Don't Let Death Ruin Your Life: A Practical Guide to Reclaiming Happiness after the Death of a Loved Oneby Jill Brooke
Drawing on her own personal experience
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For decades, the prescribed philosophy for those coping with the death of a loved one has been to advise the bereaved to "move on" and sever ties with the deceased, acknowledging the pain associated with loss but not the growth that can come from it. This ideology has proven not only ineffective, but in many cases destructive.
Drawing on her own personal experience with loss, as well as her tutelage under the leading pioneers of grief therapy, Jill Brooke offers not pat answers, but obtainable solutions that can transform grief into practical motivation.
Including tips on how to preserve our memories, create lasting family histories, and reach out to others, Don't Let Death Ruin Your Life shows how the experience of grieving helps us to heal, learn, and grow. Filled with gentle guidance and practical advice, this indispensable handbook takes readers on a journey that will motivate, inspire, and transform their lives.
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For many, the thrill of pending motherhood awakens with the grainy sonogram from the doctor's office, which like a paint-by-number drawing outlines the body of your child. For others, it's the excitement of the first kick, that surefire sign that someone is living inside your swollen belly. But for me, it was neither of those things. The moment I experienced the thrill was right before my baby shower.
There, on the creamy blue stationery decorated with old-fashioned bassinets, was the first time I saw my baby's name spelled out. "Please join in the celebration of the pending arrival of Parker Leon."
Such magical words. Such emotional power lying among the stream of consonants and vowels. I remember caressing the letters so very gently and mouthing the words in a hopeful whisper. Parker Leon. Parker Leon. A name is so much more than a medley of sounds. In the same way an artist uses clay to create a sculpture, parents use a name to shape a personality.
In many religions, it is customary for parents to take either the first letter or the name of a deceased relative and give it to a newborn. It is said this tradition gives the loved one who has passed away immortality.
And I hope that is true. Because Parker Leon is named after my husband's father, Perry, who died five years ago, and my father, Leon, who died more than twenty years ago. His name was Leon Brooke.
When I brought my baby back from the hospital, I hoped deep down that a remnant of my fatherwouldbe reincarnated in this little boy. However, Parker, with hair the color of caramel and flesh as soft as pizza dough, didn't resemble him at all. Yet each day, I would begin a new search. Could I find something of my father in the lentil-shaped ear? Perhaps I'd see some glimmer of recognition in those Fred Flintstone feet. Or maybe, I hoped, I could see my father in Parker's dancing blue eyes, set inside a face that resembled a bright full moon. Yes, those are from him, I thought, as was his smile, so warm it could melt the icicles hanging from our living room window.
My search, I later learned, was not uncommon. My friend Alisa lost her dad when she was seven. Years later when she had her son Gregg, she noticed his pinkie finger curled in a locked position. Far from being concerned, she was pleased. Her father had had the same quirk, and this inherited trait gave her a strange form of comfort. "I have so few memories of my father, but this was vivid," she recalls. I understood what she meant.
I've waited so many years to see a sign of my father, to hear his thickly accented voice with its strong German lilt, to smell the scent of Old Spice splashed on after a shower, to see him hovering over The Wall Street Journal with a Tiperillo cigar dangling from his lips, laughing over a funny story about some farmer making a fortune from donkey dung.
Now my son is a living reminder of what I loved in my father. Through Parker, Leon lives on. He lives on in my son's name and in the stories I will tell him about his grandfather, stories that will make my father as real as he is in my heart, stories that, if I do my job, Parker will tell his children.
Some of Parker's mannerisms already conjure up images of my father in surprising ways. Sometimes I'll be tickling him on the floor, and he'll flash me a smile, and I will be transported back to another time and place.
These are pleasures I do not take for granted.
Anyone who has lost someone to death feels robbed and cheated. Often, the memory of a loved one becomes blurred like a Seurat painting. From a distance, it seems like a beautiful detailed landscape, but up close, there's only a collection of dots. I yearned for someone to join the dots, to fill in the spaces I didn't know, to provide a fleshed-out portrait of my father that I could see and feel and touch. Because when my father died, I was too young to really know him and not mature enough to figure out how to.
