Around 1:30 in the afternoon, Dec. 7, 1993 – by coincidence, Pearl Harbor Day – I put my three-year-old son, Michael, down for his nap, went to my office, turned on the intercom, and began to work on my third novel. The intercom was silent, and I wrote steadily.
Around 4 p.m., mildly concerned that Mikey was sleeping too long, I went to wake him up. I found him in the midst of a silent, deadly seizure. I started to scream, my husband came running, and although we didn’t really know it then, we had arrived with our baggage at the gates of Hell. We had no choice about making the journey, but who voluntarily agrees to walk with you through Hell?
A true friend does.
Nancy had been one of my closest friends for over ten years. We had that rarest of friendships — personal, family, and couple. Our daughters were best friends; our husbands were close. We talked at length nearly every day on the phone, the way women do. We examined and rexamined small moments and big ones; supported each other whether we were troubled or cheerful; shared secrets, worries, regrets, hopes, dreams. We adored each other, had fun together. We made each other giggle, helped each other cry.
There were others who walked with my husband, Bob, and me on our journey through Hell, each in their own way, but these special friends, Nancy and her husband, Nick, did us the service and honor of listening. Every Friday night, for the next six months, they gave us dinner, and a place and a time to reflect on and speak aloud of the Hell that had become our lives.
They listened as we described the sights and sounds of Hell, and our roller coaster of hope and despair, guilt and pain. They listened as we described in gruesome detail the accoutrements of Hell: our beloved son in some unreachable, unbearable state; the arrogant doctors with all their opinions; the invasive tests and needles; the flat EKG’s; the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit with its technological paraphenalia hovering over the beds, the suck-hissing, click-clicking machines; every awful place that came after that.
They listened as we tried to make the decisions that had to be made. They listened as we slowly came to the realization that it was all going to end only in despair. Mikey was our little guy, his demise was ghastly and horrific, and they listened.
Why is it important to speak of suffering in the presence of an empathic listener? Here’s why.
Dr. Bessel Vander Kolk, a prominent researcher in the field of trauma, has pointed out that traumatic memories are primarily imprinted in the senses and emotions located principally in the right hemisphere of the brain. This is opposed to the left hemisphere, from which an individual constructs an orderly narrative of life’s events, completes tasks, and thinks logically.
Speaking about trauma helps people identify and categorize their emotions and sensory experiences, and then organize and order these experiences as narratives with beginning, middle, and end. By speaking about emotional suffering, a person begins to integrate it into a personal history, and thus move the experience more into the left brain functions, lessening emotional reactivity andor the reliving of disturbing sensory experiences.
This is why traumatized people need to tell their stories, over and over, to an empathetic listener. It takes courage, concern, stamina, and grit to be such a listener.
Nancy and Nick were among those who gave us this gift of empathic listening, and even when our son died the following June, Nancy persisted in trying to walk with me through the strange and isolated country of grief — also Hell, but different region.
Fast-forward about a year-and-a-half. I had spent most of that time shut inside my home, wandering around in my bathrobe, my husband and daughter like vague floaters in my field of vision.
Nancy was on the phone. “Hey honey, how are you doing?”
“The same, I guess,” I said.
“You won’t believe what happened,” she said, and started to talk about something in her life that had upset her, just the way she would have talked before all this began. After a few moments, she abruptly stopped.
“Oh my God,” she said. “I’m so sorry. I feel really bad telling you about this after what you’ve been through. It’s ridiculous.”
That was the moment, possibly the first since it all began, in which I was able to observe myself again as a human being in the world among other human beings.I realized in that moment that I no longer “shared” friendship with Nancy. Our friendship had become about Nancy supporting me, listening to me, holding me, witnessing my grief. But that wasn’t friendship. That was something else entirely.
And that was the moment when I realized how self-absorbed I’d been in my grief, how utterly unavailable to her, or to anyone, really — even my husband and daughter. In order to move back into the world, I had to make an effort to be in the world again. And that meant honoring other people’s experience of the world, not comparing their experience to mine. Nancy had the right to her experience, her feelings, her life, didn’t she?
I thanked my friend for being so sensitive, for having given me all anyone could have given, putting a mutual friendship on hold, having demoted her own needs to the relentless needs of my grief. I told her to tell me what had happened that upset her.
I’m sure there were many other important moments when I turned a corner, but that was the moment, I think, when I really started looking outward and forward again, when I started to see who I could be, even without my son, who I could be because I had lost my son.
I do writing workshops to help people heal from grief, trauma, and loss, one of which is called “Growing through Grief.” In grief, there is the opportunity for growth and wisdom. This is a truth that is, or should be, difficult to say to those who are in grief’s initial stages, but it is still the truth.
A wise man, a psychologist named Irvin Yalom, said: “Once an individual recognizes their role in creating their own life predicament, they realize that they and only they have the power to change the situation.”
This certainly applies to grief. When you lose a child (or anyone close), you could easily go on being bereaved forever. I believe that a bereaved person must, at a time of his or her choosing, figure out how to compartmentalize grief, and make a conscious decision to go on living. Only then can you begin to determine what “going on” means, the shape and substance of it, the who and why and how of it.
In grief we walk alone. Though others may care, we are lonely inside our grief. We face grief alone, experience it alone, master it alone. In grief we are narcissistic, self reflective, self involved, selfish. Grief is all about the self.
But in reflecting on the self, we eventually must ask: Who was I before? Who am I now? Who will I be in the future?
There is no way to answer these questions without looking outward and forward again, toward some future that we alone can make.
Fran Dorf’s acclaimed, internationally published novels include A Reasonable Madness (1990/91), Flight (1992/93), and Saving Elijah (2000), which was inspired by the tragic death of Fran’s son, Michael, in 1994. A starred “Publisher’s Weekly” review called Saving Elijah “a stunning novel that crackles with suspense, dark humor and provocative questions…and meditates with honesty and insight on the nature of parental love and responsibility.” Part ghost story, part family drama, part thriller, Saving Elijah was praised by the “Washington Post” for its “tough-minded interrogative approach to grief.” That “interrogative approach” comes in the form of a wise talking, spectral literary device who personifies all the terrible questions bereaved mothers ask themselves, and makes Saving Elijah more than anything an extended metaphor for the psychological process of grief.
Fran holds a BS in journalism and an MA in psychology. She writes poetry, essays, articles, and a screenplay or two, and conducts “write to heal” workshops that use fictional exercises and techniques, some arising out of themes developed in Saving Elijah, to help people identify, claim, give voice to, and integrate the complex, difficult emotions surrounding grief, loss, and/or trauma. In October, 2008, Fran presented a paper on the process and consequences of turning her own grief into fiction at the Wellness and Writing Connections Conference in Atlanta.
In 1999, Fran and her husband Bob established JUMPSTART, an educational program for toddlers with special needs, in memory of Michael. An experienced public speaker and active philanthropist, Fran blogs as THE BRUISED MUSE on “life, grief, and everything in between (books, film, art, writing, psychology, culture, human rights, politics, media, poetry, spirituality, etc)” at www.frandorf.com.
Fran appeared on the radio show “Healing the Grieving Heart” with Dr. Gloria & Dr. Heidi Horsley to discuss “Writing to Heal.” To hear Fran being interviewed on this show, click on the following link:grief, hope