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6527212 September 15, 2010

Beating Back Grief: Darin Strauss

 "... grief, (and even the weird feeling of guilt without culpability) if not vanquished, can at least be beaten back."

Last week I had a challenging conversation with my chronically troubled mother. After she lectured me on how to vanquish the grief of my disturbing childhood by finally apologizing to her for my failures as a daughter, I explained that my grief can never be completely vanquished, only beaten back and put in its proper place.

She didn't get it.

Maybe you can understand.  I'm quite certain that my guest today, Darin Strauss, will get it.  In fact, I wish I'd had his interview answers in mind during that frustrating conversation with my mother.

I would have explained to her that during my childhood, she and I were headed in opposite directions. As I innocently drove toward some kind of magical future, she swerved time and time again, trying to escape the present. She crossed established boundaries, crashing into me. Each time I saw it coming, I desperately tried to miss her--to save her--but it was impossible. I did the best I humanly could to end her unhappiness and pain, the repetitive death of her spirit.

I do not owe her an apology.

Instead, I explained that because I was so young, because my body and soul were evolving at a cellular level, those experiences contributed to the core of who I am, bit by bit.  To reach into myself and yank all that out now would cripple me. I'm stronger with them than without them.

To quote Darin, "... of course I would change it if I magically could. But short of saving her life, if I were given the power to change places with my friend who sat in the passenger seat--in other words, someone who was pretty much unaffected by it--I wouldn't."

As Darin and I both know, some folks have it much worse than the two of us.  Everyone has their own aberrations and crosses to bear.  On Aberration Nation we've read about a woman who lost her entire family to war, a man who was stabbed 39 times as a child, people who were physically abused, etc.  Realistically, we'll never know who feels pain the deepest, who cries the most tears, or who has the most regret.  We all live in our own self-contained emotional jungles. Even when we're blessed to have visitors who share our internal world, they must still see it through their own eyes.

I suspect my mother's view has always been distorted by all that constant swerving and crashing.  When I was a child, she used to inform me with a harsh tone, "This is not your life, Penelope."  That always bothered me, as if she were belittling my very existence, turning me into some sort of ghost revolving around her.  I remember standing there, thinking, but I'm here, aren't I? I'm living. I desperately wanted to be in my own life; I wanted to be the hero of the story.

Darin has gifted me with the notion that perhaps in a way, my mother was right.  As he so simply phrases it below, "It was her story, and my part in it was to go on living."

What's your story as a writer, and how does your new memoir HALF A LIFE factor in?

I always loved books, and first attempted a novel as a 4th grader (Army of Frankensteins, a young American general, shockingly bad writing). But I didn't think of becoming a writer professionally until college. I didn't know anyone who'd tried it. But PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT changed my life. I thought: I can write about this?

HALF A LIFE is a big part of my story.  I was a normal high school kid who had a car accident. A girl cut across two lanes of a busy highway and crashed right into my car. She died. I was changed by this in ways I only fully understood 20 years later. The book is an attempt not just to tell the story and make sense of it, but to also show that grief (and even the weird feeling of guilt without culpability), if not vanquished, can at least be beaten back.

With regard to HALF A LIFE, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

My new book is all about ah-ha moments. I thought I would never write about this. (I published three novels before this book, and assumed I'd just go on writing fiction.) I found myself feeling better about the accident than I ever had before. I didn't know why, but dealing with it as a writing project--something you tinker with, shape, and turn off at night--helped. I felt some guilt about that--the fact that it was getting easier.

Then I learned that the way psychologists now deal with Complicated Grief Disorder (a disease of people much more floored even than I was) is that they have sufferers speak into a tape recorder about what is the most painful thing for them. And then the patients have to play that tape for themselves every night. This sounds like mental torture. But the transformation of personal grief into an object that can be turned off is the best path to healing. And I stumbled into it.

But when you write a memoir (something as a fiction writer I was sure, again, that I'd never do) you learn things all the time. If you're doing your job, anyway. Oh, yeah--I forgot that this happened. That was a notion I had daily.

Aberration Nation currently focuses on creativity, but it's also about how life's aberrations (whether physical, emotional, or situational) can become the kernel of our strength. In Half a Life, you write about a tragic event that shaped your life. No one wants to believe that someone's

This is kind of the nexus of the book's questions. Someone died. So of course I would change it if I magically could. But short of saving her life, if I were given the power to change places with my friend who sat in the passenger seat -- in other words, someone who was pretty much unaffected by it -- I wouldn't.