Although he had been ill for years, my parents hadn't prepared my brother and me for his death. Yet the signs were there. The plastic pill bottles sitting ominously on the dresser, the scar of his pacemaker peeking through his pajama shirt, his skin tone becoming as white as chalk. But my father would never admit any weakness. "I'm fine, sweetheart," he assured me when I confronted him. Naively, I believed him.
"Parents think their job is to protect their children and shield them from pain," explains Dr. Robin Goodman, a counselor at New York University Hospital's oncology unit. "It's almost superstitious. 'I'm not going to talk about this.' As though it will go away. Sadly, they often waste precious time that could have been spent preparing together."
Two days before Thanksgiving, my mother's screams woke me up.
Running into their room, I saw him lying down in his bed holding his stomach. I grabbed his hand and held tightly. "It will be okay, Daddy," I said, attempting to reassure him. But I was really trying to reassure myself.
Within moments his fingers started to slowly unfurl and slip away from my grasp, creating a stillness that seemed both surreal and endless. He had died of a massive aneurysm. Later I realized we had never talked about his feelings about life, or even the afterlife, nor had we discussed many things that from that moment forward would always matter.
Part of the reason is my family's history.
My mother, Celia, was five when her mother died of a heart attack at forty-two, leaving her Russian immigrant father, who died twenty years later, alone with five children to raise. Emotions were considered frivolous, a luxury this struggling family could not afford. Like many families facing grief, the pain was repressed and never discussed. My mother emerged from this environment cool and distant, highly efficient but lacking any maternal warmth.
Almost thirty years her senior, my father, Leon, was a handsome, cultured man, who had also survived a devastating blow. During the 1930s, his family was living in Vienna as the Holocaust infected Europe. His mother, Tanya, was a true philanthropist, a woman who believed "net worth is not self-worth." She opened her kitchen on Sundays to struggling artists as well as the homeless and poor. My grandfather Alvin owned shoe factories throughout Europe. Despite their sons' pleas, my grandparents couldn't believe that harm would come their way given their position in Viennese society and their good deeds. They chose to remain in Europe while their sons fled to the United States.
It cost them their lives. My grandfather committed suicide before being taken to a concentration camp and my grandmother was killed in Treblinka.
Fifteen years later, when my father met my mother, he had become a very successful slipper salesman. She brought to the union youth and beauty. He provided security. Neither asked probing questions. That, I believe, was the attraction.
As my brother, Peter, and I were growing up, the household was curiously empty of memories. Rarely were stories told about our grandparents, or about their childhood. No old pictures peered at us from ancient silver frames.
Yet I yearned for a larger family connection. Once as a teenager, I visited my friend Fran's house and we trekked up to her attic filled with half-opened boxes and trunks of old clothing. "Can you believe my grandmother wore this?" Fran giggled as she pulled an old lace dress from a trunk. Even then, I felt a stab in my heart, because I was acutely aware that my family lacked any link to its past.
Many years after my father's death, I casually asked my mother if my grandfather had any siblings. It came as a shock that she didn't know.
"How close could you have been to Daddy if you didn't know about his childhood?" I asked.
"He didn't want me to know" was her steely reply.
As Dr. Joe Rosenthal, a New York-based therapist, observed, "People make choices in how they deal with pain. They often choose to forget as a coping mechanism. Or they choose to remember."
Unlike my mother and father, and many of their generation, I have made the choice to remember. I want to remember everything so my child will not grow up with as many questions as I did. Because having a past rich with memories blankets a child with security and a comforting sense of continuity.
The other day I thought about how pioneer women would spend the summer months cooking over a stove to preserve jams and vegetables for winter's trying times. But now I can go into my own storage closet and retrieve my preserved memories, those that I've gathered over the years, along with the ones that were given by my father directly to me. And Parker now has his own shelf, which I'm stockpiling with his personal histories, so that he, too, can visit when needed.
Because you never know when that need will come.
As the ambulance raced through the streets of New York City, its sound seemed eerily familiar. Instead of focusing on the blood that was gushing out of my body, I was entranced by the ambulance's sound. What was it?
"Miss, are you with us?" the EMS helper cried.
"Yes," I replied hazily.
His voice interrupted my thoughts and I peeked to my side, where my husband held my hand, his face tightened with fear. "Hold on," he said. "We're almost there." Another EMS helper, whose kind eyes reminded me of a Labrador's, was busy finding towels and sheets to contain the blood.
