I denied my grief for 15 years. My brother, Christian, had disappeared in Africa while traveling alone in 2003. But he wasn’t dead. He was still alive, just having problems that meant he couldn’t or didn’t want to return home. That’s what I told myself.
Part of me knew, though, that he was dead. But those hulking great feelings of panic, terror and abandonment would only surface on anniversaries and birthdays. Then I’d bury them and concentrate on life again. I didn’t know what to do with these feelings. I couldn’t label them as “grief,” because we had no news to say he was dead. But now I can see I was grieving. Of course I was. I’d been abandoned by my soulmate, whether he was dead or not.
The label for this type of grief would be “anticipatory grief,” but when you’re in the throes of searching for a missing person it feels disloyal to accept grief. I had also invested too much of myself and my time in trying to find him, via social media and media exposure, to stop and admit it was a wild goose chase. I was determined to find him. I had not been abandoned by him, and I certainly wasn’t going to abandon him.
But that’s what I was feeling. Abandoned. Left behind. Lost without direction. Yet years later, in 2018, when I did finally accept that Christian was dead, I had no feelings of abandonment. Why? Well, he’d been drugged and drowned all those years ago — he’d never meant to abandon me, or anyone — and, although he is no longer in the physical world (and his body has never been retrieved), he and I have a closer relationship now than ever before.
It’s a leap for most people because of the cultural norms we hold about death being the end of life. The end of the relationship. Grief, I believe, has its roots in abandonment. If you think you’ve been abandoned, you feel lonely, angry, distrustful and fearful. Depending on how your loved one died, and the relationship you had with them, you might also feel anger, guilt, shame or any number of other emotions towards yourself, them or others.
Abandonment is something no one wants to deal with, so when death affects us (and no one is immune), we label it “grief.” Grief is commonly understood — it’s expected when someone dies. There are stages of grief; there are books written about it. But what if grief is actually one thought: “I’ve been abandoned”?
We’ve all been abandoned at some point in our lives, and it’s painful. The first time I lost Christian was when he left for boarding school; my trust in him, and everything, shattered. Loss affects us emotionally, socially, financially and mentally — the death of a loved one is no different.
“Why have you left me behind?”
“What am I supposed to do without you?”
Common thoughts; well, they were my thoughts anyway. But the reality of death, in our experience, is that Christian didn’t, and hasn’t, abandoned me at all. He’s still perfectly alive, just in another room.
To get a full connection, like Christian and I have, I realized we needed to clear the “gunk” between us, which means releasing the fearful feelings between us — the anger, the mistrust, the shame, the hurt. Death brings these unhealed wounds to the surface, even in the best of relationships.
Through mediumship sessions, we’ve been working through our sibling relationship for almost a year — understanding and forgiving each other — when he was still physically missing in Africa. He’d repeatedly told me he was so changed, after being in Africa for 15 years, and that it would be a shock for us all on his return. He wanted to know that he could trust me, that I would protect him and look after him. That I would still love him whatever had happened. As I told him I loved him whatever he’d done and whatever he was now, I felt the unconditional love passed between us.
With clarity gained, Christian’s been free to move into the Light. This might have felt like another layer of abandonment, but because there was/is unconditional love between us, Christian went from being my brother to being my soul-brother — a wiser, all-knowing, ageless and eternal presence in my heart. He’s still my brother in the way we speak with each other, in the way he’s with me and the way he interacts with others.
At this point, if you are grieving and can’t seem to move on, ask yourself, “Do I feel abandoned?” If the answer’s ‘Yes’, you may just have your key to healing…
A joyous New Orleans-style Second Line parade to honor the roughly 1,000 homeless people who have died in Los Angeles County this year turned to anger on Friday, as skid row mourners stopped at City Hall to denounce elected officials for not halting the growing death toll.
