Tag Archive | loss

Little Man

Fran-Dorf1-203x300

On October 22, 1990, I became the mother of two children. I will always be the mother of two children. Our daughter, Rachel, was already nine, but we’d been unable to conceive a second child after my husband’s shocking bout of cancer two years into our marriage, and so after several miscarriages and years on the artificial insemination rollercoaster, we’d arranged to adopt.  It was a boy. He was a month early.  We were thrilled.

Bob and I flew to the birth mother’s southern city, made our way to the hospital, and stood at the nursery window. The 4-pound incubated baby looked tiny, sickly.  He had an odd, bulging forehead and his skin was dusky and mottled.  I started to cry and Bob put his arm around me.

Later, we made awkward conversation with the birth mother in her hospital room.  She was a fortress of a woman, not fat but about six feet tall and solid, wearing a blue bathrobe, and reeking of cigarette smoke.  She’d mentioned some early pregnancy drinking in her first letter to us, calling it “partying.” My God, I thought, what were we getting ourselves into?

Bob and I spent the next few days in the hospital getting to know the baby, and nights in our hotel room making phone calls.  Our daughter’s pediatrician said the baby would probably be okay, given his normal head size. Bob’s parents said they’d support us, no matter what. My mother, who died only a few years later, said, “Why take on someone else’s problems, Fran?”

We couldn’t reject the baby because he looked sickly.  He was ours.   We’d become attached over months of letter-writing and occasional phone calls with the birth mother, and although I was all over the place in that hotel room, I knew I had to take him on when I had a dream of him, left all alone in a dark, empty nursery.

By preemie standards he wasn’t that small, but the doctors said he needed to stay. Bob flew home and brought Rachel back. Our daughter was overjoyed that she now had the sibling she’d longed for, and we gathered him in and declared him ours. We named him Michael Max, in the Jewish way, after Bob’s favorite grandfather, though most often we called him Mikey, Magoo, or Little Man.

A few days later Bob took Rachel home, and I was alone. Didn’t matter. I was falling in love.  Each morning a nurse took Michael Max out of his warmer and handed him over.  I’d sit in a rocking chair most of the day, watching all the other human dramas unfold in front of me like parchment scrolls, feeding Mikey through a sliver of a nasal tube, unselfconsciously crying and whispering to him: It’s okay, it’s okay. You just have to be the baby, and I’ll be the mommy.

I’m not sure when I took Michael completely into my being as my son. Was it the first time he cried and I rocked him until he settled?  When I changed his diaper and saw how undernourished he was, his skin hanging off his bones?  When I found myself singing to him, though my singing voice isn’t fit to be heard by man or beast? When he looked up at me with deep blue eyes, and we both seemed to know we were meant for each other?

In the evenings for the next three weeks at the hospital, I’d find a restaurant along the local strip, eat dinner alone, and then return to the hospital for a last visit. The chicken in the Greek place gave me food poisoning—nausea and stomach cramps so bad I considered checking into the hospital myself—but by dawn I was ready to resume my vigil. That morning, a young, redheaded teenager sat in the rocker next to me, awkwardly holding her newborn, weeping and wavering in her decision for adoption. I decided I was lucky that Michael’s birth mother was older, steadier. We had agreed to her terms: we would send letters and pictures once a year, one way, through the lawyer.  I was grateful it was only that. I could do that.

***

Michael became a beautiful child with blue, slightly crossed eyes, a pile of blond curls, and a solid build. Like many parents of children with neurological difficulties we became experts on issues we’d never even heard of before, like sensory integration, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified.

Indeed, Mikey was often frustrated and refused to touch certain objects, but everything he would do, he did with uninhibited enthusiasm, especially when it involved water.  Bath time was always hilarious, though convincing him to get out of the tub not so much, and our little man just adored the pool.  We all had to be there to watch, too, including Cookie, our cocker spaniel, and Mikey’s favorite stuffed toy, a puffy bright pink and green turtle.  He’d stand at the pool’s edge, laughing, and jump into our arms, often before we could even get ready to catch him.  He’d put his arms around us, give us one of his squeezes, giggle more, and then scramble up the pool steps to do it again.  And again.  And again.

Perhaps we minimized our son’s problems in our letters to the birth mother, though we often felt overwhelmed by them. Mostly, we told her how much we loved him, how hard we were trying for him.  We described how he giggled and put his whole body and being into hugging us.  We told her that he loved Big Bird, buses, and balls. And we wrote about his sister, who had become very grown up, teaching him, hovering over him like a little mother.

In our third birthday letter, we told her that Michael had finally learned to point, had a vocabulary of about eight words, or maybe word-sounds, and one time shocked everyone by clearly putting together “peanut” and “ butter,” neither of which was one of his words.  We sent the gorgeous photograph Bob had taken that summer of Mikey and his sister in the pool. A photo we enlarged and hung in a frame on the living room wall.

