Tagged Grief (Emotion)

Zoom Funeral Tips

How to Hold a Virtual Memorial Service

A virtual memorial offers several advantages: It’s easy for distant guests to attend, and you can record it.

Credit…Derek Abella

  • Jan. 14, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

When my 80-year-old father recently died, coronavirus restrictions meant that our family, like many others, could not safely gather for a funeral. My mother, brother and sister-in-law in New York, along with me in Berkeley, Calif., hastily organized a memorial service on Zoom.

What could have been a disaster or fodder for an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” ended up being incredibly moving. Rather than diminishing the experience or getting in the way, videoconferencing facilitated an event filled with emotion, humor and love. During a difficult time for our family — in a devastating year for the entire world — that was an unexpected blessing.

Despite our fatigue with remote work meetings, we all were struck by how well-suited it turned out to be for a memorial.

Families who are opting for video memorials are probably doing so because of pandemic restrictions limiting the number of people who can attend an indoor gathering. Since you can join a virtual event from anywhere — and with minimal planning — more people are likely to attend than if they needed to travel to an in-person event.

In our case, the immediate family was on both coasts, one grandchild was in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the rabbi, Jeff Salkin of Temple Israel West Palm Beach, a longtime friend and former student of my dad, was in Florida.

With a videoconferencing service, you can style your memorial as you like. While we did not include photos, videos or music, nothing prevents you from doing so. In addition, a virtual memorial costs much less than an in-person event, where you’d have to pay for the brick-and-mortar venue and perhaps catered food. And you can easily record the event to share and save for posterity.

A virtual memorial also might accommodate more speakers than an in-person event. Ours began with moving eulogies by Rabbi Salkin, followed by my brother and me, then morphed into an impromptu shiva, as numerous guests offered wonderful remembrances and reflections about my dad. The event lasted two and a half hours; many people remained the entire time.

My father’s was not Rabbi Salkin’s first Zoom memorial service. He was skeptical before he led a Zoom gathering after his stepmother died of Covid-19 in April.

“I feared that such funerals would be alienating,” he said. “I was wrong. Wi-Fi carries the love quite effectively. In person, you can hold people’s hands and embrace them. On Zoom, it’s more about holding people’s eyes and simply being with them, in every way that matters.”

At the beginning of lockdown, Zoom ran into security issues. As the technology writer Brian X. Chen detailed in a column in April, weak privacy protections resulted in uninvited “Zoombombers” crashing meetings in embarrassing fashion.

That happened when my kids’ school district started distance learning: A nude man entered a virtual class and used racial slurs. It was a lesson for our family to be sure our event was password protected.

Even Jonathan Leitschuh, a software engineer and security researcher who identified flaws in Zoom’s security protocols that allowed hackers to take over Mac users’ webcams in 2019, turned to Zoom to plan a funeral for his mother who died in April.

“I went in terrified about a Zoombombing,” Mr. Leitschuh said. “I’d seen the same media coverage everyone else did.” But he said: “For this use case, I wasn’t aware of a better platform.”

There are several alternatives to Zoom, including Google Meet, Skype and GoTo Meeting, which may offer enhanced security protections and come with their own inherent trade-offs.

Funeral homes are also offering livestreamed services, in conjunction with limited in-person memorials. Chris Robinson, a fourth-generation funeral director in Easley, S.C., and spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association, said his funeral home has been livestreaming services via its website, allowing anyone to attend without the need to download software or register for a videoconferencing platform.

“It’s important to go ahead and put together a virtual service,” he said, “rather than wait until the pandemic is over, because it could be a long time, and delaying indefinitely can be an ongoing trauma.”

In my family’s case, we were truly impressed by how videoconferencing, which can be so enervating in our daily work lives, enabled us to celebrate my dad’s full life in a beautiful and moving way.

If you have to arrange a memorial service on a video platform, here are some tips.

Go Pro

We purchased a one-month subscription to Zoom Pro (right now it’s $14.99 a month and you can cancel at any time). It allows for up to 100 participants (other plans allow for more, at additional cost), with unlimited meeting time, and stores a recording in the cloud. We’re glad we did. If we had had to limit the time of the event, we would have missed many moving contributions from participants.

