Jill Brooke's articles have appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, Redbook, McCall's, and Ladies' Home Journal, among other publications. A former CNN correspondent and a columnist for the New York Daily News, she is currently editor in chief of Avenue magazine, and host of the radio show on parenting What Do I Do Know?
Q: DON’T LET DEATH RUIN YOUR LIFE contains a study that shows that people who experienced a loss early in their life are three times as likely to be achievers. Why is that?
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A: Yes, in fact, all of Mt. Rushmore, 60 percent of British Prime Ministers, Michelangelo, Mark Twain, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Berlin, Shania Twain, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, Julia Roberts, Nathan Lane, Mel Brooks, Cate Blanchett and even Darwin – who realized that "life is survival of the fittest" – all had early losses. Why do they become achievers? They learn early that they are mortal and become more focused. Power becomes a way to defy a sense of weakness, right a wrong and give them the immortality their parent didn’t achieve. Of course, it’s not only for the good of man. While Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Churchill all had early losses, so did Caligula, Stalin, Hitler, Milosevic and Osama Bin Laden. Loss isn’t necessarily redemptive. As Rupert Murdoch told me, anger is a great motivator. It can work either way: for the good of man, or for the worst.
Q: But not every orphan becomes a Mark Twain or Paul McCartney.
A: There must be a dormant talent and often the loss triggers it and gives it life. As playwright Tom Stoppard told me, "My father’s loss was a defining moment in my life. And while I can write, my brother can’t write a lick. How do you explain that?" But that doesn’t mean that this burst of activity – which is a good way of coping – can’t be highly meaningful and channeled to other forms of achievement. For example, scratch the surface of any charity and you’ll discover that someone was touched by loss and had the persistence and drive to put the charity on the map. In fact, I recommend starting charities or participating in ones that are linked to your loved one as a way to find and make some good out of pain. Highly focused behavior often results in achievement whether you become an accountant or a playwright.
Q: How do you keep the memories alive?
A: Virginia Woolf, who lost her mother at thirteen said, “If it’s not documented, it didn’t happen.” After the death of a loved one, letters, photographs, and videos become immensely important. It helps tie your loved ones to you. Actress Kate Benisdale talked about how she’ll put on tapes of her father when she misses him and it will provide great comfort. But as you realize and treasure your continued connections, simultaneously, you will find yourself thinking about planting your own memories. There aren’t many pictures of Dad. Are their enough of me? Who will miss me and why? Therefore, discovering the many ways we can relate to the deceased also has the potential to help us reflect on our own mortality and focus our energies into creating lasting legacies for those who will survive us. And it makes us think about how to enjoy life more fully.
Q: In grief therapy, few therapists focus on continued connections to the deceased. You assert that these connections are important. Why?
A: For most of the twentieth century, the prevailing view of grief therapy is that it is necessary to sever ties with the deceased. Most therapists follow the model by Freud, who said that in order to heal, we must cut off ties to the deceased and form new attachments. This is flawed thinking – and even Freud changed his views at the end of his life after his grandson and namesake – and his daughter – died. Yet, his early theories have become the model and have contaminated the way we deal with loss. It is very empowering to realize that our loved ones can still be in our life while we continue without their physical presence.
Q: What do you recommend? How can we keep continued connections to our loved ones?
A: Even though we can no longer touch the face of someone we love, we can still feel their presence in our lives. I recommend five steps.
First, try to remember ways in which your loved one left an imprint on you. Review the ways your loved one influences you today. Are you good in math? Do you relish mystery novels? What phrases do you use of theirs? Our loved ones still live in our gestures, our mannerisms, our beliefs and our feelings.
The second strategy is to talk about the loved one. This is VERY important because only when you stop talking about them do they die. Tell stories and share those stories. Share your father’s wisdom, your sister’s humor. Also, ask people about their loved ones. This is what I call buried treasure. When you find out new stories about a loved one – how they did an all-nighter in college and lived on cold pizza, who they dated, their first job at work, funny experiences, it gives fresh memories to enjoy.
The third strategy is weaving your loved one’s interest into the fabric of your life whether it is gardening or painting. Following the death of J.R.R. Tolkien, his son Christopher drafted the book The Silmarillion based on his father’s life. Natalie Cole used music to connect to her father.
The fourth strategy is to have a possession of your loved one in your life, whether it’s pictures, pieces of jewelry, a painting, a favorite book or a worn cashmere sweater.
The fifth strategy is to create a special place for your loved ones during ceremonial times. For example, a pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks kept a seat at all the baseball games empty to represent his father. At family dinners, I recommend making a toast to all family members, and then mention the deceased as being part of the fabric of family life. Also, if you wonder what a loved one would do or seek advice, ask the question before you sleep. Many religions believe that our soul leaves our body at night since sleep is the closest state to death and it’s where our loved ones can communicate more easily. This is not a recipe to live in the past. Instead, it just shows how you can move on but still have the loved one in your life.
Q: How do you do this?
A: For Thanksgiving or special holidays, I’ll go around the table and ask what everyone is thankful for. I’ll make a toast to my father for bringing me a love of sports and gin games. Other times, I’ll share a tradition in Ethiopia where the elder person pours a drop of wine on the floor – at our house, we put it into another glass – to summon the spirit of those deceased and have their wisdom at our dinner table. I’ll go around the table and ask the name of a parent or loved one not there and we’ll then all drink a toast to them. This also teaches children that they are part of a greater family and that the deceased is still part of their life. Therefore, when you’re gone, you’re children won’t be afraid about talking about you. It will seem natural. This is how cultures handled death prior to World War II – as a normal part of life.
