grief. She is developing her own website about grief, which I am linking to. I sent her a copy of my essay from the Wellness and Writing Connections Anthology, “My Son’s Name was Michael — Not Elijah,” which reflects on the process and consequences of turning my own grief into fiction.  Below, I’m posting her response to my essay. (In bold are my comments and explanatory notes)

Isn’t that the beginning of a book?  I wanted to turn the page and read more.  A lovely compliment from Melody.  In fact, I am writing a kind of memoir in essays, which will include a version of “My Son’s Name.”

It took a long, long time to develop any compassion for people who say stupid things, and I still don’t have much of it, so I teach. I teach them what to say and more importantly, what not to say (and will have a section for them on my site).

I teach them what to do.

Step by step, paragraph by paragraph, I teach them how to write a comforting letter to someone in grief.

I teach people that grieving is not a “condition” nor is it wasted time. Our personal velocity changes and we move at a different pace than many other people in the world.

And the second year is worse than the first — it does not, as people enjoy saying, “get better with time.” The longer I don’t see Shane, the more I miss him, not less.

My AA sponsor told me after funeral that I needed to write out a check for each of the people who had helped me get through the week of his death so they could take a vacation, as I had “drained them.” And it would be a nice thank-you gift. Well, I didn’t feel grateful to anyone for anything, but I did as she said — and of course, the people who received a check (for $2,000) included her.

Nobody talks about how vulnerable we are.

I had a contract too — had to pay back the advance. (Here Melody, the author of 15 books, is referring to the section of my essay that talks about losing a two book contract for “Flight” and one other novel with Dutton in 1992, after Michael got sick, when I couldn’t produce a second book.

I started crying 30 days before Shane died, and couldn’t stop — and I wasn’t a crier. My soul knew what was coming, and my grief began before he left, when our souls started to say “see you” but in a different way.

And who in the hell says we have to let go completely and forever? In what book is that written? We don’t have to let go of someone when they move away, forget about them, or stop missing them.

People comfort themselves, not the person in grief. I want to help them to learn to switch that around. Here Melody is referring to the tendency of people say things that push the grief away.  People do this because it’s hard to sit with pain, very hard, it takes stamina and real compassion. My favorite quote in this regard is a Buddhist one, “Compassion is willingness to be close to suffering.”

Your story got me going. There was a real taboo in the media about the death of children at that time. Producers, etc. didn’t want to talk about the idea that children die. The world wasn’t ready for it yet. But every year, in this country alone, 250,000 people die before they receive their allotted 70-90 years of life — die before their parents do.

And God does too make mistakes. The New York Times says that 88 percent of the people we hire for assistants steal. I think that statistic applies to people generally, and not just about stealing. I think about 9 out of every ten people we meet have the ability to love and care. In the Old Testament of the Bible, which covers both Jews and Christians, it says on the seventh day He rested. Well, I think that whoever he goes to handle things on day seven went by those same statistics, so only one in ten of his workers did a good job. The other nine made mistakes. They let our children die. That’s what I think, anyway. It’s the only way I can make sense out of something so cruel and senseless. God’s assistant’s messed up, and we (and our families) became the victims of their ineptitude. Interesting theory, this one, not one I subscribe to. I believe that if there is a God, God doesn’t intervene with individuals in day to day events.  Or, maybe I subscribe to the notion that we live our lives on earth to learn certain lessons, and my own lesson may have been related to losing one I love. Of course neither of these theories explain theodicy, or the existence of evil in a world supposedly controlled by a good God.  Events unexplainable include the Holocaust, slavery, natural disasters, terrorism, or other horrific, “evil” events of history.

I hope you keep writing.

I hope you had an affair. Because if you were touched, then you knew you were still alive, whether you wanted to be or not. Here, in her lovely, supportive way, Melody is referring to the way I open my essay, with an account of a women in my town whom I ran into at Starbucks after she’d read Saving Elijah and confused my fictional character with me, and who asked if my husband took me back after I had an affair. Quoting my essay, “I looked at her, speechless. Saving Elijah, to describe it as the aggressively sensational Putnam cover copy did, is about a woman named Dinah Galligan, who while keeping vigil over her comatose five-year-old son, Elijah, “meets a seductive spirit in the hospital corridor outside the pediatric intensive care unit, one with a startling connection to her past, who claims he can make her child well again—if she’s willing to pay the price.” Near the end of the novel Dinah has a brief, desperate affair, so the question wasn’t totally weird, but I still wanted to shake her and scream, “DINAH IS A CHARACTER, YOU IDIOT.” Luckily I was not only speechless I was paralyzed.” And then later in the essay, I say, ““The question I’m most often asked now when I confess that I lost a child AND wrote a novel inspired by the experience (depending on who asks, I might leave out one or the other of those facts) is why didn’t I write a memoir? I could have, I suppose. A carefully constructed memoir can give a reader unique access to someone else’s singular experience, possibly fostering empathy, learning, understanding, growth. But reading a memoir can also make us feel safe, even smug, in the essential “otherness” of the author’s experience. Like the millions who gawk at a celebrity’s all-too-human troubles, or hoot at bad behavior on Jerry Springer, the woman at Starbucks could think, “Well, I would NEVER have had an affair.” You wish, lady. You have no idea what you would do if your child died, let alone what I would do.”