Identify Someone to Handle Logistics

Because I created the account, I was the de facto meeting host. In hindsight I wish I had handed the role to my 17-year-old daughter, a digital native. Responsibilities include admitting people from the waiting room; muting all mics as appropriate; unmuting the officiant or other speakers; troubleshooting technical issues; providing assistance to guests; and passing messages along to family members in the chat box. Introduce the tech host at the beginning of the service, so people know whom to contact for help.

Familiarize Yourself With Platform Settings

The back end of video platforms have settings that can be tricky if you are new to them, especially if it is an emotional event. The host can go through the “toggle” switches in advance to figure out how to mute people upon entry or enable the waiting room, a security feature that keeps guests in a queue until the host admits them.

Who Will Lead?

Our virtual memorial succeeded, in part, because the rabbi wasn’t thrown off by the difficulties inexperienced Zoomers had muting themselves at the start. When the service segued into the shiva, my mother moderated — greeting people and making sure everyone who wanted to offer a remembrance had the chance to do so.

Plan a Dry Run to Anticipate Issues

Schedule one or more short practice sessions to work out kinks and make sure you’re on the same page about various roles. Some participants at our event were complete Zoom novices, fearful of missing the eulogy, and self-conscious about holding up the program as they attempted to mute as requested. We recommend offering tips to guests about logging on and off; muting and unmuting; switching screen views; and using the chat function — either along with the invitation, or on request ahead of the event. Don’t assume that everyone will be joining with up-to-date devices.

Invitations

We sent an email to notify friends and relatives of my dad’s death and of the Zoom event, including a link and password. Each of our family members compiled and distributed our own lists. You can also use Zoom to send email invitations.

You’re on TV (Sort of)

Without being obsessive, think about your on-screen appearance, makeup, lighting, camera height and angle and backdrop.

Beware of Tech Gremlins

While we were spared technical disruptions, the specter lurked in our minds. Many parts of the country experienced power outages this summer, and we’ve all had our internet connections go down or struggled with microphones and screens that freeze at just the wrong time. Although impossible to predict, be mindful of what could go wrong and how you’d handle it.

Ultimately, you want to make sure the virtual event accomplishes the same things an in-person funeral or memorial service would, honoring the life of the deceased and comforting the survivors. As it turned out, many more of my parents’ circle — friends and family in their 70s and 80s — were able to attend the funeral than would have been able to, even without Covid restrictions. Likewise, more people spoke than would have stepped to the lectern at an in-person funeral service. And the video we have is a blessing, which will enable my family to keep my father’s memory alive and hold on to vivid memories of those who so loved him.

Steven Birenbaum is senior communications officer at the California Health Care Foundation in Oakland, Calif.


Butter, Sugar and a Tablespoon of Grief

Ties

Butter, Sugar and a Tablespoon of Grief

At the darkest time of year, we bake our pain and loss into something to pass to others when it becomes too much to carry.

Credit…Lucy Jones

  • Dec. 25, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

For my mom, the weeks before Christmas exist solely for baking cookies.

She stocks up on butter all through the fall, buying pounds of it and filling her second freezer. When I was growing up in Illinois, it served as a shelf for all the Tupperwares of cookies to perch on in precarious stacks, staying fresh in the icy garage. Our pantry overflowed with bags of flour, brown sugar, pecans, chocolate chips.

Early one December morning I would hear the stereo start playing something awful — the holiday albums of Jimmy Buffett, Mannheim Steamroller — and know that it had begun. The stereo was never used at any other time in our house. I’d come downstairs, the light barely leaking through Chicago winter’s overcast dome, and find her apron-clad, dusted in flour, in a frenzy. I would use my tiny fingers to “help,” placing the Red Hot buttons on the snowmen, but mostly I got in the way. By the end of a day of baking my mom would be frazzled, exhausted, leaving me plenty of opportunities to pinch dough from the mixer, cementing my love of all things grainy, chewy, unbaked.

As I got older, I couldn’t understand this cookie madness. We weren’t little kids anymore, jonesing for sprinkles and projects. Surely she could scale back the baking. So many days of mixing and rolling and cutting and decorating, so many hundreds of cookies, arranged on plates and wrapped in layers of red and green Saran wrap, to be delivered by my dad to neighbors and friends on Christmas Eve, a day when most households are already saturated with sugar. What was even the point?