That's something I never would have believed in the years and years I was agonizing. But it made me who I am. The accident happened when I was 18. It wasn't my fault that she died; she swerved in front of me, and I tried my best to avoid her. Going over that one-tenth of a second for decades was an act of futility. I tried my human best to miss her, and I didn't miss her, but that was all I could do. And so I realized it wasn't even a story about me. It was her story, and my part in it was to go on living.

But yes, it made me stronger, I hope. And I also hope more thoughtful (in every sense).

When tragedy strikes, many of us tend to wallow over our imperfections and situations as if nothing could possibly be worse. We feel sorry for ourselves, guilty, and undeserving of happiness. We forget that there is always someone out there who has it worse than us. How were you able to avoid letting those emotions sabotage your happiness and success?

I was both wallowing (I felt terrible guilt).  I was also deeply, heart-hurtingly aware that people had it worse than I did (the girl who died's parents).  After they told me they knew for sure that it wasn't my fault--and that they expected me to live twice as successfully and well now, because I was living for two people--and then followed that up by suing me for millions of dollars, I was very wallow-y. That was heavy for an 18-year-old. (If the court case went terribly wrong for me, I could have had my wages garnished forever.) Plus I kept wondering if I could have swerved differently, or done something. So those thoughts did diminish my happiness. Which seemed fitting; again, even though it wasn't my fault, a girl died because my car hit her. That will change you. The key was not letting it define who I was.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

I think my career has caused aberrations for my wife. As a writer you're never 100 percent off-duty. So sometimes I'm not as present with her as I should be; I'm thinking of a character, a plot turn, a metaphor. But that sounds pretentious. I think it's also been great. And as Philip Roth wrote -- a character who was a writer was at his brother's funeral, and deciding how he would stage the scene in a novel -- this job even fucks up grief. (But that's probably to the good.)

For you, is writing more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be a writer and why?

I think writing is all expression. Expressing a detail, an idea, a half-formed idea. But expression is creation, right? I mean, for a writer -- expression equals creation.

In general, is writing therapeutic for you? How was writing HALF A LIFE therapeutic?

I used to subscribe to something that the writer William Gass said. (And I'm going to misquote it, probably.) "If writing is cathartic, you're not doing it right, because it's so hard--getting the prose and the form right--you can't have time to think about yourself."

But that is what makes it cathartic, I now realize. Losing yourself in the "craft" aspects of it, finding the write punctuation mark, deciding if this paragraph should follow that one, this is the kind of thing that takes you out of your grief.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

I had girlfriends who didn't get it. I once told a woman that I'd had a hard day, and she laughed. "How hard can it be? You're just making stuff up." That kind of thing.

My wife is very understanding. But it bothers her, even now, how much I work. I wrote for a few hours yesterday (Labor Day), and that drove her nuts. It's something we always have to deal with--manging each other's expectations.     

Was there ever a time when you just felt like giving up? On yourself? On writing? If so, how were you able to cross that bridge?

Sure. You feel that all the time. To quote Roth again, "The difference between an Olympic swimmer and a professional writer is that the swimmer doesn't feel like she's drowning every time she goes in."  So we all feel it--even the Philip Roths of the world.  But the key is: keep getting in the pool.

If you could tell the world one thing about overcoming tragedy, what would that be?

Too hard to answer. I guess, try to face it. Do the Complicated Grief Disorder therapy that I mentioned above. When you're ready--and only then--force yourself to play the tape over and again.

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6527212 February 05, 2009

Stillborn: An Aberration Story

"Many people just avoided me altogether ..."

This week I've been reading 25 random facts about all kinds of folks on Facebook. One particular fact pops up over and over. Every parent mentions how much their kids mean to them. "My kids are my life." "I can't imagine being without my children." "My kids changed me
forever," and so on and so forth. Being a parent is one of those timeless, instinctual rites of passage that most people hope to experience. No one needs to tell you that.

My first pregnancy was unplanned, stressful, and emotionally challenging. But when that
tiny person emerged, making me a mother, it took its place as the single most fantastical, magical moment of my life. Like the Grinch, my heart grew at least three sizes that day. I can't fathom how it would feel to anticipate that moment for nine months only to be faced with death. Newsweek ran a touching article this week on a growing trend in which parents of stillborn infants have professional photographs taken to commemorate their experience. Apparently, it's becoming a unique avenue to capture the beauty that is hidden within their heartache, a way to hold on--in a healthy way--to what they cannot have. And according to Newsweek, it's provided the first glimpse of healing for many. The beautiful photographs remind them year after year that their child was real, and that their hearts did grow despite the silence of those tiny feet.

