Tag Archives: grief

The Soundtrack to Healing on the Road to Recovery

(Photo by: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

After his son died of a heart condition at age 5, James G. Robinson planned a month-long road trip across America to help his family begin to heal. What they discovered was that despite all the amazing monuments and curiosities America has to offer, the best times were spent in the car as a family, enraptured by Harry Potter audio books, quintessential sing-along road trip songs, and a playlist curated for each state.

After all, part of this trip was figuring out how to be together — as a family of four (rather than five), each of us wrestling with grief in their own way.

I’d brought along a secret weapon: the complete, unabridged “Harry Potter,” read by Jim Dale, spanning 117 hours over 99 CDs.

It was probably the most useful item we brought on the entire trip. We got through the first four books, 50 hours in all (leaving another 67 for our next trip). Our older son had read them already, but as the miles flew by he was just as rapt as the rest of us. The only problem: if we stopped before a chapter ended, the boys would refuse to leave the car, begging us to turn it back on by crying “Hawwy Potttoooo!” in mock baby voices.

I’d also created some Spotify playlists to keep us company, including an assortment of energetic road songs: The Muppets’ “Moving Right Along,” Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” Waylon Jennings’ “The Dukes of Hazzard Theme,” and Johnny Cash singing “I’ve Been Everywhere.” We played this every time we set out, and by the end of the trip, we were all singing it together; yelling extra loud each time Cash mentioned a place we’d visited, too.

To ease the pain, we decided to collect stones wherever we went, inscribing each with the place and date and setting it aside in a small canvas bag. When our son’s tombstone was finally set, we’d bring the bag to the cemetery and stack them above his grave, according to Jewish tradition.

The ritual of finding stones helped us evoke his memory and acknowledge his absence. By the time we returned home, we’d collected 12 pounds of assorted rocks and pebbles, as well as a crab shell and broken sand dollar that the boys found on the beach in South Carolina.

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How We Got There from Here

Michael Stipe and Peter Buck of R.E.M., 1985. (Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Anna Armstrong | Longreads | December 2017 | 12 minutes (2,903 words)

 

“Jefferson, I think we’re lost.” — Little America, R.E.M.

The distance between Rodeo and Santa Cruz is just over 90 miles. For the most part the drive is unremarkable — urban, industrial cities and rural, unincorporated towns along the Eastshore Freeway, shaping the wasteland east of San Francisco Bay. But then the interstate gives way to Highway 17 and you begin the ascent to another world. The road is a thin, curlicue curved by the green Santa Cruz Mountains.

As a child I made this trip many times with my parents in our wood-paneled station wagon packed tightly with my five siblings and me — my gaze resting out the window, tracking the miles by the three-minute pop songs on the radio while an endless imaginary flat-panel saw tethered to my slight wrist sliced through the redwoods. Our destination? The historic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

The winding highway was a signal that we were close to the magical unworldliness of rickety wooden roller coasters, salty ocean breezes, barefoot children, bikinied girls, sun-kissed boys, a symphony of voices, crashing waves, tinny arcade bells, the smells and tastes of corn dogs and candied apples — and far, far away from the broke-down, shuttered place of stillness, silence, and late-to-bloom fondness in the rearview mirror. What separated Santa Cruz from Rodeo was not just miles but a tangible joy you could hold in your hands. Coming home sunburned, exhausted, happy — sleeping through the curves of the highway, waking abruptly in time to see the straight line to home.

June 1985. I was 17 years old and newly licensed. I was preparing to make the trek from home to Santa Cruz in my very first car, a 1972 Chevy Malibu that braved a Black Flag bumper sticker in a town that just didn’t get it. The destination? A very different type of spectacle: A rock ‘n’ roll show. The Athens, GA band R.E.M were scheduled to play the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium.