Dozens of skid row residents and advocates, all decked out in Mardi Gras beads and flying black, gold and purple balloons, chanted: “Three a day! Too many!” They waved their fists at the windows of City Hall, where a homeless man in his 50s was found dead Tuesday night.
The parade and angry demonstration were part of National Homeless Persons Memorial Day, marked in dozens of cities.
L.A.’s day of mourning began soberly at the James Wood Community Center with prayers, songs and the traditional recitation of the names of all people who died at skid row missions and programs. Later, advocates planned to release candles at Echo Park Lake, where dozens of people have been living and dying in tents over the past year.
The Los Angeles County Public Health found in October that deaths among homeless people have increased each year, from 536 in 2013 to 1,047 in 2018. The tally so far this year is 963, they said.
Pete White of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, the parade organizer, accused City Atty. Mike Feuer of hypocrisy for expressing sadness over the homeless man who died outside City Hall, the same week the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a landmark homelessness case that curbs police powers to clear homeless encampments when there aren’t enough shelter beds available.
Feuer announced the man’s death at a press conference on Wednesday morning.
“He was someone’s son. He might’ve been somebody’s dad or somebody’s brother,” Feuer said. “I don’t know. But I do know that he died alone, and if there is any truth to statistics, he is not alone.”
The first parade to mark National Homeless Persons Memorial Day took off at noon Friday from San Julian Park, accompanied by drums, a trumpet, a keyboard, bicycles festooned with beads and Christmas garlands, and a giant banner that included photos of skid row residents who had died. It was labeled “Death by neglect” and contained a dot map of every homeless death site in Los Angeles County in the past year.
Several singers led the crowd in “Wade in the Water” and other civil rights anthems. Stephanie Arnold Williams, a longtime skid row advocate, sped around the crowd in red sequined skates, live streaming the parade on Facebook from a solar-powered tablet strapped to her back.
“When death comes to the doorstep of City Hall, you know we must respond,” White said. “We are going to set up shrines to show our people didn’t die in vain.”
Several of the dead were remembered by name, including Rodney Evans, who died on skid row waiting to get housing.
The parade eventually returned to the skid row corner where Dwayne Fields, a longtime skid row street musician, was killed in August when his tent was set on fire in what authorities said was an intentional act.
Jonathan Early, 38, who also was homeless, has been charged in Fields’ death. The death — and that of his partner, Valarie Wertlow, a month later — underscores the stakes in the epidemic of homeless deaths.
“Fields was a Jimi Hendrix impersonator in Las Vegas, and he was a better guitarist than Jimi Hendrix,” Anderson said. “It’s like genius is being snuffed out. This is all of our fight.”
In grief, things that don’t normally bug you can bring on strong feelings – anger, resentment, jealousy. And sometimes you feel guilt that you should have done more, spent more time with him or her, or just said ‘I love you’ one more time.
Most of us think of grief occurring after a death. But anticipatory grief, or pre-bereavement, the painful emotions we feel before death, is experienced by many people facing the impending loss of a loved one or their own death. But as this experience is spoken about less often, some find it difficult to express the deep pain they are feeling and fail to receive the support they need.
Claudia Tanner spoke to Max Cassily, a 28-year-old area manager at Aldi, from Canterbury, Kent, about how he and his family dealt with his mother Nanda’s terminal illness at 54.
My dear mum was diagnosed with sarcoma, a cancer of the bone and soft tissue, in 2017. She’d shrugged her symptoms off as back pain.
She’d had cancer – of the breast – two years earlier and we thought we’d been through it all and it was over, she’d beaten it.
But this time around, the doctors told us straight: it was incurable. Our lovely, kind mother was going to die. They said she had three months left.
I remember just after we were told the bad news, all four of us – myself, mum, my dad Steve and my sister Ruby who is two years younger than me – all hugging and crying as we sat on a hospital bed.
They say there’s five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Perhaps because we had dealt with my mum having cancer before and we had already felt all the anger and sadness, we were able to move more quickly to the acceptance stage. It was dad who said to us something along the lines of “We have got to do this, and accept this is happening.”