Q: How can parents use pop culture to help their children heal?
A: A great deal of our popular mythology is based on how loss – often of a parent – has been the driving force for change, growth and ultimate greatness. Think about it. Superman, Simba, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, King Arthur, Hansel and Gretel, Heidi, Tarzan, Cinderella, Madeline, Bambi, Batman, and more all lost a parent. They are but a few of the icons who were struck a heavy blow but rebounded and transcended the experience to become heroic. A hero must be different. For a child who is keenly aware of his father’s absence at school plays, who enviously watches a friend playing catch with his dad, having someone who shares his loss and finds ways to overcome it, can be tremendously empowering. Peter Fonda credits "Stuart Little" for helping him cope with his mother’s suicide and many therapists are using pop culture to open up kids to speak about dealing with loss.
Q: How has September 11 changed everything?
A: It’s made people more conscious of their mortality. And this is a good trend. Because it makes us savor every day and also look at life as two bookends. There is an end. And each of us must think of what to put between those bookends, what we want to achieve, where we want to travel, what projects we want to pursue, and most importantly how do we want to be remembered. That’s why it’s time to think of being memorable and having memorable times with our loved ones. For example, make the effort to bake homemade cakes for friends and family each year or throw an annual Halloween party and have this as your own special signature. Plan special annual trips. Take family photos. . All this becomes part of family history and gives you not only a form of immortality but the ability to enjoy life more fully so you don’t die with regrets or having a life not lived.
Q: It has been reported that there are over 15,000 orphans as a result of September 11. What will happen to them?
A: That all depends on how their surviving caretakers handle this horrible situation. It is vitally important that caretakers become their loved one’s historian. For example, Texas law partner Steve Sussman’s mother always told him how his deceased father valued good grades and this motivated him and he eventually went to Yale. In fact, Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg told me that her mother said to do well in school and still wanting to please her mother, she became very motivated which led to her eventual success because hard work became a habit that she was rewarded for and then she made it her own. Surviving parents must tell stories about the loved ones so their values, interests and hopes are imprinted on the child in positive ways. It makes the child connected to them.
Q: You say that charity work and volunteerism can be helpful tools in coping.
A: Yes. It transforms a feeling of helplessness into being helpful. It gives meaning to the loss that the loved one didn’t die in vain and is being remembered. In fact, a study in DON’T LET DEATH RUIN YOUR LIFE shows that many people get so depressed in the early throes of loss that their immune systems are weakened. Altruism boosts the immune system. When you have suffered a loss, you feel so helpless that you can’t do anything to bring the person back in their physical form. But it can be very empowering to realize that there are still things you can do to find meaning. Also, charity work can provide perspective. By helping others, you become detached from the raw pain and offer solace and understanding which gives you objectivity on the cycle of loss.
Q: How is the Internet helpful?
A: Loss is an isolating experience. It has its own ebbs and flows. Although we can derive comfort from friends and family, sometimes it helps to have someone who went through exactly your situation. The Internet is a cyber shoulder to cry on and enables people to plug into a chat room 24 hours a day. For example, many wake up in the middle of the night when no one else is there and then they can connect to someone who shares their experience. People offer tips and mostly, comfort. Pain is like a toxin that needs to be expelled in order for the person to then regroup and think about not only what they lost, but what they still have and can have. Often, people who don’t share the grief will only listen to a point. The Internet helps people talk as often as they want without fear of judgement.
Q: Later one when a parent remarries, how does that impact the children?
A: This is a tough transition. The surviving parent naturally doesn’t want to alienate the new love by keeping the deceased as a ghost in the house. Too often, the parent then shuts off any discussion of the deceased parent as though they never existed which is terribly painful and unfair to the child. But there are ways to honor the deceased and move on. I recommend that the new moving-in parent offer to buy a frame to put a picture in of the deceased parent and child. This sends a message that he/she understands and respects the relationship between child and parent. While pictures of the previous family structure can and should be in the child’s room, it is reasonable and often the case that the new family is featured in pictures elsewhere. I also recommend a ritual where the family gets together and the mother/father makes a statement at the dinner table where the new family is embraced and also making a toast that the deceased parent is still part of the child’s life. Make it safe for the child to talk about their parent. At bedtime tell the child stories about their deceased parent so the new husband/wife isn’t threatened and family peace can reign. But remember, a parent can have several husbands. A child has only one mother and father. Respect that relationship and need for the child to talk and learn about that parent.
Q: Why is it so important to create a living will?
A: More than 70 percent of the population dies without wills. It’s like we’re superstitious that if we discuss it, it will happen. Instead, change that outlook and look at it as insurance. Do an inventory of your possessions. Then earmark who gets what. There are internet sites –Nolo.com, for example – that can be immensely helpful. Look at it before hiring a lawyer so that you know what’s needed in the process. Being prepared is more than a comfort. It lets the people who you’ve left behind know that they were loved. If you ask your relatives what they want before you die, there won’t be any fighting over possessions which will keep family peace.
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