“New Beginnings and Planning Ahead” is the theme for the December Keynotes Newsletter, for the New York Chapter of the Romance Writer’s of America (RWA/NYC). Being the publication’s acquisitions editor, it was supposed to be my idea. But this month, I drew a blank. Maybe because when we talk about ‘new beginnings’ we are talking about the passing of something old, and that has the “whiff of death” doesn’t it?
I am surrounded by the scent of death lately. Certainly, its out in the world, wrecking terror and havoc upon innocent people, but it’s my personal relationships that have me staring at a blinking cursor, on a blank screen. In the past year, I have experienced several losses. Some of them involved corporeal death, others a death of the heart, some financial, still others, the death of possibility. As I look to the future, I am confronted with the mortality of yet another loved one, and I am left with a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness.
At the RWA National Conference this year, I attended a workshop in which the presenter posed the question, “Why write romance? What is it about love that we can’t get enough of? It certainly isn’t for the respect of the literary community.”
A woman in the audience raised her hand and said, “Love heals.”
Immediately, I thought, “Why isn’t that a bumper sticker?” Then my thoughts circled around the experience of grief–of love lost. Of reaching out for someone you need, and finding they are no longer there. Or, of reaching out for someone you need, and finding they still aren’t there, and never were. This void is not always felt in the physical sense, sometimes it is the absence of spirit we miss most; loneliest of all when the person is a living reminder of what once was.
As a society, we do not know how to talk about or handle our grief. And this affects all aspects of life, even the most trivial. But especially our “plans” for “new beginnings.”
What exactly do I mean?
Let’s assume, for a moment, that you had a childhood pet. A dog. And this dog went everywhere with you. Protected you from monsters under the bed. Fetched your shoes (and maybe gnawed them a little too). This dog always knew when you were upset. And at those times, he would wordlessly plop his furry warmth in your lap, giving you exactly the quiet comfort you needed. This dog was your best friend.
Then, one day, he died. Hit by a car.
You couldn’t stop crying. The grief felt like a boulder in your stomach. You lost your appetite. You didn’t want to leave your room. You curled up with his chew toys and would squeak them to your parent’s distraction. They have been trying to “give you some space” for the past week, but five days is plenty long enough to mourn the loss of your furry friend. Finally, your father couldn’t take it anymore.
“Don’t feel bad, buddy, huh? Pull yourself together. Gotta keep a stiff upper lip for your mother and your sister. It’ll take time, but if you wallow in here, you’ll never get over it. Go play with friends. Keep yourself busy. Hey, I tell you what. Let’s go to the pet store tomorrow, and I’ll buy you a new dog.”
This illustrates six useless articles of what is often considered to be sage advice, when it comes to grief and loss:
- Don’t feel bad.
- Replace the loss.
- Grieve alone.
- Just give it time.
- Be strong for others.
- Keep busy.
“What do you mean ‘useless’?” You ask. “That is perfectly sound advice.”
Uh huh. Okay. Fine.
So, on Saturday, your father took you to the pet shop, and you got a new dog. He was alright, you supposed. But you didn’t love the new dog like you did your old one. It just wasn’t the same. Your parents seemed really enthusiastic about the new dog, though. They even suggested you let the dog sleep in your bed, which they never allowed your old dog to do. You could tell they really wanted you to feel better. So, for their sake, you put on a smile, figured they must be right, and decided to “fake it ’til you made it.”
Over time, the immediacy of your memories with your dead dog began to fade into the background. The pain wasn’t quite so acute. You keep waiting for that “loving feeling” to take root for you new pet…but it doesn’t. The new dog was cute enough, though. Everyone else seemed to love him. And it would be abnormal to cry over a dead pet longer than you already had.
A few months pass. Your feelings don’t really change, just kind of…settle. You start to think this must all be a part of growing up. Maybe you only feel that intensely when you are an immature child. Kid stuff.
A year passes. You’ve started sleep walking into the street. Your parents find you one night, around the spot where your old dog was hit by a car. They take you to the doctor, who puts you on sleep medication and recommends therapy.
“It can’t still be about the old dog,” they tell the shrink, “He’s been acting perfectly normal for over a year, and he loves his new pet. They even sleep together!”
Each session with the doc consists of talking about your relationship with your parents and playing checkers. But the sleepwalking seems to have stopped.
