Adriana Marchione

Since losing her husband Eddie to cancer in 2007, Adriana Marchione has relied on the arts to heal and renew her life. The San Francisco-based Expressive Arts Therapist is currently working on “When The Fall Comes,” a performance project that explores grief, dreaming about dead loved ones, and the variety of ways healing after loss can take shape.

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AdrianaWhere did you meet your late husband and how would you describe the relationship you shared?
My husband Eddie and I met through a community that included sober members. We had known each other for several years before we started dating. Eddie was 20 years older than I was and I always thought he was kind and handsome, yet did not consider him as someone I would date because of our age difference.  I was in a stage of life where I was visioning the relationship I wanted to have and I realized that Eddie fit the ideal I had if he had been younger.  This opened up the idea for me to ask him out, and after our first few dates we fell in love quickly and started a life together.  Our relationship was full of passion and adventure, yet also involved a lot of responsibility because he had two young kids, and we both worked hard on our careers to make a comfortable living in San Francisco.  We lived in a house by a park on the top of a big hill, and often had parties and celebrations there together.  We had a very creative life together as he was a musician and I was an artist and arts/movement therapist.  We also learned to dance tango together.  Our relationship was very deep, and spiritual in many ways.  And, it also challenging at times because of our age difference and different needs as the years went by. We were together for twelve years and it will always be one of the most significant and special relationships of my life.

What was it like to lose Eddie after a long battle with lung cancer?
Eddie was sick for two years and for much of that time we thought he would survive the cancer.  In the last few months of his life the cancer took hold very intensely and things happened very fast.  The doctors even said he has several more months to live and then he died within days.  Eddie died at home in a very lucid state, and there were many people there to help us through the dying process including hospice workers, his children and our dear friends.  He sang a death song hours before he died, which was both very sad and heart opening.  At first, I felt an incredible relief when he died because he was no longer suffering and I was extremely exhausted.  I also felt a sense of peace for many days after he passed and very taken care of by friends and family.  But overall I was so disoriented and fragile.  It was hard to function normally for weeks afterwards and I had to take everything very slow. I felt like I was in an alternative universe after the initial shock of his death.  And, then it was a long time of rebuilding my energy and organizing my life and my emotions.

What is your overriding memory of the initial period of grief?
A sense of emptiness, and a feeling that I was in a fog.  Yet, there were also times when I was very present and clear, and I felt taken care and safe.  Life felt simple and stripped down to what was most essential after such loss.

How has your grief changed with time?
It has softened over time and I feel that I am able to be more of a witness to the grief process and the circumstances of the loss. I also lost my father a year after Eddie so I had to negotiate two big losses at one time.  I realized I needed to grieve them separately and find ways to do this consciously over the years.  I do find that the pain of the loss of Eddie still can affect me in unexpected moments and places.  Recently it was the tenth anniversary of our wedding, which was held near the Point Reyes National Seashore in California.  I was surprised that I was caught with some depression, many strong memories and much sadness in response to it.  Yet, I have found that I can let in more of the good memories over time without feeling so much pain.  In the first year after Eddie’s death there were times when it was hard to remember certain things about him, or I would focus on negative experiences around the relationship and the illness leading up to his death.  I find that the loss is more integrated into my life experience now and has more neutrality rather than being a tragedy.

You work as an Expressive Arts Therapist. How have the arts personally helped you to heal?
The arts have helped heal initially when I stopped drinking alcohol in 1993, and then have continued to be an important tool for my recovery process throughout the last twenty years, and have very much guided me during my grieving process. I find that the arts can hold all of my experiences, my pain and my vision as I have renewed my life.  I have used dance, poetry, visual art and performance to illuminate my inner life, to diffuse intense emotions and to help me ‘imagine’ what is possible as I have healed from loss. They have also helped me to find a voice for my experience.  Telling my story about loss has been very freeing. The arts help me to organize my emotions and my memories in a very meaningful way and have allowed me to reach others who have also experienced significant loss. 

Tell us about When The Fall Comes and the short film you are working on.
‘When the Fall Comes’ is a performance project that chronicles the loss of a spouse and the dreams that guide the path of the one left behind. Using dance, poetry and spoken word this project shares reflections about grief, dreaming about dead loved ones, and the variety of ways healing after loss can take shape.  ‘When the Fall Comes’ was originally performed to an intimate audience at Noh Space Theater in San Francisco in January of 2013 as a personal healing ritual. Based on this experience, it has been made clear to me that a broader audience could benefit from witnessing the performance.  Therefore, I will be performing it again over a weekend at Noh Space Theater in San Francisco on October 11, 12, and 13 of 2013, as well as create a short film that documents this process of using the arts as a tool for supporting the grief process.