***

And then came December 7, 1993, my personal Pearl Harbor Day. I put Mikey down for his nap and went to my office to work on a new novel to fulfill a two-book publishing contract. For reasons that remain mysterious and fascinating to me, I’d churned out over a hundred pages in the six weeks prior to that day, working faster than I ever had on a story about the kidnapping of a little boy named Elijah.  Oddly, I’d spent most of those pages not advancing a kidnapping plot but rather imagining his young parent’s grief and terror.  I still wonder if this was a kind of prescience, since I had no real idea at all what grief and terror for your child would be like.  It could also have been an expression of my fears for my troubled son.

Around 4:00 I went to check on Mikey and found him in the midst of a violent seizure. He wasn’t breathing.  My own screams told me that I had arrived in hell, and from that moment on it felt as if I were constantly screaming—screaming when we arrived at our local hospital, screaming when we got to the big medical center where they shipped him a few hours later, screaming at the next hospital, screaming at the next.  Even in my dreams I was screaming.

Michael’s end came on a particular date, of course, though it had already technically ended months before when we stood in front of a light box, looking at rows and rows of illuminated brain slices, after the last of so many MRIs I had lost count.  Each MRI was worse than the last, the blackness at the center of our son’s brain bigger.

The doctor gave us the news. “When tissue is damaged like this it shrinks and takes up less room, and fluid fills the void.  I’m very sorry, but there’s nothing there.  He will never get any better.” Sometimes I still can’t believe I’m a mother who survived hearing that.

After Michael died, I padlocked my office, retreated to the house, and declared I would never write another word.  Writing was what I had done before. This was after. My world sucked into itself like a black hole. I spent the next two years walking around wearing my bathrobe and my shroud of grief, crying or staring vacantly at the walls, only vaguely aware of my daughter and husband coming and going, floaters in my field of vision.

We had to send the birth mother one last, impossible letter, which I struggled and labored over for months.  We agreed to receive one letter from her. She thanked us graciously for the wonderful life we had given Michael, and said she was particularly sorry for our daughter, then thirteen.  She mentioned that she’d had another child.  She wanted to go to Michael’s grave. I was so fragile then, reeling in the early madness of grief; I veered from blaming her, to wishing she’d rescue me, to wanting to beg her forgiveness for failing him.  Yet that child, and his death, was ours, not hers, and we didn’t—couldn’t—allow her into our lives.  I do not have any of her letters now; sometime during those dark years I threw them away in a rage.

***

Our son would have turned twenty-three this October.  I’m still a writer, but I also work as a grief counselor now; it’s one of the ways I have found to move forward, writing is another.

I’m constantly amazed when I sit with bereaved parents that even though all grief journeys are unique, they’re also similar: the rage and often irrational guilt, the feeling of having slipped into another universe; the decision about whether to have (in our case adopt) another child; the struggle to figure out what to do with the child’s room, his things; the difficulty of dealing with people’s insensitive remarks.

My world is rich and full of laughter, humor, and wonder again.  Our beautiful, brilliant daughter is now thirty-two, a psychologist.  I’m a grandma. Our granddaughter is named after Michael.  We feel almost embarrassed at how much we adore that child.  She is three now, near our son’s last age, though I try not to think about that. A few weeks after giving birth, my daughter’s emotional generosity astounded me. “Now I understand, Mom,” she said. I wish you didn’t, my daughter.  As you raise your own child, I wish you didn’t know firsthand what could happen.

Yes, my life is sweet again, full of blessings. Still, I think I am like every bereaved parent.  No matter how long ago it happened, how compartmentalized the grief becomes, or how reinvested in life, this loss remains, forever imprinted on your soul. I can no sooner give up being Mikey’s mother than I can give up breathing, even though Mikey is no longer here.

Sometimes, even now, I have random after-the-fact realizations, for example, that some of the accouterments that accompanied the opening of my son’s life were replicated at the end: the long daily hospital visits, the vigil, the nasal-tube feeding.  And that all eight words Michael had mastered by the early summer of 1993 were gone by the time autumn came. And that in the large photograph in the pool that still hangs in the living room, our daughter is strangely bathed in sunlight and Michael is in shadow, as if doom were beginning to encroach.

Bob and I are growing old, but the boy who will always be our son has been frozen in time, in our memory and our home, forever a smiling, laughing toddler. We’ve moved several times since then, and we’ve always rehung our photos of him, and his red and blue finger painting that we’d framed like a work of art.  We always put his last pair of shoes in their proper place atop the bureau in our bedroom. Navy Stride Rite sneakers with green laces, well worn, with dirt-caked soles.