In this year of stalled time, of unending news and numbers of deaths, of hospital beds filling and conspiracy theories brewing, as December loomed I found myself desperate for something to get me through the year. My dad’s mom, Mary, my last grandparent, died during the fall after many terrifying trips in and out of the hospital with pneumonia. She never got Covid, but for months I lived in fear that she might. I tried to call her and rarely got through. During her memorial service, at a cemetery bordered by Route 17 in Dwight, Ill., her coffin took up one of the Zoom squares and the whine of trucks cut out the sound of the pastor’s David Lynch voice.

Two weeks after my grandma died, her daughter Carol died suddenly and unexpectedly at 63. Again, my family sat through a Zoom memorial service, clutching our grief through the screen. This death from afar had no paper program to fold or wooden pew to steady me or clammy hands to shake. No heady soap or perfume smells, no mothballs or bad breath. With these contactless funerals, it’s almost as if the deaths never happened. The memories can’t imprint.

Left cold by the bodiless, two-dimensional loss, I began retreating into the three-dimensional world. I inherited all of my aunt’s knitting, her gigantic collection of mohair yarns. Knitting, something I had tried and failed to learn years ago, re-entered my life as a balm when I most needed something to do with my hands. Studying the fuzzy yarn, the hand-dyed magentas and Smurf blues and chartreuses, the orange that is a dead match for two of our cats, I marveled at my aunt’s choices. I’d always thought of Carol as my favorite aunt but I suddenly saw how little I really knew her, and how much I wish I had. She mailed us all scarves she’d made for Christmas several years in a row, and I mocked them. Now I walk around the house draped in them, squeezing them, missing the very idea of closeness.

The holidays are a time of grief for many people, when losses bubble up and balk at the meager attempts we make at cheer. I’ve never gotten it before. In this, the year of no gathering, those who are long lost or suddenly missing seem to have shown up early. For the first time I understand the holidays as something I need to get through the year. I cling to the twinkle lights, the snowflakes, any semblance of sparkle.

As my state, New Mexico, locked down in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, I found myself searching the internet for butter, sugar, flour, sprinkles, fearful I might not get the quantities I needed after the latest wave of hoarding began. My mom had already finished her first 48 nutcups, a family recipe for the tiniest pecan pies, and decided to skip the kolachkys, Slovak crescent pastries with jam in the center, the kind I hated as a kid. Soon she’d be pressing green almond dough into her spritz gun with green dyed fingers and enlisting my dad to help sprinkle the wreaths.

And I, meanwhile, have abandoned my computer, my responsibilities, my bathing routine, and am scrambling from the oven to the wire rack with tray after tray of gingersnaps, crumbling piñon rosemary shortbread trees, lemon sugar cats. I am pressing my hands into dough, relishing the slap of sugar aerating butter against the side of the bowl, the papery crush of chocolate as the blade of the knife slides down it.

The thing about grief, big and small, is that it’s ordinary. We carry our losses in our bodies, they say, deep in the tissues of our hips, our shoulders, and each new loss we experience calls up all our previous losses. We can dissolve some of this grief by moving, working it out, stretching it out, talking it out, crying it out, but can’t we also roll it out on a lightly floured countertop, shape it with our hands into something small and delicate and crisp?

All these cookies and cards and gifts are also ways we hand off our pain and our loss at the darkest time of year, bake it into something to pass to others we love, share it when it becomes too much to carry. My mom’s cookies are the way she remembers her mother, the only real grieving she seems to allow herself, once a year, music blaring, oven beeping, singing “How’d you like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island?”

It is her chance to remember, a performance mimicking her mom’s, acting out her sorrow, dusting it with powdered sugar, dotting it with jam.

Like Penelope, weaving and unweaving night and day for her husband lost at sea, the only way I know to get through the year is to keep my hands moving. I’m not trying to busy it away, or ignore it, but to let myself feel it. The doing is where the feeling can happen.