The hope for this project is to provide a venue for further reflection and dialogue for people who have suffered from the loss of a significant other or loved one.  We live in a culture where there are so few opportunities to honor loss and to explore the emotional and spiritual disorientation that occurs from grief.  This project aims to demonstrate that the arts can provide an opportunity to allow inexpressible feelings and experiences to be seen and heard, as well as provide a venue to come together around the topic of loss.

How can Our New Lives’ followers support your projects?
They can email me to be on my mailing list at adriana [at] creativesourcesf [dot] com and/or join my Facebook page.  I am also seeking donations to help me fund the project which can be done by contacting me directly or going to my website.

Nico Nordström

NicoNico Nordström always had a camera in her hands as a child, and not much has changed as a young adult. Her hobby took on even greater meaning three years ago after her best friend tragically passed away. The Photography student at Texas State University describes how the camera has helped her to heal and how Louis’ death has influenced her personal style. Nico’s works have been featured in Vogue Italia and The Weekly Flickr, and in numerous gallery exhibitions.

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When did you develop a passion for photography?

I’ve always had a passion for photography, when I was really little I would set up little photo shoots with my Barbies – even building them sets, costumes, and props. I loved all forms of art growing up, but my love for photography really started to develop when I was a freshman in high school when I took my first darkroom class. I became completely enthralled and have worked hard at it ever since. Not a day goes by that I don’t work towards bettering my work and myself.

Photography took on greater meaning in 2010, after your best friend of ten years tragically passed away. How do you remember Louis?

The things that I remember most about Louis are his infectious laugh, big bear hugs, sense of humor, striking eyes, and warm hearted nature. He was the life of the party, and always a delight to be around. There wasn’t anyone that didn’t absolutely adore him.

What were the circumstances behind his death and what was it like to lose someone so close and so young? 

Louis passed away peacefully in his sleep at his home, only days before his 20th birthday and Christmas. It was utterly surreal to lose someone at 20 years old, someone that was always supposed to be around. You hear about it happening to other people, but you never expect it to happen to you. “The crew” as we call our group of friends, have all been close for years, so we just banded together in the wake of Louis’ death and supported each other. These people are more than friends, we’re a family.

What are your strongest memories from the initial grief period?

My strongest memories from the initial grief period was walking around in a fog. It felt like being a zombie – being physically present, but not mentally being present at all. I didn’t even touch my camera in the beginning, it was all about taking things day by day – baby steps. Besides walking around in a haze, the most poignant memory was the support and love from people around me. Specifically had it not been for my mom, fiancé, and the crew, moving on would have been so much harder. Louis’ death showed me how cruel the universe can be at times, but it also showed me how beautiful the souls of the people around us are.

How has photography helped you to heal?

Photography has helped me to heal in many ways. In the beginning it was mostly just a distraction, but then I started to channel my grief into my work. Whenever I would have rough days, I would grab my sketchbook and start working on new ideas, or get my camera and just start driving. One of the hardest things was not being able to sleep at night, so that’s when I got most of my work done. I knew my choices were to either sit there and wallow, or to try and create some sort of beauty out of the grief that I was feeling. So the harder things got, the fiercer I worked. Because of photography, I was able to get out of my small dark apartment, and defy gravity, hug wolves, explore a desert, and see magical worlds in front of me. Photography, like Louis, completely changed my life in unimaginable ways.

Has Louis’ passing influenced your personal style?

Louis’ passing has definitely impacted my personal style. I now have a greater appreciation for the beauty around me in everyday life, because I see now how short life is, thus making me aware of how beautiful our time here is. Because of Louis’ interest in dragonflies, I always try and incorporate them into my work when I can, as a way to remember him and to thank him. I also have begun to use branches and flowers more, to symbolize the cycle of life, and the beauty around us everyday.

Ashes Horizontal School

Flowers

Tell us about your favourite work and the inspiration behind it.

My favorite work is my Renovatio (or Phoenix) series. It took a month of working hard everyday, emotionally, mentally and physically with my team to pull off that shoot. I was inspired by the journey of myself and the people around me, and how much growth I had seen in all of them. It’s a reminder that no matter how tough things in life can be, the phoenix always rises from the ashes so to speak. Besides being the most difficult shoot I’ve ever done, it was also filled with the most laughs. My cat thought I had a 6 ft wide nest in my dining room for 2 weeks just for him, my production designer Michael looked like a crazy person building the nest in my apartment (which in itself was hilarious to watch!), while outside we literally had people coming up to us asking if my model (who was in full costume and make up) was a part of the apocalypse, and just having your best friend dressed up like a mythological bird in your living room squawking around is bound to be hilarious. It was a blast, but after 15 straight hours of shooting on 3 hours of sleep, I’m definitely glad it’s over!

Fire Beginning FirePhoenix

What are your plans for the near future?

I’m currently working on a huge project that has been incredibly difficult to keep under wraps for the past couple months. I’m taking everything that I’ve learned from my photography adventures thus far and pushing it even farther, it’s been really exciting! I’m also exploring my options for teaching photography/Photoshop workshops, and in using my art for book covers. My adventures have only just begun, and I can’t wait to see where else they will take me.

