Tag Archive | Grief

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.



* * * * *


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.

Bruised Muse Publication News – Open to Hope: Inspirational Stories of Healing After Loss

Open To Hope: Inspirational Stories of Healing After Loss Fran’s piece, “Growing through Grief,” is one of the articles in the just published book, “Open to Hope: Inspirational Stories of Healing After Loss,” edited by mother and daughter psychologists and grief gurus, Gloria Horsley and Heidi Horsley. Yes, folks, this is an actual book with covers and pages and printed words that you can order through Amazon or on the Open to Hope (www.opentohope.com) site.  My piece is about the need to tell our story to an empathic listener, the self absorbing nature of grief, and how we can take the first steps toward moving forward when we begin to recognize how self absorbed we’ve become.

If you’ve suffered loss, or know someone who’s suffering, this book is the perfect gift. And while the cynic in me still feels slightly embarrassed at all things purporting to be “inspirational,” I have to say that this is NOT chicken soup. By the way, the cynic in me doesn’t even shut up about my OWN memoir, “Grief in the Raw, How I Lost My Bellybutton, And Other Naked Survival Stories,” which I hope is inspirational, moving, AND funny. It’s the funny part in the book helps the cynic part in me mostly shut up.

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?

Guns on Mars

Conversation in front of an exhibition of beautiful photographs of people and scenes in Israel, displayed in our local Jewish Community Center.  I’m standing in front of a photo of a man in an outdoor market.  In the photo, we see his back.  His shirt is up, and a large gun is strapped into a holster around his waist at the small of his back.  The gun is the focus of the photograph.

A woman walks by and says, in what sounds like an Israeli accent: “Is that for real?”

“What?” I say. “The gun?”

“Yes.  The gun,” she says.

“I think it’s for real.  I assume it’s for real,” I say.

“Scary,” she says. “Why is he carrying it in his shirt like that?”

“I have no idea,” I say.  “He must think he needs it for self protection.”

She shakes her head.  “What a shame.”

I sigh.  “Yes.  A real shame.  In my opinion, every single gun on the planet should be rounded up and sent to Mars.”

She laughs and walks away, and as she walks away I realize that I completely believe what I said. As far as I’m concerned, there should be a house to house, factory to factory, storage bunker to storage bunker search of the entire planet, and every single firearm, rifle, bomb (nuclear and regular), AK47, and every other exploding weapon, should be put on a spacecraft and shipped to Mars. Then no one would have them, and we wouldn’t have to “protect” ourselves from them. Obviously, we’d still be the same unevolved human race, characterized by our primitive, threatening behavior, but it would be a lot better, and have fewer global ramifications, if we used primitive weapons, like knives and spears, to express our primitive impulses.

I guess I’m out of step with mainstream, conservative America, huh?

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.