"Please, God, don't let me die," I prayed. "Please."
But the prayer wasn't for me.
Ever since my father died, I had lived every day to the fullest. In a way, those of us who have lost a parent are lucky. We realize how precious and fleeting life can be. My father's death became the prism through which I gauged everything. Boyfriend doesn't call. Not a real problem. Boss is a jerk. So what?
But this was a real problem. I was hemorrhaging and on the verge of dying. Only one in five million had this casea cervical pregnancymeaningless odds if you happen to be that one. An experimental treatment to slowly drain the fetus of nutrients so it wouldn't kill me had resulted in the placenta puncturing my arteries, looking for a blood supply to feed the fetus.
As I realized foggily that my life could end, my eyes teared. "Oh, God, please don't make Parker go through what I did. Please don't let my son have to live a life without really knowing his mother."
At the hospital, I was rushed into the operating room, and as the anesthesiologist plunged the needle into my arm, I drifted to sleep. And then I remembered. The sound, the sound. It was the same sound as my little boy's fire truck.
"She's coming out of it," the nurse said to the doctor who then approached me. "Well, that was a close one," he said, smiling. Then his face became serious as he explained the consequences of what had transpired. I had lost over half my blood. To save me, the doctors had performed a hysterectomy. I would never be able to have another child. The recovery would be a long one.
However, I did have my other child, my only child, my son, Parker. If I had died, what would Parker have had to remember me?
Not many photographs existed of us together, because along with short-order cook and caregiver, my job was also picture taker. So Parker would have been left with drawers full of snapshots, of him giggling in delight while playing with his puppy, of him strutting like a gold-medal winner while taking his first steps. But the shots would be mostly of him alone or with his father and two older stepsisters, Vanessa and Jessica.
A handful of videos of his mother's work as a CNN correspondent would be stacked on a closet shelf, as well as cover stories from magazines and newspapers. Nothing would have context, no little notes about the struggles and joys in getting from point A to Z.
Nor would there be any videotapes telling him how much I loved him, tapes where I would have dispensed advice on everything from the importance of good table manners to my thoughts on compassion and kindness.
Missing would also be letters documenting my love for him, even on those trying days when his high-octane energy drained me to my limits.
And because he was only a year old, who would tell him enough stories so I wouldn't be a ghost, so I wouldn't be the stranger in the handful of remaining photos?
For so many years, I had kindled the memory of my father so he wouldn't be a ghost in my life. Now I realized that planting memories was one of the most important jobs for the living, my one-way ticket to immortality.
These were the thoughts that raced through my mind as I began my recovery, a recovery that required a painful mourning and inexorably forced me to examine my life more fully once again.
My sadness at times was suffocating because I had already had so many plans and dreams for my unborn child. I also was sure that my little girl, already named Annabel, would become the best of pals with her brother Parker. Parker would later be her historian, in the same way Peter is mine. Who, I wondered, would comfort him when his heart was broken and remind him that while little Willow rejected him, Lily loved him so. Who could look in his crystal ball and see his life in its entirety?
Any loss rekindles the losses before, and this one took me back to another time so long ago. At sixteen, I was ill equipped to have many coping mechanisms. As an adult, you have a reservoir of resources to draw upon because you are a fully developed person. Yet when the loss occurs in childhood or adolescence, it is absorbed into the child's identity, saturating every cell.
In those days, I found meaning from my loss by defiantly making sure I would emerge from the emotional debris never having to depend on anyone again, although I was also left with the unsettling insecurity that nothing is permanent. This time, I took all my feelings of sadness and injustice, and channeled them into researching the ways human beings have coped with loss. I was determined this time to understand death and not be afraid of it.
Years ago, my father's death forced me to sort out my place in the world and turned a teenager into an adult almost overnight. This time, a death created the birth of this book.
Loss is often a muse. Loss is often a motivating force. This is the essence of this book. By finding a productive outlet for the intense emotions that the grief process triggers, many have enhanced the human experience in the arts, in business, in politics and in science. Loss also compels us to throw a lariat of love around our family and friends and appreciate more fully the precious times spent together.