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Finally Seeing the Forest for the Trees

sshepard/Getty

Maura Kelly | Longreads | November 2017 | 15 minutes (3,727 words)

Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I never got the whole nature thing. In my middle-class town, surrounded by neatly engineered housing developments, the little “nature” I knew was unnatural. The grass of the boxy lawns, stripped of dandelions, shined a uniform pesticide green. The most memorable tree of my youth lived like a caged beast in an indoor shopping mall; Shel Silverstein would’ve wept to see it, imprisoned between the food court escalator and a fake waterfall with wishful pennies glittering on its floor. In my state, even the ocean was tainted; the beaches of the Jersey Shore were a riot of oversized umbrellas and slick men in banana hammocks blasting their boomboxes. One summer, so much trash washed up on the sand that it made headlines, hypodermic needles and all. The Garden State, so-called, but it wasn’t exactly Eden. Since I never went to summer camp, since my parents had no country hideaway, I was a kid who thought the Great Outdoors wasn’t all that great. A tree by any other name was just as boring as every other tree.

All that began to change slowly during my undergraduate years in a postcard-perfect New England town. There I began to understand how beautiful nature could be. I still didn’t want to commune with it or anything. (Camping seemed like a fantastically bad idea; why anyone would want to sleep on the cold hard ground in a place without a proper toilet was beyond me.) But the trees surrounding my campus and the mountains around my college town pleased my eye in a way that was new to me. There, in New Hampshire, I also went on the first hikes of my life. But despite my burgeoning Romantic sensibility, I saw those excursions up the mountain as little more than a chance to exercise while hanging out with friends. As for opportunities to stop and smell the pine needles, I was determined to avoid them. All I wanted was to rush to the top of Mount Cube and race back down again — fast enough to burn some calories — and I got annoyed when anyone tried to slow me down to ooh-and-ah over some dumb mushroom.

After college, I eventually arrived in that city of all cities, New York. I loved it. I couldn’t believe it had taken me so long to get there — to the center of the world, so it seemed, with all the great art museums, the great jazz places, the great movie theaters, the great performances of Shakespeare. The city helped me to notice an aspect of myself, the intellectual epicure, that I’d barely noticed before. It was a thrilling discovery. In New York, my brain was fed the richest of foods, my ambitions were fueled, my expectations for myself raised. By then, I’d lived in four other U.S. cities, and I felt sure I’d found the place that beat them all, where I’d stay forever.

The years passed and I had what I half-jokingly call “my nervous breakdown.” Half-jokingly, though it was no joke. A perfect storm of events — a break-up, a career disappointment, a professional trauma — knocked me down. I couldn’t eat or work, I could barely read or write, and I especially couldn’t sleep more than three hours a night. I couldn’t go out in public without disintegrating into tears — on the subway, in restaurants, at the gym, during a friend’s book party — triggered by the least little thing, like a long wait or a sad song. I was frequently overwhelmed by vertigo that felt as much physical as metaphysical. It felt at times as if I was slipping down some vast mountain into the abyss, unable to stop my steady descent, like a character out of some Edgar Allan Poe horror story. This went on for months and threatened never to end.

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Living in the Aftershock of Someone Else’s Earthquake

Illustration by Zoe van Dijk

Ashley Abramson | Longreads | November 2017 | 16 minutes (3,939 words)

 

Springtime, just after my parents’ divorce: My dad had moved into a musty one-bedroom set in the corner of a cluster of white, rundown apartment buildings, the exact inverse of the impractical three-story he’d bought us just two years earlier after his promotion to district manager. My mom, who shuffled between jobs frequently, had been front desking at a doctor’s office in the next town over, down the street from the Tastee Freez. Que sera, sera, we would croon, our lips painted white with soft serve, whatever will be, will be. The two of us, singing, on either side of innocence.

The day my mom got busted at a pharmacy called Drug Town, I was 9, almost 10, the same age she was when the river swallowed her twin brother. I, too, would be devoured, inhaled by a force beyond my control. But that day, I was careless, browsing the drugstore’s collection of Easter candy while my mom picked up a prescription, one of the dozens of pills she took for reasons which, to that point, had remained just outside the confines of my life. She wasn’t yet sick enough for me to notice, or maybe she was, and I just hadn’t had a reason to peer beyond my love for her into her world, a place where she could do wrong. Not until that day.