When our bodies are busy our minds can rest, reflect in the repetitive motion. My need for projects is genetic. The squish of dough, the plush of wool in my hands are the best forms of solace.

I escape the dark days, snub my phone, and sink into mess, into tangibility, into texture, my glasses fogged from the oven and cellophane bags of cookies in each hand.

Jenn Shapland lives in New Mexico and is the author of “My Autobiography of Carson McCullers,” a finalist for the National Book Award.

Grief Films For Children

7 Films to Help Children Dealing With Grief

We are at a time when large numbers of children are experiencing loss. Here are seven movies to help them develop coping skills.

Lewis MacDougall plays a young boy with a sick mother in the fantasy drama “A Monster Calls.”
Lewis MacDougall plays a young boy with a sick mother in the fantasy drama “A Monster Calls.”Credit…Jose Haro/Focus Features

  • Dec. 12, 2020, 10:41 p.m. ET

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: The pandemic has plunged the world into a crisis of grief. It has caused the deaths of more than 290,000 people in the United States, many of them grandparents and parents. In New York State alone, 4,200 children lost a parent or caregiver to Covid-19 between March and July, according to a study from the United Hospital Fund. (These were the most recent figures available on parental death from Covid.)

For any family who lost a loved one this year, regardless of the cause of death, the pandemic has kept them from being able to properly mourn their loss. And now the holiday season is here, which can be a grief trigger, especially for kids.

Children who lose a parent are at higher risk for lasting mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. Supporting a grieving child involves normalizing their feelings while giving them tools to cope — talking about death, however, can sometimes feel overwhelming. Parents and children may both be reluctant to have conversations that bring up difficult emotions, but it’s important for parents to provide opportunities to acknowledge their child’s feelings.

Film can be a gift in these times. Often, a movie about death can provide just enough distance for a productive discussion. Giving children examples of others’ loss can help them feel less isolated in their own bereavement; watching a character in a film can get the child thinking about their own grief journey and the tools they might use to cope.

The following films, suitable for children ages 6 and older, offer helpful ways to explore death and the accompanying emotions, while providing parents an opening to talk about loss. Content that might be disturbing to young children is noted.

Ages 6+

Actor Anthony Gonzalez is the voice of 12-year-old Miguel in the Pixar film “Coco.”
Actor Anthony Gonzalez is the voice of 12-year-old Miguel in the Pixar film “Coco.”Credit…Disney/Pixar

Coco (2017)

109 minutes; Rated PG; available on Disney+

This colorful, Academy Award-winning Pixar film based around the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), follows 12-year-old Miguel’s journey to the Land of the Dead. While there, he unlocks family secrets and learns that the dead continue to exist in the memory of the living.

The Black Stallion (1979)

118 minutes; Rated G; available on Amazon.

After a young boy named Alec and a horse are washed up on a deserted island from a shipwreck that killed Alec’s father, the orphaned boy and the animal soon form an inseparable bond. The pair are rescued and Alec becomes determined to turn “The Black” into a racehorse with the help of a grizzled old trainer. Alec’s connection with the horse brings him solace, helping him deal with his grief for his father.

Fly Away Home (1996)

107 minutes; Rated PG; available on Amazon.

After her mother dies in a car crash, 13-year-old Amy (played by a young Anna Paquin) is sent from New Zealand to Canada to live with her father. She adopts a nest of abandoned goose eggs, and when they hatch she finds herself in charge of teaching the goslings survival skills — including how to fly south for the winter. In the process of taking on the mother role for the goslings, Amy is able to grieve for her own mother. Please note: The car crash is shown in the film’s opening sequence.

Ages 12+

Laia Artigas plays Frida, a girl recently orphaned who moves to the country to live with family.Credit…Oscilloscope

Summer 1993 (2017)

100 minutes (subtitled); available on Amazon.

After her mother’s death, 6-year-old Frida must move from Barcelona to the country to live with her aunt, uncle and younger cousin. The young girl soon struggles with grief and her place in this new family. Often presented from Frida’s viewpoint, with overheard conversations and waist-high camera angles, the film is based on the director’s personal experiences with loss.

A Monster Calls (2016)

128 minutes; Rated PG-13; available on Amazon.

