A: Yes, in fact, all of Mt. Rushmore, 60 percent of British Prime Ministers, Michelangelo, Mark Twain, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Berlin, Shania Twain, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, Julia Roberts, Nathan Lane, Mel Brooks, Cate Blanchett and even Darwin – who realized that “life is survival of the fittest” – all had early losses. Why do they become achievers? They learn early that they are mortal and become more focused. Power becomes a way to defy a sense of weakness, right a wrong and give them the immortality their parent didn’t achieve. Of course, it’s not only for the good of man. While Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Churchill all had early losses, so did Caligula, Stalin, Hitler, Milosevic and Osama Bin Laden. Loss isn’t necessarily redemptive. As Rupert Murdoch told me, anger is a great motivator. It can work either way: for the good of man, or for the worst.
Q: But not every orphan becomes a Mark Twain or Paul McCartney.
A: There must be a dormant talent and often the loss triggers it and gives it life. As playwright Tom Stoppard told me, “My father’s loss was a defining moment in my life. And while I can write, my brother can’t write a lick. How do you explain that?” But that doesn’t mean that this burst of activity – which is a good way of coping – can’t be highly meaningful and channeled to other forms of achievement. For example, scratch the surface of any charity and you’ll discover that someone was touched by loss and had the persistence and drive to put the charity on the map. In fact, I recommend starting charities or participating in ones that are linked to your loved one as a way to find and make some good out of pain. Highly focused behavior often results in achievement whether you become an accountant or a playwright.
Q: How do you keep the memories alive?
A: Virginia Woolf, who lost her mother at thirteen said, “If it’s not documented, it didn’t happen.” After the death of a loved one, letters, photographs, and videos become immensely important. It helps tie your loved ones to you. Actress Kate Benisdale talked about how she’ll put on tapes of her father when she misses him and it will provide great comfort. But as you realize and treasure your continued connections, simultaneously, you will find yourself thinking about planting your own memories. There aren’t many pictures of Dad. Are their enough of me? Who will miss me and why? Therefore, discovering the many ways we can relate to the deceased also has the potential to help us reflect on our own mortality and focus our energies into creating lasting legacies for those who will survive us. And it makes us think about how to enjoy life more fully.
Q: In grief therapy, few therapists focus on continued connections to the deceased. You assert that these connections are important. Why?
A: For most of the twentieth century, the prevailing view of grief therapy is that it is necessary to sever ties with the deceased. Most therapists follow the model by Freud, who said that in order to heal, we must cut off ties to the deceased and form new attachments. This is flawed thinking – and even Freud changed his views at the end of his life after his grandson and namesake – and his daughter – died. Yet, his early theories have become the model and have contaminated the way we deal with loss. It is very empowering to realize that our loved ones can still be in our life while we continue without their physical presence.
Q: What do you recommend? How can we keep continued connections to our loved ones?
A: Even though we can no longer touch the face of someone we love, we can still feel their presence in our lives. I recommend five steps. First, try to remember ways in which your loved one left an imprint on you. Review the ways your loved one influences you today. Are you good in math? Do you relish mystery novels? What phrases do you use of theirs? Our loved ones still live in our gestures, our mannerisms, our beliefs and our feelings.
The second strategy is to talk about the loved one. This is VERY important because only when you stop talking about them do they die. Tell stories and share those stories. Share your father’s wisdom, your sister’s humor. Also, ask people about their loved ones. This is what I call buried treasure. When you find out new stories about a loved one – how they did an all-nighter in college and lived on cold pizza, who they dated, their first job at work, funny experiences, it gives fresh memories to enjoy.
The third strategy is weaving your loved one’s interest into the fabric of your life whether it is gardening or painting. Following the death of J.R.R. Tolkien, his son Christopher drafted the book The Silmarillion based on his father’s life. Natalie Cole used music to connect to her father.
The fourth strategy is to have a possession of your loved one in your life, whether it’s pictures, pieces of jewelry, a painting, a favorite book or a worn cashmere sweater.
The fifth strategy is to create a special place for your loved ones during ceremonial times. For example, a pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks kept a seat at all the baseball games empty to represent his father. At family dinners, I recommend making a toast to all family members, and then mention the deceased as being part of the fabric of family life. Also, if you wonder what a loved one would do or seek advice, ask the question before you sleep. Many religions believe that our soul leaves our body at night since sleep is the closest state to death and it’s where our loved ones can communicate more easily. This is not a recipe to live in the past. Instead, it just shows how you can move on but still have the loved one in your life.
Q: How do you do this?
A: For Thanksgiving or special holidays, I’ll go around the table and ask what everyone is thankful for. I’ll make a toast to my father for bringing me a love of sports and gin games. Other times, I’ll share a tradition in Ethiopia where the elder person pours a drop of wine on the floor – at our house, we put it into another glass – to summon the spirit of those deceased and have their wisdom at our dinner table. I’ll go around the table and ask the name of a parent or loved one not there and we’ll then all drink a toast to them. This also teaches children that they are part of a greater family and that the deceased is still part of their life. Therefore, when you’re gone, you’re children won’t be afraid about talking about you. It will seem natural. This is how cultures handled death prior to World War II – as a normal part of life.
Q: How can parents use pop culture to help their children heal?
A: A great deal of our popular mythology is based on how loss – often of a parent – has been the driving force for change, growth and ultimate greatness. Think about it. Superman, Simba, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, King Arthur, Hansel and Gretel, Heidi, Tarzan, Cinderella, Madeline, Bambi, Batman, and more all lost a parent. They are but a few of the icons who were struck a heavy blow but rebounded and transcended the experience to become heroic. A hero must be different. For a child who is keenly aware of his father’s absence at school plays, who envious