First, two police officers, then me in the drug store’s break room, surrounded by teenage employees just old enough to understand what my mom had done and distract me with knick-knacks from the toy aisle. Still, I heard it from behind the closed door: My mom’s frantic bail phone call to my dad, his irate footsteps minutes later, her excuses in shards, the word “felony.” Que sera, sera. Her life and mine, slowly and suddenly eclipsed by her pills and whatever it took to get them. Whatever will be, will be.

And what, exactly was that day, but a mirror doing its job, reflecting back what had been true all along? On the surface, my mom, being accused again by my dad or someone more powerful than him. Below that, someone who had clearly done something wrong — broken the law — to get the thing she wanted. Another layer beneath that one: A woman who had been betrayed by her body. And at the core, the pain, always radiating, penetrating through, convincing us all that whatever she did wrong was just a glitch, as if her suffering had taken the wrong shape.

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When Life Imitates Country Music

CIRCA 1970: Photo of Gary Stewart Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

David Ramsey‘s essay in the fall issue of Oxford American is partly about honky-tonk singer Gary Stewart; partly about the loss of his wife’s father, Mr. Chuck; and entirely about the power of music to bridge cultural divides, to console, to memorialize, to provoke. As an essay, it’s thoroughly lovely, and thoroughly satisfying.

If you’re not familiar with Gary Stewart, it’s probably because he’s been dead since 2003, and had a patchy career for almost 20 years before that. He sang about hard living, and his life imitated his art:

Then, like a country song, all manner of things went wrong. Stewart had designs on a more anarchic Southern rock sound, and stodgy RCA didn’t quite know what to do with him (the head honchos kept complaining that he wasn’t enunciating). His consumption of uppers, Quaaludes, and prescription painkillers became even more prodigious, and bleaker. He was hospitalized for overdoses at least three times. After a few ill-conceived duds in the early 1980s, RCA dropped him in 1983.

By 1987, according to the writer Jimmy McDonough, who tracked him down and wrote the definitive profile of Stewart for the Village Voice, the singer was holed up in a small trailer with the windows painted black, rarely leaving unless it was to score drugs. “When not comatose, Stewart was living on 19-cent two-liter bottles of Dr. Chek Cola, ‘Ree-see’ Peanut Butter Cups, and amphetamine,” McDonough later recounted. Stewart agreed to be interviewed only if McDonough brought him an obscure 45 by Wild Bill Emerson. The demand was intended to be a wild goose chase, but McDonough managed to find it, earning an audience.

“I stay away when I can’t do anybody any good,” Stewart told McDonough. Then he threw a knife into the wall.

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The Teenage Dreamland of ‘Twin Peaks’

A.N. Devers | Longreads | May 2017| 9 minutes (2,206words)

When the first episode of Twin Peaks aired, I didn’t see it. It was the spring of 1990 and I was in shock. My grandfather and grandmother had just died unexpectedly of different causes less than twenty-four hours apart, on April 1st and 2nd, respectively. I was 12 years old and felt as if I was in a fever dream. Their deaths were ghastly and remarkable and strange and heart wrenching and I felt like for two weeks my body had left the earth, a pre-teen balloon, floating above their home of Ft. Worth, Texas watching streams of mourners as they arrived with potato salad and Ricky’s BBQ and chocolate cake.
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Moved by Kim

Seth Davis Branitz | Longreads | March, 2017 | 16 minutes (4,085 words)

 

My parents had said it aloud many times, and I had shushed them.

I was guilty of sometimes thinking it.

“Just kill yourself, or get killed quickly, and end all the mayhem.”

My older brother had been barely surviving on a destructive path for so long that sometimes I wished he would just finish it off already.

Really. It just sometimes seemed the easier way for him, and for all of us.