Fran Dorf is a psychotherapist and author of three novels, A Reasonable Madness (Birch Lane, 1990/Signet, 1992), Flight(Dutton, 1992/Signet, 1993), and Saving Elijah (Putnam, 2000).  Her writing has been published in anthologies, literary magazines, and online sites, such as McSweeney’s, Ars Medica, Forbes, Bottom Line, and Perigee. She’s currently working on a memoir, from which this essay is adapted. She writes an advice column and blogs as THE BRUISED MUSE atwww.frandorf.com, on a variety of topics including psychology, writing, and bereavement, her therapeutic specialty.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

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22 thoughts on “Little Man”

  1. Carole GeithnerAugust 12, 2013 at 10:25 am
    What a beautiful essay, so evocative of the intensity of emotions, the love and the pain, the depth of maternal bonds, and life-long experience of loss. Thank you for sharing your story with the world, Fran.
    Reply ↓
  2. Sally RothkopfAugust 12, 2013 at 10:27 am
    Beautifully written piece, remembrance, tribute to love and loss. Thank you for sharing it with me. Sally
    Reply ↓
  3. MytwicebakedpotatoAugust 14, 2013 at 11:43 am
    My heart ached as I read your words. I understand some of the risks and unknowns when you “take on someone else’s problems” since we did this too.I can’t imagine your grief and many blessings to you and yours ;)
    Reply ↓
  4. J.JacksonAugust 14, 2013 at 5:20 pm
    The reminder that no matter how much time has past to allow healing scars over grief the pain can still remain so fresh as if it was yesterday. The hell no parent would wish on their worst enemy. Keep writing Fran.
    Reply ↓
  5. GraceAugust 15, 2013 at 3:11 pm
    Mother to my five year old son, I call the idea of losing him “unthinkable”… Rather, it’s “unknowable”– I’m deeply touched by your very moving and vivid sharing of your love for your son and your deep, and lifelong, grief. Parent is for life.
    Reply ↓
  6. Powell BergerAugust 15, 2013 at 4:22 pm
    Simply beautiful. I smiled. I cried. And I walked outside and felt the sunlight and loved my three children just a little bit more. I’m so glad you eventually removed the padlock to the written word. As your readers, we are forever better because of it.
    Reply ↓
  7. Fran DorfAugust 15, 2013 at 5:04 pm
    Thanks for your comment, J. Jackson. Yes, I’m afraid we are members of the club no one would want to belong to. I wish I had my son back, of course, but life only goes one way and we must learn the lessons our lives present. Among other things, I have learned that writing is my way of making sense of the world. And I have learned compassion for those who are in pain. And I have learned gratitude. Thanks again.
    Reply ↓
  8. SaraJaneAugust 15, 2013 at 5:27 pm
    I cried when I read this as well. I lost a child too, although a different way. I fostered (originally as a likely adoption) a newborn until a bit after her first birthday. Her birth parents made such unexpectedly wonderful progress that reunification was decided to be best. It’s been over a year since I handed her back to her mother and I know she is happy and loved but I am utterly heartbroken. She will forever be my smiling, giggly one year old baby girl. The hole is always there but I am better. Now I struggle with whether to foster/adopt again, if the desire for another child is worth that risk. Thank you for that beautiful piece.
    Reply ↓
    1. Fran DorfAugust 21, 2013 at 9:05 am
      Hi SaraJane,
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Yes, it’s a struggle to determine whether you want to make yourself vulnerable to loss again. I think with a child who’s died, it’s also a struggle to know whether you’re trying to create a “replacement” child, at least it was for me. Anyway, what you’ve described is very, very difficult. I think social service departments try to keep together the birth family if at all possible.
      Reply ↓
  9. Noelle CallahanAugust 15, 2013 at 8:36 pm
    Fran- You are a special woman. You are a special person. You are a special mom. Thank you for sharing such an intimate time in your life. I am glad to hear that you did make it and that you have helped others cope with the unimaginable. Thank you.
    Reply ↓
    1. Fran DorfAugust 21, 2013 at 9:19 am
      Thanks for that, Noelle. The “sharing” thing is an interesting one. I think all writers–memoirists, even fiction writers–struggle mightily with whether, and how much, and in what form to share. Research shows, and I teach that writing is a healing art. This goes for “expressive” writing about trauma, loss, illness, etc, as well as writing that you work and rework into literary form, like the wonderful BrainChild essays. Every time you rewrite something to put it into literary form, you distance yourself from it, and that has a healing effect too. I wrote a piece on this subject on my blog at https://frandorf.com/2013/01/22/the-healing-art-of-writing-memoir-or-fiction/
      Reply ↓
  10. SharonAugust 19, 2013 at 5:28 pm
    Thank you. My little boy would have been 16 in November. Even after all this time, I need to hear other parents’ experiences and how they got through it. After all this time, it can still feel fresh and sharp. I appreciate you sharing your heart with us.
    Reply ↓
    1. Fran DorfAugust 21, 2013 at 9:23 am
      Hi Sharon,
      I’m so sorry for your loss. Yes I think those of us who are members of the club that no one ever wants to belong to do need to hear and share. We find solidarity with each other. Honestly, it feels healing for me to sit with the bereaved and hear their stories and witness their struggle.
      My best to you,
      Fran
      Reply ↓
  11. Megan SternerAugust 19, 2013 at 8:48 pm
    I am crushed by this story, and yet it brings me joy that you pulled through, that there is hope for those who suffer the inconceivable loss of a child.
    Reply ↓