Anna-Joy Veenstra

Anna-Joy Veenstra (BAS Honours) is a graduate student at the University of Waterloo’s School of Architecture. Her thesis, currently entitled Relinquish to Dust: A Centre for w(R)esting Grief in Toronto’s Community, explores why cities need a new approach to memorialising our loved ones. For more information, visit Anna-Joy’s thesis blog and portfolio.

What is your thesis about? Screen shot 2013-06-24 at 4.26.48 PM

This thesis intends to offer a new methodology and vision for an urban community, one that incorporates the cycle of life, death and rebirth. In a society induced to discount the importance of humanity’s mortality, the space allotted for death in the city is allocated to the outskirts or even ends up as dead zones within the city. The proposal is to search for a means to integrate this shadow into the urban fabric and everyday life of the city’s community. Without this, there is a danger of creating cities without memory that are in denial of both death and humanity’s relationship with history. The thesis uses project precedents, documents, data, interviews, and sketches to develop design proposal iterations for Toronto’s downtown harbourfront that embrace the life-long search for meaning after loss through grief work.

Did a personal experience with grief inspire you to pursue this topic? 

We have all been touched by the loss of a loved one, some earlier in life than others. However, it wasn’t my grief in particular that provided the main driver, it was rather the experiences of grief by those around me that raised questions of what I felt I could do for them. At a young age I perceived this sense of loss indirectly through the death of a best friend’s mother in a car accident, the knowledge that my mother lost her mother to cancer before I was even born, the slow passing of a family’s eldest patriarch in my childhood church and the suicide of a classmate’s twin brother. It is the question of caring for family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances in our contemporary world that interests me. How can I, how can we, how can a city acknowledge and support each other’s life-long search for meaning after loss?

An example of how far we need to come is in how Canada has figured out the importance of a yearlong parental leave for a newborn child (35 weeks + 15 weeks of maternity leave), yet bereavement leave is typically only three to five unpaid days and not even all the provinces and territories have this meagre amount legislated. We have begun to understand the need for developing relationships as crucial at the beginning of a new life, yet we don’t take the time (or allow the time) at the ending of a relationship and the reshaping that takes shape from there.

Why is a new vision so important? 

As a society we need to stop avoiding the topic of our deaths and face it together, because only once we do, can we focus our efforts towards more meaningful developments, within the city, our families and community. It has to begin on an individual level, but quickly our society will feel the impacts. This will be the case particularly if the leaders of our nations took this to heart. If the people who make the final decision regarding war or peace between nations had contemplated their own deaths, perhaps destruction would not be the common tact, rather a movement towards peaceful resolutions would occur.

I have been pondering how grief is a tool to move from meaninglessness to meaningfulness after a loss; then pairing that with how architecture enhances the emotions within, makes them apparent to the outside world and provides people with a feeling of being part of something greater than themselves. As Alain de Botton said in his 2008 book The Architecture of Happiness, “It is in dialogue with pain that many beautiful things acquire their value. Acquaintance with grief turns out to be one of the more unusual prerequisites of architectural appreciation. We might, quite aside from all other requirements, need to be a little sad before buildings can properly touch us.”

Considering how important grief is for the healing process towards leading a meaningful life, our society seems to place an undue pressure ‘to just hurry up and move on’. It is no wonder people feel so alone in their grief with this conflict between their feelings and what the industrious world proclaims. Models of grief for them are few and far between. Even friends and family are often uncomfortable with the grieving process, as it reminds them of their own unresolved pain and how precarious their life is.

However, grief is very real, because loss is real. This pain of loss is so intense because in loving someone a binding connection formed, which death then broke. Grief reflects this depth of love and connection found with another human being. Yet by feeling what at first seems like great emptiness, then becomes the capacity for fullness. There likely won’t ever be a moment of finally ‘getting over’ the loss; instead there is the possibility of renewed meaning and enrichment for having known the loved one.

I understand the role of the architecture here as providing a framework in which people can participate in their grief. A place where they can find a model, a language, a ritual, or an identity to aid in the process. People once placed a lot of importance on the event and experience of grief, but it has since been lost in transition, there is no longer a place for it in our current contemporary world. Architecture can help provide such a space and bring back the focus to experience life in its entirety. For Toronto, this strong sense of place lies along the harbourfront as a gathering place for the city’s population to connect and support one another’s search towards meaning within the cycles found in nature.

How would you describe Toronto’s current approach to burial and mortality, and do you think this applies to many other cities? 

Unlike me, most people living in Toronto weren’t born here. They came as immigrants, as small Canadian city dwellers or perhaps from a rural upbringing. There is a unique blend of multicultural backgrounds in Toronto that I have been hard pressed to find to the same extent in any other city so far. This makes translating ideas from a flavourful Toronto to other cities (and vice versa) difficult, particularly when talking about death, although universal, the rituals that accompany it are so varied.