We knew we had to embrace this, talk about it, plan for it, cry about it.
I remember leaving the hospital, and the daughter of a woman with Alzheimer’s who was in the bed next to my mum hugged us and said she had loved sitting and listening to our conversations.
Open attitude about death
Last time it was all about staying positive and helping mum pull through. We knew this time, that approach wouldn’t help at all. It was a difficult decision to stop “fighting” her illness, but this was part of the process of accepting what was happening.
You may feel angry, mum was too young to go. It wasn’t fair. But you are so sharply aware of the fact there is little time to waste. Mum was going to die and we didn’t have long. We wanted to cherish the precious time we had left with her and make the most of it. Mum lived 180 miles away from me in Eastbourne, so I arranged with my employers to allow me my two days off a week to be taken together so I could spend quality time with her.
We took a really open attitude to talking about death and making practical arrangements. We announced on Facebook and other methods to everyone who knew Nand, as she was know , that she didn’t have long left and invited people to come visit our house week in, week out.
Mum had been a drama teacher who had spent half her time in Cyprus. People from all over, some she hadn’t seen for years, were grateful for the chance to say goodbye. They would apologise for breaking down, and we’d assure them it was okay. It’s only human to get upset.
We talked with mum about what funeral arrangements she wanted. She wanted to be cremated. She loved pink and was known as “The Pink Lady” due to her hair colour. She wanted a pink casket and a pink hearse. We were able to find the first but not the latter – there mustn’t be the demand for them!
She didn’t wan’t the flowers to go to waste and be cremated with her. She requested that everyone take a single stem home with them to enjoy.
Video camera to cherish memories
We had set up a video camera to record our chats with Mum. This helped with the practical side of remembering her wishes. It also allowed us to cherish the memories she shared.
There were plenty of tears, sad ones and happy ones. It was difficult watching her break down and grieve her own death.
But there were positives. It was a time to learn more about my mum’s past. I knew dad didn’t have a great memory so I wanted to take the chance to ask her all about her childhood and upbringing.
Mum was 26 when she met dad and he was just 18. It was unusual in those days, and she was the one who dealt with the more adult things – she was the breadwinner who got them their first house.
At one point, she looked deep in thought and she turned to me and my sister and she said, “You are all okay, you’re all happy aren’t you?” She knew Ruby had her boyfriend and child. She told me I was going to marry my girlfriend Nina. To be honest, I hadn’t even thought of marriage at that point. But mum, you were right, Nina and I tied the knot earlier this year.
‘Talk about everything. It won’t change the fact that someone you love is about to die; but I promise you, it will certainly help’
We had lots of trips out, coffees and lunches, until mum got too tired and wanted to stay indoors. The last month was hard watching her struggle for breath.
On 27 February 2018, mum was rushed to A&E. She passed away while I was travelling in a desperate rush to get there on time. I remember balling my eyes out while driving, and not wanting to stop as I wanted to get to the rest of my family as quickly as possible.
I’d never seen a dead body before. I found it really helped to see Mum’s. She looked so peaceful and not in any pain, in stark contrast to the last few months.
Over 250 people attended her funeral. We live streamed in on Facebook and thousands watched it from 21 different countries.
I found it so comforting to watch back the videos of Mum in the months after her death. I got to see her laughing at jokes, crying at the situation, chatting about her first house that she bought 30 odd years ago. Just seeing how she was in her normal, every day life was lovely.
I started a blog about grieving to help other people deal with loss, which can be found here. It can be so easy to go into denial and not face difficult emotions when someone you love is dying. If I can help one person going through the same, that would be great.
Talk about everything. It won’t change the fact that someone you love is about to die, but I promise you, it will certainly help. I had felt I had to be “the strong one” to help everyone else out. So when someone asked how I was, I’d say “Yep, I’m fine”, when really I wasn’t. So I called a men’s mental health line. It helped to speak to someone I didn’t know.