Dependency, attachment, and relationships

(Advice: “Just Ask Me”…Originally published on The Daily Muse)

Hi Fran,

I have been in individual therapy for a few years. I have been dealing with depression for four years, with a few seasons of “remission.”

I also have issues with loss and abandonment. I have also gone to group therapy and learned some tools for relating to others in a healthier way. Yet, it seems that depression sneaks up and overtakes me at times.

I pay cash for therapy, and I have had times when finances have caused me to go every two weeks, or sometimes three weeks or more between sessions. I have considered canceling therapy altogether a few times. Mostly due to finances, but also because I get so upset at the idea of not meeting for therapy that I think I am too dependent on my therapist. I have read a few articles that talk about the therapeutic relationship and unconditional positive regard, blah, blah, blah. My therapist reassures me that it is OK and that having someone hear me—someone to bear witness—is healing. I just wonder if I will ever not get teary at the idea of terminating therapy.

How long does dependency, neediness, attachment, whatever it is, last?

Truly,

Dependent

Dear Dependent,

How wonderful that you’ve allowed yourself to become attached to your therapist. Attachment (i.e., “loving”) is always a risk after loss, partly because when you love someone, you risk another loss. But aren’t our relationships and attachments what make us human, what sustain and drive us, what nurture us? In that sense, shouldn’t our relationships be long-lasting?

Your letter brings up many questions. First, you say you have “loss and abandonment issues.” You don’t say what these are, but certainly loss experienced in early childhood can be quite traumatic and can have lifetime consequences. These types of losses can interfere with the basic security needed to have confidence that others are there for us and we are there for them; that we “belong” in this world, that we are loved and can love.

A second question has to do not with your relationship with your therapist, but rather with your relationships with others in your life. You say you have been in group therapy and learned “tools to relate to others in a healthier way.” That is terrific, and I would encourage you to keep using them. In therapy, we also learn to observe our own behavior and reactions in the presence of someone who offers “unconditional positive regard,” as you say. I am amused by the “blah, blah, blah” that follows the phrase in your letter. It strikes me as a certain cynicism on your part about this very important aspect of therapy.

In real life, unconditional positive regard is very hard to come by, except perhaps with a parent. In therapy, we work out these issues in a place where the neediness and dependency created by our earlier life experiences don’t interfere with the relationship. In other words, a therapist will offer you unconditional positive regard no matter how dependent on her you are, whereas if you approach your other relationships with excessive neediness and dependency, it will interfere with the relationships. Think about that.

The hard part is moving beyond neediness and dependency on another person into relationships in which both people are mutually dependent on each other, while each knows how to cope with the reality that nothing really does last forever. As we mature, we aim to make friends, love and hold people close, enjoy what we have, and know that when and if there comes a time, we are whole enough to go on without them, too.

I would also like to comment on your therapist’s statement that it is healing just to have someone hear us and bear witness. I agree with that 150%. The Buddhists say: Compassion is willingness to be close to suffering. To simply listen to someone, to “be with” suffering, or to bear witness to it, is honestly the greatest gift we can give someone. A great deal of research has shown, and I have seen in my work with therapeutic writing, that just writing about trauma is healing, but more healing comes with having another person hear—bear witness to—what we have written.

I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t mention your depression. You don’t really say much about this, what you think its source is, or even what issues in your life it centers around, but I would encourage you to keep talking about your dependency and neediness with your therapist, as well as any other issues you have that seem related to your depression. At the same time, you might think about whether medication might help. You can discuss it with your therapist or and possibly consult a psychiatrist.

I think you’re doing fine, and quite honestly, given your loss and abandonment issues, I would be more concerned if you didn’t feel somewhat dependent on your therapist.

I wish you peace and happiness, along with many mutual, long-lasting relationships, and thanks for asking.