Conor’s mother is gravely ill, and the 13-year-old struggles with anger, sadness, guilt and anticipatory grief. To cope with all the overwhelming emotions, Conor (Lewis MacDougall) conjures a monster who offers up three fables and then demands one from him — it must be his ultimate truth. MacDougall gives an authentic performance as a boy learning to face the truth, even though it is contradictory and complex. Please note: There is some destruction of property, physical bullying and verbal abuse.

When Marnie Was There (2014)

103 minutes; Rated PG; available on HBO Max.

In this feature from Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli, Anna is sent by her foster mother to visit relatives at the seaside for fresh air after having an asthma attack. Once there, she ventures into an abandoned mansion and discovers a new friend, Marnie, who may or may not be the ghost of her grandmother. Anna is then forced to confront feelings she has been avoiding about the loss of her family.

The Farewell (2019)

98 minutes (subtitled); Rated PG; available on Amazon.

The matriarch of a family in China is diagnosed with terminal cancer, but no one has told her. The family comes together one last time under the guise of a large wedding, but it’s really to say goodbye. The film, based on the writer and director Lula Wang’s personal story, shows profound cultural differences in attitudes about death and grieving.

Grieving for a Friend by Embracing Her Daughter

Ties

Saving a Cactus, and Its Prickly Owner

I didn’t think I’d ever get over the loss of my best friend. Then her daughter came to live with me.

Credit…Lucy Jones

  • Dec. 11, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

“Will you accept a new tenant and a puppy?” Ceece texted.

A pretty, smart blonde with a lean, athletic build and a degree in finance, Ceece was the kind of 23-year-old you might hate, since she seemed a little too blessed. Unless you knew the truth.

“Why does the dog need to come?” my husband asked.

“It’s a therapy dog,” I explained. “She got him when Barb died.”

Barb, Ceece’s mom, was my best friend. We met when I was Ceece’s age, working in the publicity department of Bantam Books.

It was the worst time of my life. My father had gone to jail, I was sick with an eating disorder and I’d just lost my mom. I was cold and angry and a liar. Most people would have given up on me. Not Barb. At 6 feet tall, she towered over my 5-foot-2 self, fixed her piercing blue eyes on my hazel ones, and told me she really wanted to be my friend, but there were certain rules I had to follow for that to happen. The main one was I had to always tell her the truth.

For almost three decades after that, while she rose in the publishing world in New York and I built a TV career in Los Angeles, we maintained a long-distance friendship based on this pledge of honesty and trust. We could and did tell each other everything, first writing epic letters, then epic emails. My husband once walked in and stared at the pages of writing on my screen and asked if I was writing a screenplay. “No,” I said. “It’s a letter to Barb.”

We ended up celebrating all our monumental milestones together. We got married the same year and joked that we had married the same man. Both our husbands shared an unflappable temperament and, weirdly, both were managers at consumer banks. We bought similar first houses: Barb’s was an adorable 19th-century farmhouse, mine an adorable 1920s Spanish style.

Then we both bought the same second house, newer and in a more kid-friendly location, when the first one turned out to be totally impractical. We both got pregnant and had a baby the same year. We both ended up having two kids, a boy and a girl, and we would both tell you we couldn’t have survived the dark days when they were little without our amazing “Super Dad” men. Whatever it was we were going through, we were there for each other, and it helped that so often we were going through the same things. But if I had to name the greatest thing Barb gave me, it was that she believed in me, even when I couldn’t believe in myself.

Then one day she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given three months to a year to live. When she made it past one year, I thought we were home free. Until suddenly, she was gone. For months after, I’d wake up in the middle of the night sobbing. I’d lost my oar and my rudder, the person who had taught me unconditional love.

In February 2019, my daughter was in college, my son had just moved out, and I was mere days into my new life as an empty-nester when Ceece texted. She’d gotten a job offer in Los Angeles. Could she stay with us? Of course I said yes.

Weeks later, after she’d spent $1,500 to ship her car, all her stuff and a giant 10-foot cactus out West, she arrived to find out the position she’d been offered was not guaranteed. The woman who hired her said her boss wanted two candidates to choose from.

“What if I don’t get the job?” she asked me, her eyes blinking back terror.