There are over 200 cemeteries listed in Metropolitan Toronto that are spread out through the city, and come in a variety of sizes and shapes, are mostly contained within the grid system and bounded by streets. However, the conditions of these cemeteries generally range from neglected, inactive, marginalized or full. The city has grown around the original ones, restricting further growth and relegating burial to the outer limits once again. Finding a spot in the city for an individual to be buried is becoming increasingly difficult and costly, forcing many to journey out into the suburbs and the new larger cemeteries located there.

There is a need to counter this by placing cemeteries in the midst of our urban environments, creating acknowledgement by making them visible, and providing a sense of activity/identity/place. By situating the cemetery in the midst of the city, human mortality returns to the core. As a place of equality, in the form of a resting ground and a meeting place, all are welcome, living and dead. By bringing the cycle of life, death and rebirth forward, the responsibility to not only care for the earth, but for each other, here and now, increases. This cemetery can provide a new and resilient way to interact and live together in the city.

The trend in Canada and particularly Toronto, is moving away from burial and towards cremation. This has to do with changing religious beliefs, limit of space in inner city cemeteries, struggles with strict cemetery by-laws, and the desire to be scattered in a location with personal attachments. Another emerging shift is towards natural burial, where concrete vault liners, coffins, embalming, and granite monuments are done away with in favour of shallow graves, biodegradable containers and planted trees to encourage the body to return to the earth naturally.

According to your research, what are some ways cities can better integrate and bury the dead, and become more acknowledging and supportive to the living?

My research has led me through a variety of recent case studies and current proposals ranging from building towers for the dead, landscaping contaminated sites, incorporating spaces for the dead into urban planning (perhaps using our dead as a way to make sacred spaces and historical sites by the laying of bones and ashes), and even mixing the cremated remains of a loved one into concrete that is placed in formwork for artificial coral reefs to name a few. Recently, there was a competition entitled design for death that produced entries focused on eco/green deathcare and wrappings of mortality.

While studying in Rome, I was surrounded by such varied methods towards memory, whether it was visiting the still functioning Protestant Cemetery embedded in the city wall alongside the Pyramid of Cestius, or walking along the longest straight road leading into the city (the Via Appia) which is lined with monuments, columbarium, catacombs, and funerary fragments or seeing the saints enshrined in countless churches. It was here, among this fodder, that I decided to pursue the marking of burial as a piece of important urban community architecture for Toronto, while keeping in mind the opportunities to challenge the status quo and search for new possibilities that incorporate grief work.

Do you think younger people have different grieving needs to older people? If so, how would you incorporate these into your vision?

I see the differences in our needs lying in a greater context that encompasses age/maturity, gender, relationship to the deceased person, nature of the attachment, mode of death, prior losses and family/cultural grief. The interplay between all these pieces (and a variety of unnamed others) creates very personal experiences of loss and grief for an individual. My vision provides an opportunity to explore different approaches in a safe environment among other people. Susan A. Berger provides some insight in her book The Five Ways to Grieve into the choices people make as they adapt to dramatic life changes after a recent loss (and beyond) that may include aligning with a new identity like: nomad, memorialist, normalizer, activist, and seeker.

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Anna-Joy’s thesis will be available through the University of Waterloo’s library both as a hard copy and online download by the end of 2013.

Marika Evans

Marika Evans tragically lost her brother Daniel 3.5 years ago, after the 22-year-old fell from the rooftop of their Sydney home. Just 6 months older, Marika says Daniel “was the sunshine in my life.” Since his passing, Marika has spoken with a psychic medium, who connects with the Spirit world to contact loved ones. She bravely recounts what led her to tears and laughter. 

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MarikaWhy did you decide to speak with a psychic medium?
Since my brother Daniel passed away 3.5 years ago, I had always thought I would go and speak to someone who could connect me with him – I just needed to be ready. My mum’s sister saw an advertisement for Ezio De Angelis and thought it was a sign that she go because it was to be held the night before her birthday. When my mum said she would like to go too, I knew this was my opportunity.

When and where did the communication take place?
It was held at night time at Kareela Golf Club. There were probably about 40 people there. Ezio acted as the medium and at the end of the session, his wife, Michelle did some tarot readings. They travel to different clubs around Sydney every week or two and this one was near my aunty’s place.

What did the psychic medium talk about?
He introduced himself and quickly ran through how the session would work. A few other loved ones ‘came in’ and then we were lucky enough that my brother did too. He started by saying ‘Flynn’ who is my baby cousin, son to my aunt who told us about this. He was born about a year after my brother died. Ezio then started saying all these things that he couldn’t possibly have made up. He spoke about how he died, how he loved food and dancing, that he loved playing ten pin bowling with me, that he was sorry he couldn’t say goodbye and that he wanted to haunt my ex-boyfriend (if I wanted him to, of course I said no!) It was such an emotional experience, I couldn’t stop crying and laughing.