Fran

The Healing Art of Writing Memoir or Fiction

 

Isak Dinesen, writer

Isak Dinesen, writer

“All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story,” said Isak Dinesen, author of “Out of Africa,” and “Babette’s Feast.” This quote beautifully puts into words why I went to the Westport Writer’s Workshop last Saturday to teach a class called “The Healing Art of Writing.”  My goal? To help people who’ve experienced grief, loss, illness, abuse, violence, addiction, or other trauma try to turn those difficult emotional experiences into compelling fiction or memoir.  I decided to teach the class partly because I know that to do this is healing, since I drew upon my own traumatic experiences to create both a novel and now a memoir. I also journaled obsessively before conceiving my novel, “Saving Elijah,” and used pieces of that journal in writing the book, so I know from experience that expressive writing is healing.  But I’m also convinced that the discipline of creating a narrative or “story” out of the chaos of emotional experience is healing from the first draft to the last. I think most writers would to some extent agree.  I know Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) would.

Here a bit about why I think so, along with steps to help you see if this might be for you:

Expressive Writing Practice: Journaling

Begin by developing an expressive writing practice such as journaling, three or four times a week, for ten or more minutes a day.  Tons of research shows that just writing about trauma, loss, grief, or illness without any regard for the writing “product” has a healing effect and improves mental, emotional and physical well-being.  This is because traumatic or emotionally charged experience is stored in the right brain as all chaotic sensation with no logic or language. When you bring language or narrative to any emotional experience as you do when you write, you bring this experience, or perhaps the memory and associated emotions of the experience into the logical, analytical left brain.  This helps integrate the two and lessen emotional reactivity, a big part of healing. In doing therapy and facilitating workshops, I’ve even seen writing help to heal people who aren’t even particularly literate.

When you do expressive writing, knock the censor monkey off your shoulder, and express your feelings without thinking about the writing “product.”  Bring it up from your guts. Don’t think about grammar, form, or appropriateness.  Don’t worry that anyone will read what you’ve written. Banish all thoughts of I wouldn’t want anyone to see this, or This isn’t any good, or  My eighth grade teacher—or my mom—told me I stank as a writer. Also banish all thoughts like, Nothing I could ever write could communicate how I feel. Write as if you were going to burn it.  Don’t burn it though, since you’ll later find gems you can use to great effect when you write your memoir or fiction.

Even after you begin writing fiction or a memoir, begin each writing session with a few minutes of journaling or other form of expressive or free writing.

Expressive Writing Practice: Exercises

Take a “Write to Heal” workshop like the one I offer.  Many individuals, hospitals, and healing centers around the country are offering these now. In my workshop, I provide exercises to help people express themselves without regard for the writing “product,” or how a reader might react, who might read it, or who might or might not be interested in reading it.  Although sometimes write-to-heal writers produce beautiful writing, I facilitate these exercises primarily for their therapeutic value.  I take the therapist’s “stance” in this setting. I empathetically accept and embrace whatever is produced., there is no literary criticism, and I make no attempt to teach the “craft” of writing, let alone the art. Sharing is optional of course, but there is also some therapeutic value to being “witnessed” and to “witnessing.”

Also, do the exercises on this website, or the exercises in books like Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones,” Bonnie Goldberg’s “Room to Write,” or Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way.” Again, make this a practice, several times a week.

Blogging: Is this expressive writing?

Nowadays many people blog episodically about their feelings and experiences around personal trauma, loss, or illness.  Blogging can of course be healing too, in the sense that all writing can be healing. However, I suspect most bloggers do at least some selecting and revising before they publish, and so blogging isn’t true expressive writing in which no attention is given to the product.  I hope so, because some blogs of this sort gain huge readerships.  Readers actually read ONLY because they feel moved, entertained, instructed, or compelled to READ ON; readers, even readers of emotional blogs, don’t take the therapist’s stance of empathy and compassion and acceptance of feelings whatever they are. (You can certainly see this in some comments.) Which means the blogger who has made no attempt to process or intellectualize experience, distance herself from it, and prepare it and herself for the reactions of others can find herself retraumatized as readers who don’t empathize with her feelings react to or criticize the writing.  I think publishing unprocessed emotional writing even in this confessional age can be VERY be psychologically risky. Oh my goodness, it was psychologically healing to give voice to my anger in my own journal after my son’s death, but publish that journal?  No way.

On the other hand, it is also true that no matter how many revisions and how much processing you do before you publish any piece of writing, readers are going to bring their biases, craziness, projections, interpretations, and misinterpretations to it.  David Sedaris put this brilliantly when he said:  “Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize that it’s just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it.  But even the “illusion” of control can be a good defense. Where would we all be without our illusions?

Write a memoir or fiction

Obviously not everyone can write a novel or a memoir, or would even want to, but the twenty women who came last Saturday to my class, each of whom has experienced trauma, illness, abuse, or loss, presented themselves as wanting to learn how to turn their experiences into stories in the literary form of fiction or memoir.  I treated them like writers.