If I told you she didn’t get the job, the cactus arrived brown and droopy and the groomer found a lump under her dog’s fur, maybe you’d think I was being dramatic. But that’s what happened.

“It’s not cancer,” I said, waving the idea away with my hand.

“Actually, the vet said it could be cancer,” she told me. “He’s going to take it off.”

Ceece seemed cold and angry, shutting me out. It wasn’t lost on me that I was the same way at her age after l’d lost my mother, and that her mother was the one who had saved me. It was also a lot of pressure. I worried she was not OK, but I didn’t know how to help.

Ceece sent out resumes, watered her cactus and took her dog in for surgery. Sometimes she didn’t come out of her room all day.

Then came the time we went for a walk around Lake Hollywood. It was a perfect Los Angeles day, after the rain, crisp air, a turquoise blue sky. Suddenly the Hollywood sign came into view.

“The first time your mom came to L.A., I took her to see the sign,” I told her. “You know how she was. Loved celebrities. Called them ‘stars.’”

“She was a great person,” I said. “She changed my life.”

At first Ceece rolled her eyes. Then she asked me to tell her about her mom. So I did. After that day we explored the city together. We went to the farmers’ market, the county museum, Home Goods to shop for throw pillows. I learned she really loved plants, purses and quesadillas. Sometimes, we laughed really hard. Sometimes, we cried. As it turned out, I didn’t need to save her after all. She just needed a friend. So did I, since I’d lost the best one I’d ever had.

The production company ended up not liking the candidate they hired and asked Ceece if she was still open to the job. When she moved across town to her own apartment six months later, I was heartbroken. But I knew how to handle it. After all, her mother had taught me how to have a long-distance friendship. And both the dog and the cactus lived.

Gayle Abrams is a television writer and producer.

Not the Widow, Just the Ex-Wife

Ties

Not the Widow, Just the Ex-Wife

Can grief for loss be rekindled by final loss? Or is it grieving for the end of possibility, to revisit the decision and to ask him, “Did you ever regret leaving?”

Credit…Lucy Jones

By

  • Dec. 4, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

My middle-aged son, Nick, calls from his car to tell me he’s racing up the 405 from his office in Los Angeles to a hospital in Ventura, to be with his father, who is on life support. The staff at his assisted living facility couldn’t find the “do not resuscitate” document allowing him to die from the heart attack that had deprived his brain of oxygen for 30 minutes. Nick’s been on the phone with the E.R. doctor, urging him to remove the breathing tube his father never wanted. They remove it.

Although I haven’t lived with Eckart for 30 years, I’ve been his second health advocate for more than a year, ostensibly to help Nick, who lives 90 miles away, and also for reasons I haven’t wanted to look at. I hesitated before asking, “Do you want me to meet you there?”

When we enter the E.R., Nick goes quickly to his father, touches his hair and his warm cheek and puts his hands on Eckart’s chest under the blanket. I won’t know Nick held his hands until later when he tells me that he wanted to feel their strength one more time. Eckart had spent his last year in a wheelchair, becoming weaker each month but managing, until recently, to hide the dementia that had begun years ago.

Although I have put my hands on my euthanized animals, my fear of dead humans keeps me from touching my former husband’s face. I can only touch the blanket and say, “What a complicated fellow you were.” Our son knows the history, and I am saying it for him as well as for myself.

His father came out to me when Nick was 10 but didn’t leave until Nick was 14. Another five years would pass before our son would know why. It was the late 1980s, AIDS had exploded, adding a taboo to Eckart’s revelation that hadn’t been there before. Not only was it still secretive, it was dangerous to be a gay man when who you were could take your life.

We spent nearly an hour in the small room with Nick signing papers, a social worker kindly offering sympathy, and the young doctor who had disconnected the breathing tube, after locating the D.N.R. document, reassuring us that Eckart would have been brain-dead. A risk-taker from his childhood in Germany, he’d exited as speedily as he’d driven, first the autobahn, and then American highways. Once a strikingly handsome man, he now lay with his mouth wide open, his dentures left in his assisted-living studio apartment this one last time.