Pre-grieving is an absolute emotional rollercoaster. At times you’re going to be frustrated, sad, angry and even happy, and that’s fine.
Max’s tips when facing a loved one’s death
Max’s blog outlines several pieces of advice:
Talk – if you don’t feel comfortable sharing with someone close speak to a professional. It’s okay not to be okay.
Capture you loved one on video – not only does it encourage you to talk through things, it also means you have memories on record and it can be a comfort to watch your loved one when they are gone.
Look after yourself – you cannot expect to look after and support your loved one if you don’t look after yourself.
Encourage people to say their goodbyes – it’s a chance to reminisce about old times and just generally have a laugh and forget about death.
Plan the funeral with your loved one – you’ll find comfort in knowing you’re following their wishes.
Embrace normality- try and do normal things as much as possible. Go for coffees, shopping, a meal, have friends over, watch TV, get a takeaway, and so on. A loved one with cancer is still a loved one, so, when possible, treat them the same and do the stuff you always used to do together.
Yesterday I made love to my home. I reclaimed her as my sanctuary. I got down on my hands and knees and actually reached under furniture, damp dusted the underside of things where the dog hair clung, carefully rewound the Christmas tree lights, dragged the tree outside, vacuumed the pine needles from under the carpet, and put the gasping poinsettias outside to “go to sleep.”
There are two significant aspects of this; one is that I normally mutter and spit through a perfunctory swiping of the floor—gathering the tumbleweeds of pet hair, and not quite reaching the corners. I usually make a joke that the maid will get the rest—but I am she…and well, you just can’t get good help these days. The second is that I am putting my home in order after the first Christmas and New Year since my beloved husband George’s death, last February.
Three weeks ago I was ready to bolt. I was going to take my sons to a beach somewhere and let the holiday roll right on past. It was my younger son who stopped me in my tracks. He said, “I don’t know why you have a problem with Christmas. Last year wasn’t our best Christmas, for sure, but this is our home and this is where we should be.” In those words and in his wise young eyes was the absolute spirit of George. It is just what he would have said. I hugged him in relief for his clarity and the three of us chose to celebrate the season by having a holiday much more joyful and healing than sad.
On Christmas Eve a year ago I knew that George was going to die. On Christmas Day at 11:00PM a 20lb turkey, stuffing and vegetables were dumped into a green garbage bag—no one could eat. At 3:00AM the day after Boxing Day, my older son, Nick, helped me maneuver George into the car, and I drove my husband to the hospital, where he stayed the week.
He wanted so much to be home for New Year’s that he was released that afternoon. We no sooner got home than we realized it was a mistake. As the clock ticked toward midnight, New Year’s Eve, George and I sat in the emergency room; George in a wheelchair, silent and still, enduring God knows what kind of pain, and me breathing and praying.
Our two sons, aged twenty and seventeen, were out at celebrations. I wouldn’t call them until after midnight to tell them I had brought their dad back to the hospital. They had been so relieved when he had been allowed to come home just that afternoon.
But wait, that isn’t the point of this story.
That part is the Little Drama as opposed to the Big Picture, as I havecome to view Life over the past several years. My good friend calls it the “Epic Story.” Like the Iliad. The one that is truly our path to God, which in my view is manifest in self-actualization, the path of love seeking love.
It is the divine blueprint of All That We Can Be. That path leads us right through the minefield of the small self with all its fears and rages, and life and death dramas, to our Greater Self—the poet, teacher or leader who resides in the heart of God or divine creation.
Here there is no death. Or rather death has no “sting.” There is only love—in its many and glorious forms. As we are birthed into this world, live and sooner or later die out of this world, we can be carried through our darkest nights on the grace of this knowing, or be badly bruised on the harshness of a “real” and physical world.