Several years ago, Vikki, a single, highly-educated professional lived through the challenge of an unplanned pregnancy only to have it end in heartache. Vikki hasn't talked openly about her ordeal with many, and suspected that writing about it might be a good first step for her. Her experience and insight gives us all a more realistic understanding of this particular tragic aberration. For those who have lived through it, Vikki's story relays that you are not alone. And for the rest of us, it provides insight into how we might, once again, become a better friend.

You experienced and survived every pregnant woman's and parent's night
mare. Can you tell us what happened?

I lost my baby about a week before he was due to be born.

I found out that I was pregnant at work. I remember feeling this incredible urge to find out and so I left work to run to the drugstore to pick up a pregnancy test. I came back and went to the ladies room where I held my breath, peed on the stick, and waited for three minutes. Sure enough, I was 28 years old and pregnant. My very first thought was abortion, which haunts me because I am and have always been very much against abortion. After that initial thought, I remember thinking, "Well, I'll be in my 20’s when I have a baby and that will be nice." When I walked out of the restroom, I saw a colleague, who was this tiny sweet woman whom I loved dearly. I practically fell on top of her and started crying. The poor woman had no idea what was going on.

My thoughts ran to the father, with whom I had been in a relationship. I met him when I was 26. I knew he would be a good dad. I knew the exact moment of conception. We were on shaky ground, but I knew he loved me and that he would be happy. I told him and he asked me to marry him almost immediately.

I remember the stress of telling my parents. I waited until after Christmas because I wanted to keep the illusion of normalcy during the holidays--interesting how I felt that way at the time. When I finally told them, it was in my parent’s living room. I sat in a chair across from the sofa, where my parents sat, holding hands. They were supportive and loving. They knew I had not planned for this and their reaction soothed me.

My boyfriend and I purchased a house together. The move in date was right around the time the baby would be born, which was stressful because I wanted to have a nice nursery in place. I had everything ready to go when we moved in--the theme was “Winnie the Pooh.” I had four baby showers! I had everything I would need for the baby’s first six months, and I started to fall in love with him. I loved feeling his kicks. I read all the books.

I did everything right.

The week before the due date, my boyfriend and I went to a local hospital to take birthing classes. The next morning, we both noticed a lack of movement. I wasn't too concerned because I had read that the movement is not as pronounced in the third trimester. Nevertheless, I went to the hospital to have an ultrasound. I remember the nurse looking stoic. She was normally so warm so I knew something was wrong. I said, “Is something wrong?" and she said, “Well, let’s just wait for the doctor." She wheeled me back to a hospital room and left me there to wonder. The doctor came in, looked at me, then at her, and said, “Did you tell her yet?" I looked at her. She looked back at the doctor, and then he said to me, “Your baby has died."

We all experience and express grief differently. How did you initially cope and how did that change over time?

I had to wait at the hospital to have the baby. I had to be induced. I sat there for a week, knowing that I was carrying around my baby, who had been strangled by the umbilical cord. I kept thinking--the baby was alive last week! If only I had had a C-section, he would be alive today. I went into my own head and turned away all visitors. I called my best friend and asked her to tell people because I couldn’t. I told the nurses that I didn’t want to see anyone, except for my parents and my boyfriend. My boyfriend stayed with me. When I finally went into labor, he rubbed my legs. I was in pain and I was so mad that I was in pain--how dare there be more pain after this! I wanted them to give me any drugs necessary. I remember one annoying nurse getting in my face and telling me that I had to be patient. I was anything but patient. I was so mad at everyone.

When I finally came home, we had to move the next day--into the house we purchased--without Curran, our baby. Hardly anything was packed. We were all so distracted by Curran’s absence. I kept getting flowers. I gave them all to my mom. I was trying to pack. I remember my parents putting plates in newspaper and then putting them in boxes. I still looked pregnant. I was useless. I carried boxes, but I was in a different place. Everybody told me to relax. We dragged the mattress into the new living room and slept in there that night, by the fireplace under the skylights. For weeks I sat on the new deck and looked out into the woods behind my house. I got all kind of cards and letters. They sit unopened in a box, still to this day. All of the baby’s things were stored in my boyfriend’s parent’s attic.

That was when I decided to take the remaining five courses to get my bachelor's degree. I took them all in one semester while working full time. I threw myself into work and school.