I had no idea how much worse his death would actually make things—how alone his death would leave me, as it hastened the additional deaths that would leave me the only remaining member of my family. Read more…

A Conversation With Ariel Levy About Writing a Memoir That Avoids ‘Invoking Emotional Tropes’

Photo Credit: David Klagsbrun

Jessica Gross | Longreads | March 2017 | 17 minutes (4,391 words)

 

When she was 22 and an assistant at New York Magazine, Ariel Levy, hungry for success and action, went to a nightclub for obese women and reported her first story. New York published the resulting piece with what Levy, two decades later, claims is still the best headline she’s had: “WOMEN’S LB.” Levy worked for New York until 2008, when she was hired as a staff writer at The New Yorker. There, she has focused largely on gender and sexuality: she’s profiled comedian Ali Wong, long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, boxer Claressa Shields, and Nora Ephron. She has traveled to Jerusalem with Mike Huckabee, to Italy to report on Silvio Berlusconi, to South Africa to report on runner Caster Semenya.

And she has traveled to Mongolia. In 2012—38 years old, married and in love, and five months pregnant—Levy got on a plane for what she felt would be her last big trip for a long time. But, while there, a pain in her abdomen grew and grew until, in the middle of dinner at a Japanese restaurant, she had to rush back to her hotel room before the food came. On the floor of her hotel bathroom, an “unholy storm” moved through her body, and she gave birth to her son. Less than twenty minutes later, he died.

Levy recounted this experience in her first piece of personal writing, the essay “Thanksgiving in Mongolia.” Her new memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, tells the broader story of her gradual realization, through trauma and loss—including divorce from her wife, who struggled with alcoholism—that our options are limited by nature.

Having read your work and knowing how adventurous you are, I was surprised to read about how fearful you become before you travel. I’m the type of person who, when I feel very fearful, often heeds that and runs away. You seem to do the opposite—diving headfirst into fear. What’s that about?

That’s just how I’ve always done it. I mean, you’re absolutely right.

If you’re an only child, you only ever talk to grown-ups; it makes you a very weird kid. So when I was a kid learning how to talk to other people my own age, I do think my initial problem was that I’d be really scared, and I’d come on so strong. People were like, “Who is that aggressive, terrifying child?” I was just overcompensating for fear.

That’s definitely how I deal. I hope I’ve gotten less weird socially, but if a story scares me, if a job scares me, I’m definitely going to dive in. I just didn’t like the idea of living a terrified life, you know? I didn’t want to go down that way. Read more…

A Conversation in the Margins

notes scribbled in the margins
"Marginalia" photo by Shelley.

What they don’t tell you about death—or what you don’t really understand until it happens close to you—is how permanent it is. In the months afterward I kept thinking to myself, all right, I get it. This is too painful. Let’s just take a little break from the loss. Let’s have a weekend off. A day. Or an hour. Just one hour when it’s not true, when she is allowed to speak to me, or to rub an absent-minded hand through my hair. But the wall is high and fissureless. There are no breaks, no time-outs. The loss is final, and the you that you were with her is nowhere, gone.

– Blair Hurley, writing in LitHub, reflects on the loss of her mother, and how she found a path through grief by revisiting the opinions and notes scrawled in the margins of her mother’s books.

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Modern Grief: Digital Ephemera and Coping with Loss

Photo by Dewet CCBY

At The Walrus, Nancy Westaway finds comfort in the digital footprints left behind by her husband Jonathan, who died of esophageal cancer at the age of 50.

But I know I am trying to do the impossible: to reanimate the love of my life word-by-word, tweet-by-tweet, text-by-text.

At first I was uncomfortable with the online grieving. When people clicked “like” on Jon’s obit after it was posted to Facebook, it felt remote and impersonal as if someone was taking something that belonged to the kids and me. But digital death notices and online goodbyes are part of modern love. When I saw the names of people I had never met posting their condolences on a friend’s page, I understood it. When I die, I want my friends to be comforted too.

After he died, Jon’s online presence grew and then faded into the ether. Now, when I Google his name late at night, I see he has slipped further and further down in the search results.

Sometimes I forward emails from Jon’s account to mine to keep track of something important. And even though I know I’ve just sent myself an email from his account, my heart still leaps when I see his name appear in my inbox.

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