Tag Archive | Bereavement

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.

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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.

Writing for Wellness Workshop

TO MY LOCAL FRIENDS, PLEASE JOIN ME:

WRITING FOR WELLNESS
A Six Week Workshop for Healing and Self-Expression
Tuesday’s 7:30-9 PM
December 8, 15, 22 and January 5, 12, 19
Jewish Community Center
1450 Newfield Avenue

Stamford, Connecticut

Write about: grief, loss, relationships, trauma, illness, spirit, life.
Exercises, prompts, and focused writing tailored to participant needs and interests.
Based on Fran’s experience as a writer, bereaved mother, and therapist.

DO IT FOR YOURSELF!

ENHANCE physical and mental well being
GAIN mastery over difficult emotions
LEARN or enhance literary techniques/craft
DEEPEN and clarify self knowledge
CREATE meaningful personal narrative,
memoir, story, metaphor and/or image.
STIMULATE your imagination.
EXPRESS and/or SHARE YOUR TRUTH

DO IT FOR FUN!

COST: $100 Members; $125 Non-Members
EMAIL: Frandorf@aol.com for more info
REGISTER at the JCC
reception desk, by calling
322-7900, or online at
http://www.stamfordjcc.org

#10 Top Grief on Film: Six Feet Under

Last but by no means least on my top ten “Grief on Film”:

10) Six Feet Under

Even though this multi-award-winning drama about the Fishers, a Los Angeles family of funeral directors, was a television show and not a film, for me, it was, and remains, the most accurate, authentic, multifaceted and complete portrayal of grief ever filmed, particularly effective in its portrayal of death as part of life. Created by Alan Ball, who wrote American Beauty, Six Feet Under ran for five seasons, from 2001 to 2005, and can still sometimes be seen on HBO on demand, or rented. It’s well worth it. On one level, Six Feet Under is a family drama that deals intelligently with such issues as relationships, sex, religion, infidelity, sibling rivalry, and mental illness, but its brilliance stems from quite another level, namely its bold and daring focus on death and grief and its willingness to employ an inventive array of fictional techniques to illuminate the subject. Psychologically sophisticated, often surreal, with a strong measure of irony and dark humor, Six Feet Under regularly brings the world of the living in contact with the dead in ways that show how people actually deal with loss, as the dead taunt and/or comfort, explain and/or question, frighten and/or anger, and illustrates its complex, authentic characters’ interior monologues and psychological issues by exposing them as external dialogues. This technique has enormous emotional, philosophical, and metaphorical payoffs; I employed a similar approach with the ghost in my 2000 novel, Saving Elijah, which was inspired by my own experience of losing my son. Each Six Feet Under episode begins with a death –anything from a heart attack, to SIDS, to old age, to murder, to a pool accident—and that death sets the tone for the drama to come as each of the characters live and reflect on their own lives with the introductory death and preparations for the funeral service as a backdrop. Six Feet Under stars Peter Krause as Nate, the older prodigal son who returns after his father’s death to reluctantly become a partner in the family funeral business; Michael Hall as the gay, younger son David; Lauren Ambrose as the artist rebel daughter Claire; Frances Conroy as bewildered, stymied matriarch Ruth; and Richard Jenkins as Nathanial, the patriarch killed in the first episode who regularly returns as a ghost. Smaller but no less powerful roles are played by Mathew St. Patrick as David’s boyfriend Keith; Lilly Taylor as Nate’s first wife; the wonderful Rachel Griffiths as Nate’s second wife, Brenda Chenowith; Jeremy Sisto as Brenda’s bipolar brother, and many others. The last episode in which each character ultimately embraces life and finally death left me (and every Six Feet Under fan I’ve ever met) deeply moved and weeping. So many scenes remain with me, but I have to say that the entire show is worth watching just so one can feel the full measure of the last amazing sequence as daughter Claire rides away from Los Angeles to meet her life and her fate, and each character in turn does the same. The ending is the perfect coda to all that came before it. True genius.

#5-9 top Grief on Film: Ordinary People, Door in the Floor, Sweet Hereafter, Big Chill

Here are numbers 5 through 9 of my top ten Grief on Film list, originally published at http://www.opentohope.com 

5.) Ordinary People

       Based on the moving novel by Judith Guest, Ordinary People tells the heartbreaking, intensely real story of a seemingly happy upper class couple who have lost the older of their two sons in a boating accident. Grief is subterranean here, as it often is, and is complicated by long-standing familial dysfunction; these people cannot speak openly of their pain. Timothy Hutton plays the surviving teenage son, Conrad, who blames himself for his brother’s death and has attempted suicide. Mary Tyler More is extraordinary as the repressed mother, Beth, who always preferred Conrad’s brother and can’t support Conrad. And Donald Sutherland is deeply believable as the father, Calvin, trying to hold the family together. Only when Conrad begins to see a psychiatrist, played by Judd Hirsch, does the family’s carefully cultivated veneer of coping begin to crack. Ordinary People is an admirable and honest examination of how pretense yields to grief, and the complex and difficult emotions experienced by grief’s survivors.

6) The Door in the Floor

      This 2004 film is another that honestly examines a marriage breaking apart after child loss. Adapted from the first (and best) part of John Irving’s best-selling novel “A Widow for One Year,” the film is set in the affluent beach community of East Hampton, New York and takes place during one critical summer in the lives of famous children’s book author and artist Ted Cole, played by one of my all time favorite actors, Jeff Bridges, and his beautiful wife Marion, played quite effectively by Kim Basinger. The Cole’s once-sweet marriage has curdled in the aftermath of the tragedy of losing their twin teenage sons in a car accident, and their attempt to fill the void with a new child, now six-year-old Ruth, has been disastrous. Marion remains despondent and unable to mother the new child, and Ted has become a philandering alcoholic. Eddie O’Hare, a young man Ted hires to work as his summer assistant, becomes the couple’s pawn in the destructive game that has developed between them. I found this film deeply moving and devastating as a kind of cautionary tale, for its portrayal of the destructiveness that can occur in two people with no resources to cope with a tragedy of unbearable proportions. It’s hard to sympathize with these two, but I recognize in them the narcissism and self-absorption of grief, and when Marion takes all the photographs and negatives of their dead sons, I wept like a baby.