After he moved on to a couple of other people, he started talking about how there was this girl here who wanted to speak to someone. He then went on to explain how she died and I suddenly realized it was one of my best friends who had passed away two years after my brother. I was so shocked to hear that she was there too. Once we had the connection he spoke about how she loved the conversations we had about boyfriends, that she was happy now and that my brother had coaxed her into connecting with me today because she was nervous. I was so glad she came through, and it made me feel even better that they had found each other over there and were ‘hanging out’.

How did you feel before the experience?
Very nervous but excited. I wanted so badly for him to come through but I was scared at the same time. I knew there would be a chance that he wouldn’t come through but deep down I had a feeling he would. I had many family members surrounding me so I also felt safe and secure.

What were you hoping to gain from this experience?
I wasn’t quite sure at the time what I wanted from it. All I could think about was hearing from my brother and to know he was ok. I hoped that we could actually converse through the medium but this session wasn’t like that, it was more the medium telling us what my brother had to say.

How did you feel afterwards?
Ecstatic that he came through. It was just amazing to think I had a connection with my brother, that he was actually there and still his fun, loving and happy self. But I also felt the sense of loss again. It brought back a lot of emotions… It took me a few days to stop feeling down.

What did you gain from it?
Satisfaction, happiness, sadness but most of all, the peace of mind knowing that he was in a good place and had people who knew and loved him over there with him.

Have you told many people about this experience?
I told my partner when I got home but I was feeling very emotional at that stage so could only say snippets about what happened. It took me around a month to speak about the experience with my close friends who know my brother and friend. Nearly everyone responded well. They were all fascinated how the medium spoke of both of them in such detail and ways he could not have made up. My older brother, however, was very skeptical when we told him. I think he just doesn’t want to believe in these things. Many people believe that these mediums are a bit of a con and maybe some are, but it was a case where he probably had to be there to believe.

Would you do it again?
Yes, but I would like to do more of a one on one session. It will probably take me another year to get the emotional courage to do it.

What would you say to people who have never done this?
You must make sure you are ready. Ready for the joy it brings but also ready for the sadness. Don’t expect anything. Also, make sure you do your research and make sure that the medium is credible.

Hayley Carr

Hayley Carr is a 9 time World Champion Martial Artist. Currently working as a life coach, the Sydney native lost her close friend Jem in a snowboarding accident 10 months ago.

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Hayley CarrTell us about Jem.

Jem was the kind of guy you would never expect to die. A legend among friends. The most alive person I’ve ever met, and the most passionate person about life I have ever known. One of my favourite people on the Earth. He was different though. When I describe him like that, most would picture someone very extroverted, outgoing, possibly loud… none of those were his ‘known-for’ qualities.
Jem was an old-soul, with a passion for romancing every moment in life, snowboarding, making a great coffee, chatting philosophy and music, and well-known for not only being able to pull off any outfit he ever chose to wear, but being a well-respected gentlemen. Especially to his mother.
The best thing about him though, was everyone felt like they were his best friend. You could sit in front of him, and talk, and you would feel like you were the only person that existed on earth. He had a gift for making you feel like you had a sign around your neck that said “make me feel special”.
We met when I started working at the cafe with him, and became friends instantly. He took on a big-brother role to me, and we would shout movie-quotes at each other over the counter, and leave motivational quotes for each other on the bench at the start of our shifts. What a legend he was!

What’s your favourite memory with him?

Back in the day when we worked together, he had to often go home early on big nights out because he had to open the café the next day. Then one night when everyone was out in Sydney city, and I was feeling particularly tired, he decided we were having an all-nighter. Due to my constant banter, I felt like I had to live up to his expectations, and we ended up being the only two who stayed out late, almost to prove to one another we weren’t soft when we had to work the next day. It was one of the most hillarious nights I ever had. It got to 3:30am and as we sat in the gutter on the street eating a kebab, we decided it was all or nothing from that point forward. We would either go home and end up respectable the next day, or let loose and see where the rest of the night took us. Of course we coaxed each other into the latter. So off we went, sneaking into all kinds of bars and nightclubs with different stories, clearing dance-floors so he could show me his moves, and at one point at about 6am we started telling people we were professional dancers from out of town, and started making up salsa moves in a tiny club as the sun was coming up – we thought we were amazing! We ended up getting home around midday the next day, after catching a train and both falling asleep and missing our stop by a long shot. Going to work later that day was a killer, but we were laughing so much about all the antics that happened it made it all worthwhile.

How old were you when Jem died and what were the circumstances surrounding his death?

Jem passed away last year in August – I was 26 years old. He died in a sudden and shocking snowboarding accident – his favourite thing to do – it completely rocked everyone.

What were some challenges you faced afterwards and how did you overcome them?