Yes, it’s hard to speak candidly to someone who’s experienced something awful that lies at the pit of her soul and who lives and breathes this thing every day.  It’s hard to tell someone who’s gotten used to simply writing her feelings that there might be a more effective way to present them to help readers want to hear them. First of all, she’s been writing and knows how healing it feels to write, which is probably one of the reasons she’s decided she wants to bring her writing into literary form. Another is that she feels she has something important to share with others, some lesson learned, some hurdle crossed.  (Therein, of course, may lie the arc or even the plot of her story.  How DID she overcome that awful thing?)

I think some, although certainly not all writing teachers would find it hard to tell someone who, for example, is writing about the profound and devastating experience of losing a child that some of her words don’t compel the reader to turn the page, don’t communicate effectively, confuse, or even turn the reader off.  I am of course sensitive to this, but I am tough-minded too because I know that learning craft and bringing it to your writing helps you intellectualize and separate from traumatic experience in a very unique way.

I know that even if feedback at first feels hurtful or invalidating, it’s actually the opposite.   A reader or teacher who offers honest feedback actually validates your experience by showing she cares enough about it to help you express it more effectively, say by helping you learn the components of a scene, or by pointing out that you’ve “told” something rather than “shown” it.

And I know that every time you hear and tolerate criticism about what you have written about your trauma, and every time you decide (using your analytical left brain) to accept or reject that criticism, you distance yourself from the emotion of that trauma.

“Kill your babies,” Faulkner said about writers and their words, and the would-be memoir or fiction writer must learn to tolerate hearing that she must kill some of her babies. (You should pardon the pun.)

Yes, it’s a long grueling process, but…

  • We heal as we learn and apply writing “craft,” which after all is a discipline that comes out of left brain thinking.
  • We heal each time we rewrite or revise, because when we rewrite we rethink, re-remember, and re-imagine our experience, memories, even our whole life. Psychology and neuroscience have proposed many different models of memory, but one truth is: We do not remember our experiences, we only remember our last retrieval of our memory of our experiences.  As we gather our short and long term memories to write a memoir or fiction, we revise those memories to fit them into the emotional arc (or plot) we are creating.  Often this is a new vision of ourself as hero rather than victim in our own life story.
  • We heal each time we turn chaotic emotional experiences into work that fits within an accepted literary form, uses language in an evocative way, has narrative drive, and a beginning, a middle, and an end. Doing all this involves intellectual, logical left brain thinking and tamps down emotional right brain thinking.  No one wants to read about a victim, or at least not a victim all the way through.
  • We heal as we learn to self-observe, as we discipline ourselves to make the hard choices about which elements of lived experience to include or exclude, and how best to organize and express material in order to compel readers to READ ON.

“Just Ask Me” Advice #4: How to Help a Friend with cancer

Help! How Do I Help a Friend with Cancer?

Help! How Do I Help a Friend With Cancer?

Dear Fran,

A close friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer a few weeks ago. She’s had surgery and will be undergoing radiation and chemotherapy. The doctors say her prognosis looks good, but she has had to drop out of her grad school program for the semester.

We were all absolutely devastated when we heard the news, and it’s been the most difficult thing I could imagine for her and her family. She has been inconsolably depressed, crying all the time, and so angry that her life as she knows it is over. It is so not fair that this happened to such a wonderful person—and all I want to do is make her feel even a tiny bit better.

Our friends have tried everything we can think of—spending days at the hospital, crying with her, talking, bringing games, watching movies, and more. But nothing has helped—even the good news from the doctors that we got last week. I can’t even begin to imagine the pain she’s going through, so I am at a loss as to what else I could say or do that might help even a tiny bit.

How can I help her?

A Friend

Dear Friend:

I am moved by your question. It sounds as if you are a caring, concerned friend who’s doing everything possible to alleviate your friend’s suffering.

Unfortunately, there is nothing you can say or do to magically make things better or to wish her disease away. Your friend is mourning a very grave loss. Calling cancer a loss may surprise you, but a young woman being treated for breast cancer, even breast cancer she’s probably going to survive, is dealing with significant life losses, including loss of health, loss of innocence, loss of safety, (perceived) loss of sexuality, and (at least temporarily) loss of cherished dreams and ambitions.

Your friend is on a journey and needs time to process this profound life experience. All you can offer is your companionship and deepest compassion. The Buddhist definition of compassion is the nearest I’ve come to truly understanding how to handle situations like yours:

“Compassion is willingness to be close to suffering.”