Whew. Problem solved.
If only it didn’t bother you so much the way the psychiatrist stacks his books out of alphabetical order, and always had an unequal number of notepads on either side of his desk. And that stupid blue pencil. That one blue pencil that is never completely sharpened. Shouldn’t an “expert” like him keep those things organized?
Time passes. You meet a girl. She makes you think about things you never thought about before. Like how big the world is. Like how small your town is. She makes you think you can do things. She makes you believe in yourself. You tell her everything. Everything you were ever ashamed of. And she kisses you and says you don’t have to feel that way anymore. And the shame melts away. You stop caring so much about straightening every eschewed corner. You want to do things for her. You want to make her happy. Because when she smiles, its a sign God exists.
Then she goes away to college. Cries over the phone that she misses you. It’s so hard being so far away. Maybe she should take some time alone, to adjust. To keep busy. To find other friends to talk to. That’s what her mother says.
You start to feel scared, but you know that’s ridiculous! She’d never leave you…
Eventually, you get the call: she’s dating someone new.
You haven’t felt this low since your first dog died. It’s worse, in fact. More like two boulders in your gut.
“Plenty of fish in the sea.” Your father says. “You’re young, it was only puppy love anyway. You’re better off. You’ll see. When you’re my age, you’ll laugh about it. Now, go for a jog and shake it off. I need you to help me run the store tomorrow. Work will do you good.”
And so, you do. And, eventually, you meet someone new, too. Only this time, you don’t fall into her in the same way you did the last girl. It was like she took a piece of you when she went, and you’re starting to feel there are only so many pieces you have left. After a while, your new girlfriend complains you’re too routined and “emotionally distant.”
Distant? Routined? She’s the one who insists you see her almost everyday. She sleeps in your bed, for Christ’s sake. You pay attention to her; smile, like you’re supposed to. Pay for meals, like you’re supposed to. Hang out with her friends, even though they’re caddy gossips. Hold doors. Kiss her. Hug her. Call. That’s all the shit you’re supposed to do, right? What more could you possible provide? What more could she fucking want?!
Oh. I’m sorry. Have I made you upset?
- Don’t feel bad.
- Replace the loss.
- Grieve alone.
- Just give it time.
- Be strong for others.
- Keep busy.
Go ‘head. Try it. See if it works. No? Oh, I see. Now, I have you attention.
“And what’s your smart suggestion?” you ask.
Why, I can offer you six pieces of advice:
- Feel as bad as you do.
- Don’t replace the loss.
- Find someone who shares your pain.
- Take all the time you need to acknowledge the loss and take stock of its meaning.
- Let others take care of themselves and/or know your limits.
- Don’t burn out on distractions.
Grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss of any kind, though we have been socialized to believe that these feelings are unattractive and disruptive to others. More than that, to be willing to grieve properly is to be willing to feel pain. The irony is that in an avoidance of pain, we only compound it, such as in the example above (James, J. & Friedman, R., 2009).
“But why perpetuate poisonous advice if it only hurts us in the long run?” you ask.
Somewhere along the line, these patterns of relating served a protective function. Through various interactions with his parents, a child learns certain thoughts and feelings are unacceptable and should be eliminated. As a little boy flies around the room in a cape and mask buzzing through his lips, his parent must clap and take pleasure in his display. If, instead, the parent scolds the boy, insists he must keep quiet, sit still and accept his inferior status, well, the child will do just that. He may adopt an “I’m bad,” attitude and struggle to meet the external world’s demands of “goodness,” keeping his “bad” self in check.
The same can be said for grief. If a child’s lamentations are too poignant of a reminder of a parent’s own unresolved grief and feelings of guilt, the parent will encourage the same kind of repression. Because these repressions are met with external approval and reward, a child may come to view these “defense mechanisms” as his greatest strength. As he matures, however, they may prove to be his biggest crutch.