I faced the same challenges as everyone, dealing with the fact that there were things unsaid, he wasn’t coming back, and he was such a big presence in everyone’s life. (No matter how long it had been since people had seen him or how far away he was – there was space for 800 people at his funeral, and people were flowing out the doors – like I said, he was everyone’s best friend.) Also, how he died was so horrible, and so stressful for his best friend who was with him at that moment, it was excruciating to think about how everyone else was dealing with it too. There were a lot of wonderful people who were so upset.
The way I dealt with it was how I deal with everything – I wanted to find a way to live on in his honour, and so I asked myself, “what have I learnt from this?’ The answer was, “we live in minutes, Don’t waste a single one holding back or being unhappy or complacent.” I think many of us got the same lesson. Many of his friends have had huge changes in their life since his passing, and we all feel like he’s with us in our own way. I left a 6-year relationship with someone who I was madly in love with, but unhappy, gave away most of my possessions and have started living a nomadic lifestyle. I would never have had the courage to do this right now if this lesson did not hit me so hard and fast. I also re-kindled friendships that had faded that were really important to me, and now I feel more alive than ever. Today I focus on being so grateful for every moment of my life, and I never forget for a moment the lesson that Jem gave me. I know that it’s quite morbid to think in this way, but it makes me feel like in some way he will never die.

Were you able to talk openly about your friend and your feelings with those around you?

Absolutely. Jeremy’s friends who I hung out with when I was working at the cafe are some of the most amazing people. I hadn’t seen them all for a number of years, and instantly they were so welcoming, caring, thoughtful and open to everyone. They all opened their homes and their hearts so everyone could be together and support one another. It was a really special time.

What helps you to heal?

Spending time in nature. A few weeks after Jem died, I took myself away for a weekend and spent time in nature. I’m always reminded of the cycles of life, and how amazing it is, and feel revived and closer to my spirit when I do.

How has this experience influenced you in your adult life?

I will never forget that powerful time in my life, and I truly believe the course of my life has shifted so beautifully because of it. It’s still so sad that this is the reason why, however this is the way it is. It’s a deep appreciation everyday for the moments we keep.

You have studied neuro-linguistic programming and currently work as a life coach, specialising in peak performance, confidence, health and lifestyle. What advice do you have for young people who have experienced a loss?

Loss teaches us.
It is OK to feel completely sad, and lost.
I chose to believe that there is no such thing as forever, and no such thing as failure, but we can always learn from everything; And once you learn, you can never un-learn.
If you have experienced a loss in your life, don’t hide the feelings that come up, just let them be.
In time, you will be ready to move forward, and when you are, ask yourself what you learnt from all this?
The quality of your life is dependent on the meaning you make of things.
If you can take everything that happens to you as feedback form the universe, you will find positive purpose, meaning and gratitude for everything that occurs in your life, and use it for your highest good.
All in good time.

Jennifer Simpson

Jennifer Simpson lost her mother to cancer at the age of 13, and her father later in life. Nowadays, when she’s not working as a freelance writer, she’s capturing these life-changing events in a memoir and volunteering as a facilitator for a young adult bereavement group in Albuquerque (USA).

Jennifer Simpson

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How would you describe your parents?

My dad was a Captain in the Navy and my mom was a Navy brat. My parents were active and involved in our lives (I have one sister). Ours was a fairly typical 70s era family: dad worked in an office and mom worked at home.  We ate dinners together, we did lots of family activities, day trips, picnics, beach days…

What are your favourite memories with them?

One of my favorite memories is from when we lived in Hawaii.  Actually most of my favorite memories come from that time, perhaps because it was before cancer, before death and grief…  our family was happy. We lived in a great neighborhood full of families, and we enjoyed our church community and we lived near enough a beach that going to the beach was a regular thing. Our best friends were The Brooks, a family that lived up the street who had two girls the same ages as my sister and I. We shared beach picnics and barbecues around their swimming pool. We even went on vacation together to The Big Island ( the island of Hawaii).  Because my dad was in the military we stayed at the Kilauea Military Camp where all eight of us shared a cabin.  And we were four adults and four children with luggage, crammed into an economy car touring the island. (or maybe it just felt like an economy car because there were eight of us) I remember bike riding and bowling, and sightseeing:  the macadamia nut farm, Rainbow Falls, the black sand beach. I was ten. I remember the five mile walk across Kilauea’s crater, sulfury steam escaping from cracks in the land where tiny ferns grew as if it were a magical fairy forest and not the barren volcano-scape where molten lava left fallen trees and blackened land. But my favorite memory from that trip is of my dad trying to ride a tandem bike from the back seat, stretching his arms out to grasp the handle bars, peddling with one foot on the back pedal and another on the front pedal.  Tony Brooks egging him on, Mom probably laughing along with us but saying, “Oh George,” with a hint of worry.

What were the circumstances that led to their deaths?