I’d introduced myself as “Nick’s mother” and sat off to the side. The social worker wanted me to know that there were bereavement support groups in the small town I lived in. But were they for former spouses? Did I qualify for support after 30 years of living apart? Can grief for loss be rekindled by final loss? Or is it grieving for the end of possibility, to revisit the decision and to ask him, “Did you ever regret leaving?”

I realized I’d always been waiting for him to say about our 20 years together, “It wasn’t nothing.”

Despite my history with this man, the hurt, the fury, and the deep doubts he’d sown when he canceled 20 years of our life together, I didn’t want to leave him there alone, to be wheeled away to a cold vault, pending more paperwork and cremation. I wanted us to sit with him, to be together as a family. I imagined that if we kept a vigil I might be able to touch his skin, then still warm, and for the first time be less afraid of death. For as his spouse, albeit former spouse, I was next in line — or so it seemed there in the all too bright light, shimmering around me.

In the following weeks, before the scattering of his ashes, the “sea burial,” as Eckart’s brother called it, and the memorial luncheon which included just six of us, I was surprised to find myself back in the album I thought I’d left behind decades ago: meeting Eckart when I was 25, a young journalist from New York on assignment in West Berlin, marrying in New York, having his child and those 20 years together before being left in midlife. He’d framed my youth and my motherhood and created some protection from my bipolar, often psychotic mother.

No longer in the foreground of each other’s lives, we remained in each other’s background for decades, never as out of touch as others who divorce. It wasn’t nothing, even in separation.

As Eckart had embraced the gay life in New York, while living with us as a family, any self-confidence I still had was chipped away — for living with a closeted gay person isn’t a recipe for feeling desirable. Keeping the secret from our son did its own kind of damage. As the years followed, when I was asked why I had never remarried or re-coupled, I would say crisply, “I’m cured,” when really I was in retreat, where no one could reach me. I was ultimately on my own, accompanied only by pets I could trust — our cat and my long line of dogs.

For too many years the animals I would rescue were stand-ins for me. It was I who needed to be rescued, except on those days when I was a grown-up some of the time. I’d recovered from years of agoraphobia following a postpartum depression, but didn’t realize that humiliating midlife dating was perfect terrain for a phobic who didn’t know how to drop the story line, didn’t know how to live in the present tense.

It’s taken too many more years to finally admit that Eckart wasn’t the cause of my solitary life after the marriage but that, just as I’d allowed my ill mother to seduce and reject me, seeing myself as a reflection in Eckart’s eyes was a learned habit — as familiar as loving the unavailable, troubled mother. I’d married the absentee parent as so many of us do. Even if I’d had no control over the end of the marriage, I had some choice in how to respond, how to prevail and even to flourish instead of retreating.

For when choice seems impossible, it is still there, squirreled away where we can’t see it but there, just the same. Or as we discover, not choosing is the choice.

Linda Gravenson is a co-editor of and contributor to “In the Fullness of Time: 32 Women on Life After 50,” and recently completed a memoir.

Coloring Your Way Through Grief

Photo

Credit Lisa Powell Braun

There is no disputing the adage that “into each life, a little rain must fall,” and the occasional need for a protective umbrella, but what do you do when the shower becomes a downpour that doesn’t seem to quit?

One shattering loss can be enough to derail a person for years, even for life. But tragedy seems to stalk some people, and it is reasonable to wonder how one goes on in the face of repeated painful losses.

Deborah S. Derman, a professional grief counselor in suburban Philadelphia, has clearly suffered more than her fair share. “The field of grief counseling sort of found me,” she said, “because I had such a long history of loss.”

She weathered her first devastating loss at age 27, when the boyfriend she had broken up with retrieved the vacuum cleaner she had borrowed, attached the vacuum’s hose to the exhaust pipe of his car and killed himself.

Fast-forward a decade: Now happily married and mother of a toddler, she was waiting at the airport for her parents to arrive when the private plane her father was piloting dropped from the sky and crashed in front of her, killing all four passengers aboard.

Four years later, while playing rugby, her husband died of a heart attack, leaving her a widow at age 39 with two young children and a third on the way. Then a few years later, she learned she had a rare form of breast cancer. “That’s when I felt I had a target on my back,” she told me. Her biggest fear, she said, was that if she died, her children would be orphans.