Dr. Francine Cournos, a psychiatrist and teacher at Columbia University as well as the author of City of One, a book about her childhood as an orphan, believes that loss is a springboard for achievement. "So much attention is given to the feelings of pain associated with loss, but there are ways to use the pain in productive ways," she says. "It often provides the impetus to push one's abilities beyond safe and predictable limits. The person doesn't believe he has time to waste, because time is now a luxury. Therefore, the person becomes extremely focused."
Scratch the surface of most charities or social movements and you'll discover that they were started by someone who wanted to right a wrong. It requires someone with dogged determination and a driving, burning passion to create an organization and put it on the map. It requires people like Nancy Brinker, a single mother whose sister's death from breast cancer left her with a blinding desire to help find a cure. The Florida real estate executive John Walsh, whose son Adam was murdered, became a victim's rights advocate, which resulted in the creation of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. As the anthropologist Margaret Mead observed, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
Some people have channeled their feelings of emptiness into creating great works of art or music or literature. The list is impressive. Bach, Beethoven, the Beatles, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Mark Twain, Hans Christian Andersen, Tom Stoppard, Edward Albee, Mary Higgins Clark, Eric Clapton, Ray Charles, Edith Wharton, Charlotte Brontë Dante, Edgar Degas, Robert Frost, Voltaire, and so on.
Loss also ignites the desire to master one's environment and leave a mark on society. Dr. Pierre Rentchnick, who was a professor at Geneva University, found that boys who have lost their fathers make up the great majority of revolutionaries and political leaders. In American history, many of the towering figures who transformed and shaped democracy were children of loss. They include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt as well as his wife, Eleanoreven President Bill Clinton.
Starting from earliest records, ten of the twelve Caesars also fit this pattern as did subsequent leaders such as Peter the Great, Elizabeth I, Simón Bolívar, Benito Juárez, Napoleon and Gamal Nasser.
In the past two years, I've interviewed hundreds of people about losssurvivors, bereavement specialists, researchers, doctors, nurses, therapists, social workers, historians and philosophers as well as people who overheard me speaking about the subject in restaurants or the gym and felt compelled to share their stories with me. What surprised me is how many people hungered for this information. At a restaurant, a woman at a neighboring table excused herself to ask me questions.
"I never ever discuss my brother," she confessed, her voice dropping to a whisper. "I loved him so much, but people discourage me from talking about him. You feel it and this has silenced me. The silence hurts more. It's the silence that lives with you."
I then shared with her ways people can discuss loved ones without making people feel uncomfortable and the rituals we can use to keep them in our lives even though their physical presence is not with us.
Loss impacts us in so many ways. Its tentacles are far reaching, crawling into all parts of our lives. Because I don't know whether you are in the throes of early loss, when walking to the kitchen seems like a Herculean task or whether more time has elapsed and the pain is less acute, I've treated this project like a cookbook of sorts where you can sift through it to find recipes that apply to you individually.
The book will give you some direction on how to find outlets for your pain, how to find someone to talk to and how to examine various therapies available. A step-by-step guide is also provided on how to start a charity, create a family genealogy, videotape a loved one, survive holidays and anniversaries and handle family politics. It will also offer advice on making a will, planning a grand finale and creating hundreds of family rituals so that you can ensure you will always be remembered when it is your time to say good-bye.
Early in my research, I visited the wise and feisty Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. The doctor is considered the pioneer in bringing the discussion of death and loss into the mainstream with her landmark book, On Death and Dying. Sitting in her Arizona home, surrounded by pictures of her family and Indian artifacts, we talked about grief therapies and philosophies and how death seems so random in how it touches one family and not another.
"What do you say then to the survivors who must pick up the pieces?" I asked.
Looking at me with a knowing smile, she replied, "You can tell them that you can't change the direction of the wind. But you can control the setting of the sails."
What People are Saying About This
(Dr. Phyllis Silverman, social scientist at Harvard Medical School and author of Never Too Young to Know: Death in Children's Lives)
(Bill O'Reilly, host of The O'Reilly Factor)
Meet the Author
Jill Brooke's articles have appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, Redbook, McCall's, and Ladies' Home Journal, among other publications. A former CNN correspondent and a columnist for the New York Daily News, she is currently editor in chief of Avenue magazine, and host of the radio show on parenting What Do I Do Know?
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