How did the support you received from others impact the situation? What were the most helpful or useful gestures made by others?

People were so supportive and I leaned on them and felt their love. My boyfriend’s parents arranged for a funeral with a tiny coffin. My aunt brought me a painting and said that it reminded her of Curran. It still hangs in what would have been his room. My mom’s friend made us all dinner and didn't stay because she knew we needed time to heal. My boyfriend’s sister lost a little girl herself (in the sixth month of pregnancy), and she was totally there for me (and still is). Some of the things that stick in my mind are how my boyfriend stayed with me through everything, how my parents were there for me, how my colleagues took up a collection and sent me a check. They invited me to lunch a week before I had to go back to work so that I could ease back in. One of my friends invited me to the jersey shore for a weekend. We sat on the beach and she told me that the dolphins reminded her of Curran. At that moment we saw a big school of dolphins swim by. We cried together. We wondered if Curran was making his presence known. She later gave me a necklace with a silver dolphin. Also, my mom had a dream that her father, who had passed, was holding Curran and saying that everything would be okay--Curran was at peace. She said that there were all kinds of strange and new colors in the dream and it had to be heaven.

I believe time heals all wounds but that some heartbreak never completely goes away. The most positive thing we can do is find a positive and/or rewarding place for the scars of our past by focusing on the growth they can bring. Of course, it's not an easy thing to do. Do you believe that time heals all wounds? What role has time played for you?

Time helps but I agree, the pain is always there. This is the first time I have written about this experience and it's all coming back to me. Frankly, I tend to push it away. Talking about it so intimately is harder than I expected it to be. I have grown since losing Curran, but it makes me feel selfish to think about his contribution to my growth. What did I do for him?

I often wonder how we fully share ourselves with others, aberrations, warts, and all. I questions whether I should share my painful past, or if it's best to hold some things back and pretend they never happened. Do you find it in any way difficult to relate to your peers who haven't experience such a tragedy? Do you reserve this huge aberration for yourself, or have you been able to share it with others?

I can share with others but as it's so personal, I pick and choose the parts to share. Frankly, I think people are uncomfortable talking about it with me. After I went back to work, I remember seeing a friend and co-worker who was pregnant at the same time I was. She had her baby. I asked her where the pictures were and she pulled them out of a drawer, telling me that someone recommended that she hide them. I told her that she should display them everywhere--our situations were entirely different and I was so happy for her. Many people just avoided me altogether, and I sympathized. What could they say?

Now that several years passed, can you yet begin to see how your experience has impacted your life or the person you are today? Do you think it will continue to have an impact?

It will always be there. It shaped who I am in so many ways. The relationship with my boyfriend ended eventually. I couldn't handle the fact that he tried to push me into marrying him (we never married), and I always blamed him for being pregnant in the first place. I blamed him for giving me a baby that I loved and lost. I blamed him for being the source of my pain. I gave him a check for his portion of the house, and I still live here today. It was unfair.

Once I got my degree, I applied to a Master’s program at the University of Pennsylvania. After being accepted, I asked what it was that got me into the program, as it's was highly competitive. They told me they were impressed by the fact that I was able to carry a full course load with a full time job. They said that I must be dedicated to achieve such an accomplishment. The truth is that I loved school, but I would not have thrown myself into it to that extent if it wasn’t for Curran. Curran made many things possible for me.

What are the top three things we can do for someone who has lost a child?

1. I was comforted by the following quote: “Perhaps they are not stars, but rather openings in heaven where the love of our lost ones pours through and shines down upon us to let us know they are happy.” I think that it is important to share things that have comforted us with others who have been through similar heartache.

2. Everyone is different and handles grief in his or her own way. Be patient. Just be available. Let the person experiencing grief lean on you. He or she needs you now, more than ever, even if they don’t say they need you.

3. Don’t forget about dad. He is suffering, too. A friend at work recently said that she lost a baby, and nobody asked her husband how he was. They only asked him how she was doing. The same goes for other family members, friends. They are all experiencing a loss.

If you could say anything to the world about your child, what would it be?

I would have given Curran my whole heart. He would have been cherished by so many and would have grown to be a great man. There is no doubt in my mind that Curran was exceptional. It is sad for all of us that we never really got to know him.

“If Tears Could Build a Stairway and Memories a Lane, I'd Walk Right up to Heaven, and Bring You Home Again”. Curran M Passed Away: July 23, 2002

Mommy and Daddy Will Never Forget Our Little Angel

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