7) The Sweet Hereafter

      This somber, difficult film directed by Atom Egoyan, based on the 1991 novel by Russell Banks, is set in a small town in the aftermath of a school bus accident that has killed most of the town’s children.  Into this devastating scene descends a slick, big city, ambulance-chasing lawyer, played by Ian Holmes. He is a man pursued by the demons of losing his own daughter to drugs, and he visits each of the victims’ parents to stir up their anger and coax them to participa te in a class action lawsuit to profit from the tragedy. The case depends on the few surviving witnesses to say the right things in court, particularly Nicole, played by Sarah Polley (whose recent film Away from Her nearly made this list), who was sitting at the front of the bus and is now paralyzed. She accuses the driver of causing the accident, and all hope of receiving money vanishes. Everyone knows she’s lying, but only her father knows she is exacting revenge on him for having molested her.  With great performances against a bleak, somber landscape, the film isn’t for the faint of heart, but does a great job of depicting how grief searches for restitution, but can never really find it.

8) Under the Sand

     Francois Ozon’s “haunting” film Under the Sand stars the courageous British actress Charlotte Rampling, playing Marie, a professor of English Literature in a Paris university, happily married to Jean for twenty-five years.  When Jean disappears one day while the couple is sunbathing during their south of France vacation, Marie doesn’t know what happened to him, whether he left her for another woman, committed suicide, or drowned.  Unable to accept that he is gone, she still talks and thinks of him in the present tense. This beautiful, sad, languid film, in French with subtitles, makes artistic use of film language, camera angles, mirror doubles, and unforgettable ocean images, to help us understand Marie’s inner thoughts and feelings and depict the psychologically traumatizing effect of grief.  In its brutally honest portrayal of a woman confronting her identity, age, body, sexuality, emotions, and even her intellect, Under the Sand shows how grief forces total reexamination of the soul and spreads its tentacles into every aspect of a person’s life.

9.) The Big Chill

       Okay, so this 1983 film directed by Lawrence Kasdan is a quirky departure in the list of sober and difficult dramas I’ve compiled. Some may object to its inclusion over other more serious films, such as Polley’s Away from Her, Mark Foster’s Monster’s Ball, plus Reservation Road, Grace is Gone, Iris, Things We Lost in the Fire, One True Thing, Terms of Endearment, Iris, Night Mother and many more. I include it not only because it is one of my favorite films of all time, groundbreaking in its use of an ensemble cast, musical score, and many other ways, but mainly because it is that rare comedy that deals realistically with grief.  With a terrific cast including Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, William Hurt, Meg Tilly, and Jeff Goldblum, The Big Chill tells of a group of thirty-something former college friends who come together for a weekend of reconciliation and reflection after the shocking death of one of their own, Alex (Kevin Costner, in a role cut in the final take), who committed suicide in the home of physician Sarah and business executive Harold, where the weekend takes place. Alex had been living there with his young girlfriend, Chloë, while trying to figure out what to do with his life. Powerfully demonstrating the ripple effect of suicide on the survivors, the group turns to each other to try and figure out why Alex ended his life and explore what happened to the ideals of their youth.  Yes, the film doesn’t deal with “high grief” such as that with comes with the loss of a child, parent, or sibling, but The Big Chill beautifully demonstrates that friendship and humor can be healing, and the scene of Sarah crying alone in the shower, within the context of the rest of the film, is a potent reminder of the loneliness of grief.  

 

#3 & #4 Grief on Film: In the Bedroom and Sophie’s Choice

3) In the Bedroom

In the Bedroom is a terrific but brutally frank film about a marriage crumbling in the face of child loss, probably the most honest cinematic portrayal of the subject I have ever seen. This multi-award winning drama directed by Todd Field centers on an ordinary middle class couple in Maine called the Fowlers, Matt and Ruth, played with bravery by Tom Wilkenson and Sissy Spacek, whose son Frank is killed by the violent ex-husband of the older women he loves, played by Marissa Tomei.  The couple’s anger in this case is centered on the failure of the justice system to appropriately deal with the killer, but the film does a remarkable job of portraying how the self-absorption and anger of grief can erode the very foundations of a marriage, no matter what the circumstances.

4.) Sophie’s Choice

Based on William Styron’s magnificent novel of the same title, directed by Alan J. Paluka, Sophie’s Choice centers on a beautiful Polish immigrant and Auschwitz survivor named Sophie, played by Meryl Streep, and her mad, Auschwitz-obsessed lover Nathan, played by Kevin Kline.  They share a boarding house with Stingo, the film’s narrator, played by Peter MacNicol, a young writer from the south who travels to post-World War II Brooklyn and befriends the couple.  Through the course of the film, as Sophie reveals to Stingo pieces of her devastating history, Stingo falls in love with Sophie and in his earnest naïvety begins to believe he can save her. I include Sophie’s Choice in my list because while the film has a broad historical significance and is about much in addition to grief, Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning performance as the inconsolable Sophie is so deep and accurate, nuanced and real, that the film’s power as an illuminator of grief cannot be denied.  So much of this film is indelibly embedded in my consciousness, but I particularly want to mention the final scene, during which Stingo reads from Nathan’s book of Emily Dickinson poems, “Ample Make this Bed.”   

Originally posted on http://www.opentohope.com