But she didn’t die. Instead, she managed to bring up the three children, marry again “a wonderful man” who adopted them, and earn a Ph.D., writing her dissertation on grief and attachment in young widowhood.

Dr. Derman has since been in private practice as a grief counselor, able to bring far more than professional training to the therapy she provides for those who have suffered losses. She has helped families on Staten Island who lost loved ones on 9/11, counseled breast cancer survivors, and conducted support groups for people weathering all manner of loss and grief.

She knows firsthand how important it is to say the right thing early on to someone who is hurting and vulnerable. When her former boyfriend committed suicide, “I felt like I was an accessory to his death,” she told me. Her mother helped to assuage her guilt by reassuring her that “this is not your fault.”

But when her husband died, her parents were no longer around with wise words. She recalled, “I was in so much pain, the grief felt physical. I was unable to concentrate on anything – I couldn’t read a book or hold a conversation. The only thing I could read were self-help books on loss and grief, looking for answers to how to get through the anguish I felt. I was so isolated and frustrated. No one knew what to do with me.”

She couldn’t even feel happy when two months after her husband died, she was accepted into a doctoral program in psychoeducational processes at Temple University. Advised to speak to another young widow, she was beaten down even further when the woman said, “Debby, do you know how you feel that your life is over? Well, it is,” which she said prompted her to take to her bed.

But she decided to get up and try a different approach after her sister said: “One day, Debby, this will be your past,” which made her realize that she might indeed have a future. She said she switched her field of study to grief and loss “because I never wanted another widow to feel as isolated as I did. I wanted to know how a person heals, so I can help others heal.

“Healing is a lifelong process, and elements of grief can occur at any time,” she said. “I’ve been widowed now for 24 years, but when my son got into medical school, I cried because my husband and parents weren’t there to see it. My daughter is about to graduate from college, and we will both cry because she never even knew her father. Her grief is different, but it’s not absent.”

Now Dr. Derman has produced an intriguing new tool – an adult coloring book intended to help others “get through tough times.” Called “Colors of Loss and Healing,” the book consists of 35 pages of lavish illustrations to color, each relating to a word or phrase, like “one day at a time,” “bitter and sweet” and “resilience,” meant to evoke thoughts and feelings that can help to promote healing.

Opposite each illustration, designed by Lisa Powell Braun, is a blank page with the heading “My palette … my words … my thoughts,” to prompt people to write down the feelings the words and phrases in the illustration evoke.

Dr. Derman said she had kept a journal after her husband died. “When you have to write something down, it really clarifies your thoughts and helps you know how to proceed,” she said. “In a journal, you can say whatever you want. No one else has to read it — it’s private.”

While art therapy has been used for decades to help people express what they can’t put into words, filling in the spaces of a coloring book has a different kind of benefit: enabling people to relax and be more focused. Marygrace Berberian, a clinical assistant professor in art therapy at New York University, said, “Research has shown that art making can have a profound impact on a person’s physical and psychological well-being. And coloring within an outlined structure can help to contain and organize feelings of distress and helplessness.”

In 2005, Nancy A. Curry and Tim Kasser of Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., reported in Art Therapy, Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, that coloring a mandala reduced anxiety in undergraduate students, a finding that has since been replicated and expanded. Today, there are adult coloring books to help alleviate stress and anxiety, release anger, induce calm and enhance mindfulness.

Dr. Derman’s idea for her book was prompted by a coloring book she received for her birthday last Christmas. “I colored one space, then another, and another, and realized this is how I proceeded through my life — one small step at a time. This is a good paradigm for how a person gets through loss, one day at a time. After my husband died, I didn’t think I could make it through a whole day. I looked at my watch — it said 10 a.m. — and made a deal with myself to make it to 11, then 12, then half a day.”

The book is meant to help people with losses of every kind, including illness, divorce, financial ruin, post-addiction — anything that might force people to redefine their identity.

Dr. Derman emphasized, “It’s not a recipe book. It doesn’t dictate how people should feel. We all go through grief and loss in very unique ways. One thing I’ve learned from my life and the hundreds of people I’ve counseled: Don’t try to pretend it didn’t happen and walk away fast.”

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