Being close to her suffering means being patient with her feelings, not trying to change them. Continue to visit and when you do, encourage her to express her emotions, and always validate their legitimacy, even if they’re scary or make you feel vulnerable or uncomfortable. Don’t pretend to understand her pain; it is hers and hers alone. And when she’s opening up to you, don’t try to distract her unless she’s begging for news from the outside world or a change in topic.

Also refrain from optimistic assurances—they may come across as empty or invalidating and may further anger or depress her. Don’t, for example, try to reassure her that she can go back to school next year, or even that all will eventually go back to “normal.” Her process might take her somewhere else entirely, and her “normal” may be altered permanently, too.

All that being said, there are some ways you can help her move forward:

  1. Bring her a beautiful journal in which to record her experiences and feelings. She can keep this private, of course, but the writing process itself is wonderfully beneficial. Or direct her to a website like www.caringbridge.org, where cancer patients can write an ongoing journal, share their experiences with a community of concerned friends, and receive support.
  2. Encourage her to participate in a support group with other young women facing breast cancer or other health crises. Individual therapy with a social worker or psychologist might also help. Check out the resources in her area or community, or ask her hospital for helpful and therapeutic resources.
  3. Put together a care package of meditation tapes, green or white teas, a heating pad, aromatherapy candles, books (the young and amazing Kris Carr has a few), tissues, stationery—anything that may be comforting and relaxing to her.
  4. Bring her a book about the breast cancer experience, either a memoir or an instructional book on how to get through it. Hearing from someone else who has been through what she’s dealing with might be incredibly comforting, and help her feel that she’s not so alone.

Finally, keep doing what you’re doing. Be present and humble. Observe and reflect. Allow silence, and don’t judge. No matter how she’s dealing with this, accept her, listen to her, and love her.

Let me end with a life survival tip, which I offer in the most sincere and open way. After I lost my son, I spent years raging at the whole universe, to no avail—except to learn that the universe is 100% indifferent to what seems fair. Knowing this tidbit helped me later, when I received my own breast cancer diagnosis.

I offer this tip to help you prepare yourself for the vicissitudes of life, and to encourage you to be grateful for each moment and every day. To help you help your friend as she begins this journey. And to state a bottom-line truth that is nonnegotiable and endlessly unforgiving:

Survival Tip #1: Life is not fair.

Your friend is learning this truth, and I encourage you to learn it, too. And I wish you both good luck and good health.

Fran

Have a question for Fran? Email advice@thedailymuse.com

Surviving 9/11: A few thoughts after the anniversary

On Sunday for a while I watched the reading of the names at Ground Zero. It brought up my own recollections of that day, of course.  We lived directly on Long Island Sound at that time, and had an amazing, unique view across the water to the lower half of Manhattan Island. That day was so clear you could practically see the windows in the Towers, which rose in the distance like a number eleven on steroids.

We were building our home at the time, living in a cottage on the property.  That morning, fifteen or so men, mostly of Portuguese ethnicity, were putting on the roof shingles.  I was in the cottage watching the Today Show when they cut to the scene.  Katie Couric said, “A small plane has crashed into the World Trade Center.”  Didn’t even vaguely look like a small plane to me.  How could Katie even say that with a straight face?

In the first of many reality checks of the day, I went outside to affirm that what I was seeing on television was actually happening, or maybe vice versa.  Indeed it was real; you could see the first tower burning across the Sound, smoke rising up into the sky in a huge dark plume that already dwarfed both towers.  The fifteen Portuguese roofers were standing on the plywood up there, transfixed.  And silent, except they had a radio going, a newscast, I think–in Portuguese.  A few of them looked at me, maybe wondering if they should continue.  I didn’t know.  I went back into the house just in time to see the second Tower hit. I began to make my check-in-with-family phone calls.

When the first tower fell, I happened to be outside looking at the actual view, and it seemed like a disappearing act from that 20ish mile distance. One moment, two buildings; the next, one.

An hour or so later, our neighbor across the street came over, distraught.  His wife was working at the time in Tower 2, 84th floor, and he hadn’t heard from her. (She did manage to make her way down, though lost many of her colleagues, and this couple went to memorial services for months.).

All day long, strangers kept stopping by the house just to just stand and witness the thing from our vantage point, the plume of thick dark smoke spreading like a halo over Manhattan.

Ten years later, as I listened to all those people read the names of their dead, I couldn’t help thinking of my own loss, though it had nothing to do with 9/11. (How could I help it when James Taylor played a song I used to sing to my toddler son, You Can Close Your Eyes?) It seems to me that the reading of names stems from a deeply human, universal need to bring the dead back into the world of the living. I know I feel grateful when someone mentions my son or speaks his name. And too, I found it deeply moving to hear each person offer their personal thoughts, prayers, and feelings, which seemed mostly unscripted and authentic to me. So rare nowadays. Everywhere we turn, we find ourselves inundated by so much that is packaged and canned that it seems we have been unalterably changed as a people, possibly unable to identify what should be obviously false. Maybe Katie Couric unquestioningly repeating what she had been told, that a small plane had hit the tower, was some kind of watershed 1984 moment.