Talking to, and receiving this response from Melody gave me an idea, which I shared with her. Expanding on the idea that everyone has a story to tell and wants to tell it, it seems to me that it would be interesting to invite people (famous and not, anonymous and not) to tell a story of personal loss and discuss how it changed them, in, say, two or three paragraphs.

Any takers out there? Write me an email at frandorf@aol.com or leave a comment and I’ll post it.

On memoirs, reality TV, truth, exploitation, and “privacy as the new currency”

This morning, on NPR’s The Takeaway, I listened to a discussion about the riveting balloon boy hoax, specifically on whether bloggers too are exploiting their children by writing about them.  Mom 101, a guest on the show who uses her own children as fodder for her blog, made the following fascinating statement: “Privacy is the new currency. People are giving it away for free.” It’s a clever line that reminded of the old George Bernard Shaw story whose punchline is, “We have already established what you are, Madame. Now we are merely haggling over the price.” Mom 101’s statement may even be partly true, yet like so much else we hear and think clever these days, it makes little sense. How can privacy be currency if everyone and anyone can and does give it away?

As someone who actually lost a child, I am truly horrified by the spectacle of a father exploiting his child by simulating the boy’s death for the sake of publicity.  As a writer whose last novel, Saving Elijah, was inspired by my son’s death and who chose to write fiction instead of memoir partly for creative reasons and partly to protect my family, I feel compelled to say that the important issue of privacy is one that serious writers and many bloggers, myself included, struggle with every day. It deserves a more serious discussion by NPR, which I usually enjoy and which is one of the only media outlets where you can still find serious, unbiased journalism and intelligent, stimulating talk.

Recently I’ve been working on a kind of memoir in essays. Writers vary widely in their opinions on the extent to which one should use family as fodder for one’s writing. One friend says, “We write our truth, no matter who it offends,” while another says, “Always protect your family.”  I suspect that if I were to actually publish the memoir I’ve been working on, it would offend several family members, friends, and acquaintances, even if I see it as truth and/or art.  Yet I have I have so far resisted blogging in as personal or revealing a way as I am doing in the memoir.  Why?

I have spent quite a bit of my life “becoming” a writer, studying craft, honing a “voice” and attempting to make “art” that will illuminate life in some way. With few exceptions, I haven’t offered my blog readers (what few of them there are) intimate details of my life the way I am currently doing in writing a memoir, because I know in my heart that we value what we pay for, and we pay for what we value. I cringe every time I look at Amazon.com and see my last novel, very well reviewed but now out of print and obscure, offered by third parties at 99 cents.  Wow.  All my sweat and suffering now being given away for less than a dollar a pop. (Let’s leave aside the fact that the “process” of writing the book effectively saved my life after my son died.)

At the very least, people ought to at least understand the huge difference between a man who would creepily and willfully exploit his own child’s potential death just for the publicity; those who shout their intimate stories on Jerry Springer or reality television for the money or fifteen minutes of fame; those who tell their intimate stories for free or for whatever they can get out of it on a blog; and those who labor over a memoir that will possibly be published for say, a $25,000 advance. If they’re lucky.

Most people who offer their own lives for public viewing (balloon boy father excluded) may be telling their version of truth, even those who appear on Jerry Springer, but the difference between a memoir writer (and some bloggers) and the other examples above is not just in intent to tell truth, but in content, craft, art, motive, presentation, and in control over what to include.

Now here I may be showing just how out of touch I really am, since I recently received this rejection from a would-be agent for my memoir in stories.

Dear Fran,

I had the chance to read your stories this week and I really appreciate the chance. You are an amazing writer with an excellent voice. Having said that I really fear that I wouldn’t find the right editor for this. A few years ago, I would have jumped at the chance to represent this collection, but in these tough times it seems to require a huge media platform to convince a publisher. They want authors to have websites with 40k plus names and blogs that reach millions.

Now there’s irony for you.