My mother died from cancer.  She was diagnosed when I was 12, and at that point we knew it was terminal. My father… well that’s complicated. In many ways he never fully recovered from my mother’s death, from undiagnosed depression to alcoholism, not to mention smoking, not eating healthy, and not exercising– he was not in great health. His death was not expected, but it was not a surprise.

Your mother died when you were just 13 years old. What was it like to experience this tragic loss at such a young age?

It’s funny you should ask this question. I just completed my MFA in creative writing, which included defense of a book length manuscript–that is now my memoir-in-progress, RECONSTRUCTING MY MOTHER.  Throughout my meetings with my dissertation adviser, he would ask, “What was that like after your mother died.” I would brush off his questions, with flippant statements like “It sucked. No one will want to read about that.” Of course as I was putting together the narrative, and looked at what I’d written in a more critical way, I noticed a big gaping hole. I’d not written anything about that time. The truth is many of my memories of that time are shadowed in gray. My father was in the Navy, as was his father and my maternal grandfather and great grandfather.  It was our family way to “soldier on.”  However, we stopped going to church and since my mother had been the one to coordinate the family social calendar we stopped socializing with many of our longtime family friends–perhaps because it was difficult for my father to attend functions as a single, in the midst of couples. Dad had always tended towards working too much, and that got worse without Mom to get him to come home at a decent time to join us for dinner.  I soon started partying and hanging with a different crowd. My grades dropped.  Everything changed.  So, basically, it sucked.

Who (if anyone) filled the void created by her death?

In many ways my grandma–my dad’s mother– filled the void.  I even lived with my grandparents during my first two years of college.

As you were growing up, were you able to talk openly about your mother and feelings with those around you?

This is big part of the impetus for writing my memoir.  No we didn’t talk openly. There were few “remember whens…” And while I can’t say my mom was erased from our lives, there was certainly no specific ways in which we remembered or honored her.

Has this become easier over the years?

For me it has become much easier.  First, because I began writing the memoir and made an effort to talk to people about my mom. And second, because I began volunteering as a bereavement group facilitator at the Children’s Grief Center in Albuquerque.

How has this experience influenced you in your adult life?

Often adolescents who lose a parent become emotionally “stuck” at that age when the loss occurred.  This is especially true if the grief has been unresolved. It wasn’t until I began studying more about grief that I recognized this in myself, but in some ways, even now, my gut response is to react to situations like a 13-year-old. I joke that the reason I seem so much younger than my 40 something years is that I am immature. But you know there is a grain of truth in every joke.

How do you memorialise your parents?

Writing the book is one way I memorialize my mother–and my father too.  Also, if you were to come into my house you’d see lots of pictures. I have an old secretary style desk with a hutch where I have on display photos of all my family– a kind of altar.

What helps you to heal?

Writing has been critical to dealing with the loss, but this was a tool that I found later in life.  And still, I’m not sure I would say I have healed. I’m not convinced that we ever fully heal. Instead, we learn to live with the loss, the hurt.

You are a regular volunteer at the Children’s Grief Center of Albuquerque. What do you do there and what inspires you to do this?

As I mentioned above, I am a facilitator for a bereavement group. Currently I work with a group of young adults (ages 18-25). I’ve also worked with teens.  Our philosophy is that a facilitator’s job is to “companion” participants through their grief and create the space where participants can share their grief and learn to tell their stories.  We do activities that are designed to memorialize the loved one who died, and activities that encourage  participants to share their feelings, and help each other.  Sharing grief lessens the load…

Soon after I moved to Albuquerque I saw a post on a community website calling for volunteers for the Children’s Grief Center.  I was compelled, mostly because I wish there had been such a place when I was 13, a place where everyone from the staff and  volunteers to the group participants “gets it.”  They don’t expect you to “get over it” or “move on” and it’s okay to be sad, to cry and even to laugh…  I am inspired by the families who make the choice to get help for themselves and their children and to share their grief and support others.

How has writing a memoir helped you?

Writing has been more helpful than I ever could have imagined.  Since writing about grief, and now even teaching a class called “Writing Grief” and the research I’ve done…  I’ve learned that the act of writing itself has tremendous physical and emotional health benefits. Also, turning trauma into a narrative is a way to make it easier to carry with you and share it with others, and make those connections we need. As Joan Didion said, “I don’ t know what I think until I write it down.”  In the writing and revising, and revising, and revising, I’ve learned so much about myself, who I am today and how my mother’s death affected me and my family.

What advice do you have for members of Our New Lives’ community who are writing about their grief for the first time?

While it is cathartic to write about your feelings, remember that the person who died is so much more than your sadness.  Remember the good times too, and write about those as well.  Let the words flow and don’t censor yourself. (You can do that when you revise.) One good exercise is to start with the phrase “I remember when….” and just go. Remember the good, the bad, the silly, the day-to-day ordinary times, the vacations, whatever comes to you. I also recommend, even these high-tech times we live in, that it’s best to start with pen on paper (or pencil, whatever you prefer). There is something about the kinetic connection between hand and heart that allows you to go deep in your writing. If you are writing to share with others, think in terms of a story or a scene with a beginning, a middle and an end complete with descriptions, dialog, and setting. And finally, read a lot. One of the best ways to learn about writing is to read, and examine what other writers are doing.  I’ve been compiling a list of grief literature, I’ve found that reading about other people’s grief makes me feel less alone.