It actually becomes a conscious choice over which only we have control. I cannot trivialize the illness and death of my husband, the father of my sons, my business partner, mentor, lover, and soul mate. “George and Marilyn” was a phrase. For twenty-seven years we worked together, played together, had lunch together, shopped together, and on the way home in separate cars chatted on our cells to one another. We always had something to talk about. We rarely argued. We loved one another deeply and always wanted what was best for the other. We were only ever apart three or four times in more than a quarter century.
Was I afraid? Yes, I was terrified. I look back and realize I had bargained with God and offered to endure years of a million daily fears in exchange for the One Big One.
Was I sad? Yes, many nights I lay on our bedroom floor and wailed in the middle of the night, mindless in sorrow.
Was I angry? You bet. I hated the arrogance of doctors, the soullessness of CAT scans, the iniquity of the body. I was bloody outraged that my husband was to die. I wasn’t ready!
Did I suffer? In the sleepless nights and the numbed out days when I couldn’t fix what was broken, yes.
But so what? It all happened anyway—whether I liked it or not.
What emerged from the depths of my experience were a series of lessons about life and death. Really about life, mostly. They are a mere handful of truths that will help us live life more fully, prepare for our own death more objectively and accept the death of those we love.
Death is just the context for living our life. We are all going to die, one way or another, sooner or later. We all know this but continue to act surprised or betrayed when the end befalls us or one we love. There are no untimely deaths. Cancer, car accident, or crib death is merely part of the script. We all have an exit ticket.
There is a purpose to every single human life and how we express that to its fullest is our job on this planet. To the extent that we fulfill that mandate, the easier it will be for us to let go of the physical world and give ourselves over.
There is a saying that a good life means a good death. To my mind a “good” life does not mean one of perfection—pleasing God in our flawless following of rules, but of being real in all its darks and lights and striving. When we embrace this truth, we express our divinity in being God’s hands, eyes, mouth, ears, heart—healer, artist, teacher, counselor, lover—whatever.
The irony of all this is that I live in a world of healers—spiritual, energetic, natural. A world of miracles. In fact it is my business. After we sold our company and retired, George helped me realize my dream.
In July 2005, two weeks after I opened my boutique dedicated to the healing and creative arts, George collapsed and was rushed to hospital. He had a tumor from prostate cancer that had shut down his kidneys, he needed fourteen liters of blood, and he nearly died. The oncologist refused to take him on as a patient because she said there was nothing she could do. His urologist said he wouldn’t live until Christmas (2005), and he would spend the rest of his life dependent on dialysis.
George lived another eighteen months. He did it for me and our two sons, his family, and many others whose lives he touched during that time. I thought he was going to be my poster boy for miracles. How could the husband of one in the healing world die of the nastiest of illnesses—cancer?
But George did die. And in that passing emerged a profoundly beautiful love story. For in that final walk on Earth together, George, always my protector, led me through the fire of my greatest fears, and in return, I had the privilege of looking deeply into his eyes as he passed through the veil so he would not be afraid. From that moment the life and death drama of every day fell away and I witnessed my own soul’s journey.
I have lived my life in pursuit of the spiritual. I have prayed for clarity and understanding. I was certain that as I prayed for God’s Will to be done, that if I was really good and fulfilled my guidance in building this business around living life authentically and spiritually, I would be rewarded by my husband’s miraculous cure. How else could I really interpret his illness?
As it happened, something was lost in my interpretation. When I surrendered (small ‘s’) to God’s Will, I sensed this voice saying, “Are you sure?” and I answered, “Yep, yep, yep!” because, of course, I thought I knew what that meant. But what God really meant was that I would have to go where I dreaded more than anywhere on earth—and that was to the hospital. In this case, forty-two hours in the emergency section where George, awaiting medication, rocked back and forth on his gurney in pain and I sat on an overturned barf bowl for hours on end.