Writing for Wellness and Healing

I just did an interview about my write to heal workshops for the terrific publication, Bottom Line/Women’s Health, so I thought I’d put a few exercises here, in case anyone reading the article is looking for more. Studies by Dr. James Pennebaker at the University of Texas and many others have definitively shown that writing about trauma enhances physical, emotional and mental well being. My own personal and professional experience bears this out. The process of writing “Saving Elijah” saved me after my son’s death, I think. Creating narrative (and/or meaningful image or metaphor) helps us gain distance from and understand our trauma (including serious bereavement) by transferring and integrating emotional memories, which are primarily stored in the right brian, into the more logical left brain.  Here’s a quote from B. S. Van der Kolk, a leading trauma researcher, “Traumatic memory is are primarily imprinted in sensory and emotional modes principally stored in the right hemisphere of the brain, as opposed to the left hemisphere, which mediates verbal communication and organizes problem solving tasks into a well ordered set of operations and process information in a sequential fashion.”  More about all that in a later post.

By the way, I’ve decided to change the basic name of my workshops from “Write to Heal,” to “Writing for Wellness and Healing,” to broaden their appeal, and because you don’t have to have experienced major trauma to benefit. Anyone who has experienced emotional upheaval can benefit from writing. (Or from any creative endeavor, for that matter.) And who hasn’t experienced emotional upheaval in life?

Here are some exercises to get you started.  Remember, with all deference to those who think our every waking thought and feeling must be laid out there for all to see, you don’t have to share what you write with anyone.  So tell the truth.

1. DIG WIDE, DIG DEEP EXERCISE 

Part 1. Begin with “I remember.” Write lots of small memories, and begin each with the words “I Remember.” Don’t be concerned if the memories happened five seconds ago or five years ago, or if they are memories about your lost child or your grandmother, a vacation you once took, or a kid from school. Don’t worry if they are happy memories or sad ones, big memories or small ones, important memories or fleeting ones. Be in the moment as you remember them and write them as quickly as you can without stopping. Try this for seven minutes.

Part 2: Now read over your list and choose one memory that speaks to you and write about it as a scene and/or in great depth, with sensory details (what did you see, smell, touch, feel). Really dig in. Seven minutes.

Part 3: Now write that memory as if it didn’t happen to you, but rather as if it happened to someone else. The easiest and most effective way to do this is to put it in the third person, instead of the first person. (Actually, this is a good alternate for many of the exercises in this list—write it in the third person.) Seven minutes.

2. DIALOGUE WITH GOD EXERCISE

For this exercise, imagine you’re walking down the road one fine day. Or you could be in your kitchen and there’s a knock at the door, or at your desk, or on the bleachers watching your child’s hockey game, or sitting down at your desk. You choose the setting, which I hope you will describe with as many sensory details as you can. And suddenly a person comes up to you whom you somehow recognize as God. What does God look like? Describe God’s appearance. I’m not necessarily looking for flowing robes, white beards and symbols of religion here, because presumably God can take any form. Choose one that has meaning to you: someone you know or don’t know, someone from your past or future, your dead child or sister, Morgan Freeman, George Burns, your long lost Aunt, a Buddhist monk. What is he wearing? What does he look like? You get to have a conversation with God. Don’t hold back. God can take whatever you dish out.

And you say to God, “Why me?” And God says, “Why not you?”

Write the scene complete with dialogue from there. Try to get past any nervousness you have about talking to God, and even consider challenging God. For example, if you don’t like God’s answer, say so. As always, feel free to write this from someone else’s point of view, either in the first person or third. Do this for seven minutes.

3.RIGHT NOW EXERCISE (MINDFULNESS)

Write about what you’re thinking and feeling right this minute. Start a list: My jeans are too tight. I drank too much coffee this morning. I feel jittery. The sunlight is pouring in the window. My arm hurts. I feel nervous. Something smells in here. ….Do this for five minutes.

4. FOUR SQUARE EXERCISE

One of the ways we can discover our writing selves is to discover unexpected ways of observing everyday objects. Think of an object. Perhaps it’s something you’re wearing, a bracelet, or a belt. Or maybe it’s a lock of hair, or a stuffed animal. Or maybe it’s something you see in the room. Divide a piece of paper into four squares. In the top left square, describe the object as specifically as you can, with as many specific details as you can. In the top right square, list all the feelings the object evokes. In the lower left, create similies of what the object is like or what it reminds you of. And finally in the lower right, put yourself in place of the object, take the voice of the object and write from the object’s perspective.

Once you’ve done that, see if you can use some of what you’ve written to create a poem.

5. WRITING PROMPTS

  • How satisfied are you with your life right now?
  • What thrills you?
  • What do you need?
  • What are you afraid of?
  • Where do you feel stuck?
  • What activities or practices help you in difficult times?
  • What do you long for?
  • What are the great sadnesses in your life?
  • What are you jealous of
  • What forces surround your life or work that are out of your control?
  • What fight or burden are you ready to give up for now?
  • What do you regret?
  • Write about a time you felt joy?
  • In what ways are you good at taking care of yourself?  What ways are you bad at it?
  • Write about a dream you’ve had.  What do you think the message is?
  • What do you hope for?

More soon.