Michelle Law

Michelle Law is an award-winning writer based in Brisbane, Australia. When she’s not maintaining her three amusing blogs or inspiring thousands with her TED talk, she’s exploring the topic of suicide for the documentary “Keep Me Safe Tonight.” Michelle details her inspiration for the film and how suicide has impacted her life.

Michelle Law. Photo by Tammy Law.

Photo by Tammy Law

What is Keep Me Safe Tonight about?

Keep Me Safe Tonight is about the ways in which we, as individuals, can help those people who are feeling isolated or suicidal feel safer. The title of the film was inspired by our initial research at a Lifeline Call Centre, where one of the telephone crisis supporters told a caller that his job was to “keep you safe tonight.” The film follows three people — a young man who once attempted suicide, a Lifeline TCS (Telephone Crisis Supporter), and a suicide bereavement counsellor who works with those loved ones and communities left behind.

What was your inspiration for this project?

The idea came about after me and my team members Corrie Chen (director) and Jiao Chen (producer) started following a Google+ Hangout with Julia Gillard. Members of the public could pose any question to the PM, and one of the questions was about what the government was doing to address the high rates of suicide among young Australian men. That led to some research into suicide rates among Australians, and we were shocked to discover that it is the leading cause of death for men under 44 and women under 34. Moreover, we were shocked that we hadn’t known about this statistic beforehand, and wanted to bring light to a topic that is regarded as taboo.

You have been personally affected by suicide. Who have you lost and what were the circumstances that led to his/her death?

My youngest uncle died by suicide in the late eighties, and the effects of his death have echoed throughout my family. He was living in Australia for some years, having fled Hong Kong amid fears of the British hand over to China. He’d just had a child and had established a business and friendships in Australia. However, he was deported for overstaying his visa, and was transported back to Hong Kong, being forced to abandon the life he’d built. Back in Hong Kong, he had virtually nothing. Mum was very close to her youngest brother and didn’t get to say goodbye to him, being back in Australia (she was a permanent citizen). She simply received a phone call alerting her to his death. I don’t think she ever fully recovered after that.

Have you been able to talk openly about this and your feelings with those around you? Why/ why not?

I think the earliest age I would have heard about my uncle’s death was perhaps 9 or 10. And my siblings sometimes talked about it amongst themselves. I remember feeling scared and sad, and felt like it clarified a lot about why Mum was often so upset. Mum has always been very open about her relationship with her brother and the nature of his death. She reminisces about him, in a bitter sweet way, but becomes very emotional afterwards. So I have experienced that grief second hand, watching how it has affected her, and that has meant my siblings and I are quite sensitive and emotional people as a result. Although I’ve wanted to, I haven’t spoken about my uncle much with my other extended family—except in passing, and in some ways quite detachedly, because I imagine they don’t want to dwell on it—and for some members of the family, his death is still a mystery, as suicide was never an idea that was openly discussed. I think that is in part due to the stigma, and in part to protect members of the family.

How has your personal experience and this film influenced you as an adult?

Personal experience has made me a much more sensitive and compassionate person. Mental illness runs through my family, so I’ve become a lot more tolerant and patient. I try to always be nice to other people because you never know what someone else is going through, and vice versa. The film has been quite beneficial for me in that it has helped me face my fears. I think beforehand I regarded suicide as something unspoken and frightening, but being forced to talk about it and research it has helped me understand that it is a much bigger problem that affects us all, although we may feel like we are dealing with it privately.

What do you hope to achieve through this project?

I hope that people who are going through tough times feel encouraged to reach out to someone without the fear of rejection, or guilt. And perhaps this is idealistic, but I hope that individuals will feel like they know what to do, what to say, and how to act, when a friend or loved one tells them they are feeling suicidal, or even lonely. The big thing we’ve learnt through making the documentary is that simply being there for the person is a big thing. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a grand gesture, just the knowledge that someone knows you care about them, they have your support, and you are available and non-judgmental.

If there is one thing you want people to take away from it, what would it be?

That if you are going through tough times, you are certainly not alone. Even the people we think have it all, or are happier than us, are going through very real and painful experiences just like everybody else. Many people in their life time will either be directly or indirectly touched by suicide, regardless of your background, age, ethnicity, or socioeconomic situation. At the end of the day, we’re all just people, all in the same boat, so the important thing is to be there for each other.

How can Our New Lives’ readers support Keep Me Safe Tonight ?

You can like our Facebook page and stay up to date with how the film is going. And keep an eye out for the film on ABC2 later this year.