God’s Will also meant that I would ultimately have to give up my beloved when in my heart of hearts I knew he could have been “healed.” This is where I learned that healing does not always mean living.
To some I have shown strength or courage, but the truth is strength comes through surrender. In surrendering to what is, we can then look to what we need to lift us up and move us through a difficult passage.
This is where I can gratefully acknowledge the cast of hundreds who helped me—and George and family—by word or deed, practice, therapy or healing to take Life in hand and really live it…to death.This is the part I want to share.
The circumstances of the Little Drama are the tools for the Big Picture and serve only as the flash cards of greater meaning and purpose.
Yesterday, I plucked some faded roses from the Christmas centerpiece on the dining table. I was about to put them in the recycling bin, but instead to honor George (who never threw flowers in the garbage), I went out on the deck and, opening each dead rose one at a time, strewed them across the snow. The crisp brown outer petals fell away in my hands, and within the bud, deep pink silken petals unfurled.
Snowflakes and rose petals swirled in the air, then cascaded to the ground and rested there. As I looked out the window and saw the graceful pattern they left, it was a message that, like the roses, there is no death—just transformation and beauty when we look through the eyes of Love.
Today, December 8th, is George’s and my wedding anniversary.
The truth of a divine plan expressed in the chapter above is illustrated now in the diagnosis of prostate cancer in my life partner, Athan a year ago, October. Rather than being devastated by the news, we see it as destiny.
How can that be? There is a miracle unfolding for a new treatment and Athan is the sole volunteer to test it.
The irony? We have spent the past seven years involved in the testing and research of the cancer fighting properties proven in the phenolic compound oleocanthal only found in olive oil.
The adventure continues and finding the love, light and lessons in every moment is what happiness is all about.
“Thank you for the intervention. Friends and family came to be with me. I agreed to be admitted to hospital. Am waiting for a bed. I had a horrible breakdown. I am sorry for worrying you.”
This was my message posted on Facebook to friends on October 19, 2014. It was over a year since my husband, Bob, passed away. Every day since he died on June 8, 2013 was like walking through thick, muddy water with a constant fog clouding my head.
I was a willing participant in the loss and grief cycle from day one. I had no interest in the future. The past was painful, the present bleak. Every day I woke up crying, for days, weeks, months, and soon a year passed. Depression is part of the initial journey. Many people feel like they can’t survive without their loved one. The agony is enormous, but the pain starts to diminish with time.
It is natural to experience intense grief after someone close dies, but complicated grief is different.
My story was different. The depression was pervasive and continued, even escalated. I journaled the experience, intermittently, in a blog. Posting my thoughts gave me temporary relief. Then I’d go down the rabbit hole again. What I didn’t realize was that I was experiencing something more than a normal grief journey. Though not diagnosed, researching my symptoms led me to what’s known as Complicated Grief.
The Intensity of Complicated Grief
According to The Center for Complicated Grief (CG) “[it] is a form of grief that takes hold of a person’s mind and won’t let go. It is natural to experience intense grief after someone close dies, but complicated grief is different. Troubling thoughts, dysfunctional behaviors or problems regulating emotions get a foothold and stall adaptation. Complicated grief is the condition that occurs when this happens.
“People with complicated grief don’t know what’s wrong. They assume that their lives have been irreparably damaged by their loss and cannot imagine how they can ever feel better. Grief dominates their thoughts and feelings with no respite in sight.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, CG can be determined “when the intensity of grief has not decreased in the months after your loved one’s death. Some mental health professionals diagnose CG when the grieving continues to be intense, persistent and debilitating beyond 12 months … Getting the correct diagnosis is essential for appropriate treatment, so a comprehensive medical and psychological exam is often done.”
The Diagnosis That Probably Saved My Life
I had seen several therapists. They tried to help, under the assumption that I was grieving as any woman would after the death of her husband. What I didn’t tell them was that my sadness had escalated to suicide ideation.