Hendrix (2007) calls this “loss of God-given wholeness” the “ultimate sacrifice to obedience,” which leads to a fracturing of the unified self you were born with, into three parts:
Your “lost self”—the parts that were repressed due to the demands of culture and society
Your “false self”—the façade you create to fill the void and created by this repression and by a lack of nurturing
Your “disowned self”—the negative parts of your false self that were met with disapproval and were therefore denied
Hendrix notes when opposites attract, they are trying to “reclaim their lost selves by proxy.” An individual’s ideal mate is typically someone who both resembles his or her early caretakers and compensates for the individual’s repressed parts. The individual’s inner image of this person is his or her “imago.” The imago is a composite picture of those who were most influential to this individual, at an early age. Our search for an imago match is an urgent desire to heal childhood wounds. Thus, your “true love” will inevitably reopen some very sensitive injuries , but if you are able to suffer the pain of confronting them, you might find your “true self” in the process.
I refer to the “true self” as the entirety of one’s being, capable of perceiving the whole of experience; not simply the parts we choose to acknowledge. Creativity is essential to this. So is fantasy. And the ability to understand real events through felt experiences, as opposed to insisting on a revision of perception through a logical narrative. I like to think of one’s true self as his or her essential artist.
In pursuit of creative efforts we are closer to our true selves because we suspend, for a brief time, “the brick wall of reality”(Tyson & Tyson, 1990). In other words, the boundaries between the conscious and unconscious are blurred. This allows for greater integration of contradictory feelings—”unfinished businesses.” Some say grief is the price we pay for the joy of having loved, thus, the depth of your grief would be measured by your capacity to both give and receive love. Some people might choose never to love, in order to never grieve (Wolfelt, A., 2004).
Ooooh, if only life reflected the scales we like to tip and balance in our minds.
Grief can be complicated and exacerbated if we never allowed ourselves to love as we feel we could have, after the fact. If we regret. If we wasted our time erecting brick walls against the pain of loss, only to isolate ourselves from ever feeling loved. And we do this because we do not love ourselves enough to know we won’t disintegrate in the face of loss. Because perhaps we were told to sit still and be quiet one too many times, and lost our connection to the essential artist that would rather have had us zipping around the room, flexing our superpowers.
Art–such as romance writing–acts as an agent of love, in this instance, because it allows us to carry the internal representation of that love object with us. It gives us the control, in a safe, emotional space, to both ask for and receive the things we needed from that person. You must reclaim the self-loving parts you sacrificed to subordination, in order to give up a learned, unhealthy pattern. Because it makes you less of a “bad” person, to let it go. And it allows you to forgive and repair the wounds you have inflicted upon yourself and others, as a result of the wounds visited upon you. In this respect, integrative, artistic expressions of love could be considered a way to fill the holes that were left gaping. A balancing of those scales.
It is true; you cannot love without experiencing loss and grief. But they do not carry equal weight on the scale. Love is always the more powerful experience. I liken it to pigments, or the quality of calories. A blue pigment is weak, and a red pigment is strong. Combine equal portions of each and the red will dominate the blue. The same goes for calories. Eat a sugary donut that’s 500 calories, and you’ll be exhausted and starving soon after. Eat a balanced meal containing the same number of high quality calories, and you’ll still be sustained hours later. Grief cannot be reduced by how little you allow yourself to love (and be loved), only by how much love you give (and embrace), while you can.
In my family, my three sisters call me the “love bomber,” and recently gifted me a leotard that says, “What’s bad for the heart, is good for the art.” And this may be true. But what’s good for the heart is good for the art also. Because love is a paradox, and art is her agent. Art allows us to recapture our missed opportunities in love. Art makes reparations possible through play and fantasy, even if our love object is no longer available in physical reality. Art also allows us to transcend and become better than what we are.
For example, if you’re a writer, then you’ve probably hemmed and hawed over the looming “black moment” your protagonist must face. I find it is the hardest part of a story to write because it usually echoes whatever personal motivations drove me to dream up this character in the first place. Which means the character’s resolution of that moment is the resolution of a problem for which I am using my creativity to solve. This allows me to discover my essential artist self again, and share my superpowers with the world, in order to better the lives of others, too.
“Why bother with relationships at all?” You might ask. “Sounds like a lot of work with little pay off. ”
In her book, THE STRUGGLE FOR INTIMACY, Janet Geringer Woititz states, “Struggle is inevitable. Discouragement is inevitable. However, so is –sharing, loving, enhancement, joy, excitement, companionship, understanding, cooperation, trusting, growth, security, and serenity. The choice and the challenge are yours.” All of these things I wish for you, and your plans for a new beginning.