In the aftermath of all this, the Bruised Muse would like to express a thought or two about our survival not as individuals who’ve suffered loss, but as a country. Get ready, since this is a rant.

A few days ago a report came out that the United States of America had spent 3.3 TRILLION dollars (that’s Trillion with a T) on the two main wars we’ve engaged in since 9/11. Supposedly, we went to these wars because of 9/11, the Bush Administration touting the idea that we had to be on a war footing. Yet most if not all of the ACTUAL victories against the terrorists, before and after 9/11, have been either special ops or police work.

  • Whatever the reason the Bush Administration wanted the Iraq war–maybe Rumsfeld wanted to test his new war toys or theory, or Bush the younger wanted revenge–it should be clear now to anyone with any critical thinking skills at all that the war was scandalously, monumentally unnecessary. It amazes me that all these years later, no one has been called to pay for the lies they told to convince the country to support that total bait and switch operation.  Worse, that Administration was so effective in telling their lies that many American citizens, voting citizens, apparently STILL believe there was some relationship between Al Queada and Saddam Hussein. The only problem with democracy is that anyone can vote.  Which of course is also its main strength. Yet a huge problem now, in my view, is that our population has become so gullible as a result of ever more sophisticated packaging and canning (ie marketing/pr) that in the absence of a skeptical press (not a polarized press, but a skeptical one), Americans who can’t or won’t educate themselves can STILL vote.
  • And then there’s Afghanistan, which I supported in the beginning, although I thought they should have put more money and special ops personnel into cornering Bin Laden at Bora Bora, which they would have if they hadn’t been set on their Iraq bait and switch. But it’s TEN YEARS LATER, and I recently heard a NY TIMES reporter on NPR ((than God for NPR and the NY TIMES, what’s left of it) that things are worse than ever there. Consider the attack just today on the US embassy there.

I mention all this because, I’ll say it again, WE HAVE NOW SPENT 3.3 TRILLION. Isn’t THIS a HUGE part of the reason we’re now bankrupt?  Are we so lost that rather than speaking the truth about why we’re bankrupt, we have a group of politicians of apparently growing influence proposing (and the people BUYING) that the way out of bankruptcy is to give more money to the richest of us, cut programs that give food to babies, take the people who’ve just gotten health coverage off again, and roll back all the regulatory progress we’ve made in the last fifty years?

THIS will save the country? What country? Do they really think that unregulated corporations interested only in profit will police themselves?  Do they REALLY want to be poisoned by the water, air, food? Or maybe they LIKE the idea of seeing another Triangle Shirt Factory fire?

It’s bad enough that a miserable creature like Ann Coulter can get away with saying on national television that the she’d never seen so many enjoying their husband’s deaths as the 9/11 widows; my guess is she’d actually revel in seeing little girls jump out of windows (as long as they’re liberals jumping).

But my goodness, where are we as a country when they can call a moderate like Obama a SOCIALIST and so many believe it, share it, like it, tweet it?

And when on a nationally televised debate of so-called mainstream Republican candidates, all except one says he (or she) doesn’t believe in climate change or evolutionary science. Which of course, means non-belief in every interconnected branch of science too, from archeology to zoology?

And when on the same debate the moderator asks the leading candidate if we should let a thirty year old uninsured person die because he doesn’t have health care, and the candidate says “Yes.” AND THE AUDIENCE GOES WILD IN SUPPORT.

Well, calling Barack Obama a socialist is truly laughable, but these people are, plain and simple, extremists, and they seem to me to want the country to go back to a time when the people gathered in the town square to watch the hanging. They’re all saying they’re scared of Obama, they want their country back.  Is THIS their country? A country that cheers on the idea of letting a 30 year old die because he doesn’t have or can’t get insurance?

Honestly, we should ALL shudder at the thought of someone like Rick Perry (or Sarah Palin or Michele Bachman) as President. These people, for all their patriotic blathering, don’t even seem to believe in democracy, they seem to support some kind of fundamentalist, anti-intellectual, anti-science theocracy. I’ve been reading Eric Larsen’s book: In the Garden of the Beasts. In Hitler’s Germany, the takeover of a government and a people was gradual and insidious.  Demagogues start by subtly whipping up underlying biases and fears, and then offering easy answers that people cling to to allay those fears. And no one notices the true implication of what’s happening until until it’s too late. This should chill the blood.  Electing some of these people could easily turn us into those who attacked us.

Okay, I’m done now.

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.

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.