On the evening of Saturday October 18, 2014, I posted on Facebook: “Please take care of my cats.” My cry for help wasn’t a mystery to friends who were following my downward spiral. Phone calls went out from people in several cities to friends who lived near me who came to my house, then later family. Despite my uncharacteristic reaction screaming at everyone who entered the door and yelling at them to leave, I eventually calmed down and agreed to be taken to the hospital.
I was put in a room with no windows and a security guard. Some family members came in. The doctor followed and told me the medication I’d been taking for many years to control my clinical depression wasn’t working. When that happens, ironically, it can make you more depressed.
That diagnosis rocked me to the core and probably saved my life. Every day had been torture. And now I had someone who was telling me they could help me and life could actually get better.
I agreed to be admitted to hospital and new medication was prescribed by a hospital psychiatrist. I stayed there just over a week, eventually getting day passes, then a weekend pass. After my release, I was closely monitored to ensure my medication was doing what it should have done. I started seeking other ways to help me out of the dark pit and took part in several Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) programs, or what I refer to as retraining the brain to focus on the positive.
Live in the Moment
Today, I lead what those newly grieving are told is “the new normal life” because, when our loved ones die, life as we knew it is inevitably changed forever and will never go back to what we thought was our normal life. As Buddhist monk and peace activist, Nhat Hanh, said, “It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.”
The new life can be good if we come to terms with our losses; remember them with loving kindness; embrace our family, friends, and new people who come into our lives and accept that nothing is ever permanent in life. The biggest lesson I learned is to truly live in the moment and enjoy each precious day as a gift.
If you, or someone you know, has been suffering with extreme grief symptoms for over a year it might be time to seek help.
Coping with Grief and Loss
While grieving a loss is an inevitable part of life, there are ways to help cope with the pain, come to terms with your grief and eventually, find a way to pick up the pieces and move on with your life. Here are some suggestions from Help Guide:
1. Acknowledge your pain.
2. Accept that grief can trigger many different and unexpected emotions.
3. Understand that your grieving process will be unique to you.
4. Seek out face-to-face support from people who care about you.
5. Support yourself emotionally by taking care of yourself physically.
Seattle-based cookbook author Caroline Wright can teach you how to make a salad for four with grilled escarole, peaches, prosciutto, mozzarella and basil oil.
She can show you how a sandwich of grilled manchego cheese and sausage on peasant bread is made in the style of a master chef from Catalonia. For dessert, she’ll tempt you with a wicked coconut-caramel cake with malted chocolate frosting.
But when the leftovers are wrapped and put away, Wright can also impart some hard-won wisdom: how to talk to kids about death.
Wright, who studied cuisine at a renowned cooking school in Burgundy, France, always wanted to write as much as develop her skills in a well-appointed kitchen. At age 23, she became a food editor at Martha Stewart Living, and later brought her crisp, engaging voice to her cookbooks, Twenty-Dollar, Twenty-Minute Meals, Cake Magic! and Catalan Food: Culture and Flavors from the Mediterranean (co-authored with Daniel Olivella).
She hasn’t stopped writing about food. But in 2017 she was diagnosed with a glioblastoma, an aggressive, rapidly growing brain tumor, similar to the one that killed Sen. John McCain. With the possibility of death looming large, Wright turned her prose toward facing her own mortality — and starting the conversation with her kids.
Luminous and voluble in person, Wright is a self-described, inveterate doer. When not writing or cooking, she’s pursuing photography or quilting or knitting. She can’t stop making things happen, whether it’s tinkering with recipes for her next cookbook, or organizing a panel discussion at Town Hall (Saturday, Nov. 9) on children and grief. The event will explore how we talk to kids about death, a topic with no simple bearings.
Wright has written two recent books on the theme of child bereavement, inspired by her and her husband Garth’s agonizing challenge of communicating with their young sons about Wright’s still-uncertain prognosis.
The Caring Bridge Project (which came out in February) is a collection of Wright’s online journal entries from her year of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. It’s part of Wright’s written legacy to her boys, Henry, 7, and Theodore, 4. But she intended it, too, for a broader readership: families facing similar experiences with children’s anxiety and despair over loss.
This past summer she published Lasting Love, a picture book for reading aloud to bereaved kids. The heartbreaking but emotionally affirming story, with comforting illustrations by Willow Heath, is about a dying mother returning home from the hospital with a formidable friend: a mighty, furry creature who will always remain by her child’s side, as both an avatar of her powerful love, and as a faithful companion who never judges grief in any form.
Halfway through the tale, the mother passes.
“The child would know,” says Wright of her decision to include the mother’s death. “So stepping around that seemed silly. I wanted the kid to be part of spreading her ashes.”
For Wright, there was no option but honesty. She knew her kids would watch her change, physically, during treatment, and they would find her less available. Keeping them in the dark — especially the older boy, Henry — would have been unfair. “The thing kids can’t rebound from is broken trust,” she says. “There’s no resolution for that.”
When she and Garth first talked with Henry about her cancer, and how she and her doctors were doing everything they could, but she might die anyway, there were tears. But Henry devised a helpful analogy:
“Mommy’s brain is a garden, and there’s a weed in it.”
“Henry and I have had amazing conversations, poetic and hard,” Wright says. “If I die, I want both boys to have a relationship with their memories of me. If I lied to them, it would sully that relationship.”
Thirty-two months after Wright was told she’d likely have 12 to 18 months to live, she is miraculously cancer-free, but vulnerable to a swift reemergence of the glioblastoma. If you take cancer out of the picture, she actually became healthier while fighting the disease, radically changing her diet, dropping 40 pounds and growing lean and strong through yoga, energy work and exercise.
Wright says the boys now occasionally bring up her cancer at random times. When Theodore recently saw her short hair wet and matted after a shower, he grew weepy, recalling her treatment-related baldness, and associating it with being away from him.
The profundity of loss, and the despondency of a child left without the constancy of a loved one’s care, makes Lasting Love a benevolent bridge between a parent and son or daughter going through these troubles.
“The theme of Lasting Love is, literally, love lasting forever,” Wright says. “That’s what we were telling Henry. That was the only piece of hope that we could give him: Mommy’s fighting very hard. And even if mommy dies, the connection you have with her is never going to go away. And there are many loving people surrounding you.”
Wright’s Town Hall event is part of her outreach mission to regional families and to nonprofits concerned with children and bereavement. Among them is Safe Crossings, which supports grieving kids of all ages, at little or no cost. Amy Thompson, program coordinator, will join the panel, along with therapists from other organizations.
Thompson says the field of grief counseling for early childhood through adolescence is growing because of a rise in traumatic losses: gun-related murders, opioid-overdose deaths and suicides. Grieving kids are often isolated, subject to bullying, and told to “get over it” by clueless adults.
“The message from society to grieving young people is ‘move on,’ ” Thompson says. “But if you’re intensely grieving for months or even years after a death, there’s nothing wrong with you. Loss changes over time. As children grow and reach new developmental milestones, they can better process the permanency of death, and we see them regrieve.”
The attention Wright and Lasting Love are receiving in therapy circles and in the media is helping to normalize grief in children — in everyone, really. When she learned she had beaten seemingly impossible odds and, while not out of the woods, is without cancer, Wright celebrated with her family by making a favorite cake, although with a few adjustments: it was sugar-free, gluten-free and covered in carob frosting instead of her once-beloved chocolate.
“I live with great respect for this thing that may happen to me again,” Wright says of the glioblastoma cells that might still be lurking in her brain. “But I don’t live in fear of it. There is nothing to be gained by that. I might die and I might not.”
But the bond between parent and child will last beyond death, she says. “Kids are resilient. With support, they will have full lives.”