Now that shooting is underway, I am receiving more and more recommendations of books and blogs and films from those sitting for interviews. I love this sharing that comes along the way of exploring a subject. While my subject is how the living live with death, loss and the knowledge of mortality rather than how the dying live with death, I was particularly moved this morning by an online photo-doc project by Andrew George called Right, before I die. It’s basically about people who have come to some kind of reflective, waiting peace about where they are. However, in terms of regrets, quite a few people looked back on the time they had spent and noted that they had not married their soul mate or the great love of their lives. As one older man, Jack said,
My wife wasn’t the greatest love of my life.
A woman named Kim said,
A guy named Marcos, we are soul mates. …That was my true love and always will be. It doesn’t matter who I married.
Another subject, a younger woman named Sarah said,
Life is definitely not infinite. You never know what is going to come up and you really have to take risks. …I missed out on relationships.
My instinct says that it is only their approaching deaths that bring out such honesty of feeling. Sarah is most onto something when she talks about risks. We need to risk living while we are still thriving and risk honesty of emotion when it can most make a difference, when it can actually pilot our lives. I do find though that just having been touched by the deaths around me, I am more prone to fight for what for the truth of what actually is and is unchanging or unchangeable as unpleasant or uncomfortable or as inconvenient as it may be.
Shooting started this week and it was certainly good to be back behind the camera and talking to people. At this stage, the project is still taking shape and I’m on the hunt for treasure, i.e. the magical images or words that come forward that I wasn’t even expecting. Friends and acquaintances are still recommending people to me for potential subjects and many others are telling me their own story. There are a lot of people who have grief in their life and loss they can do nothing about but learn to live with. It is very humbling to me that with just a few words of my story, they are willing to share their own.
On the tech side, I love the C100. It’s really like shooting film again with the ease of capturing audio the video way. For those in the know, I think I took the zebra settings a bit too seriously and was down by maybe one more stop than was necessary but the bokeh is still beautiful. The Canon CN-E lenses are serious business!
This morning I came across an article What Should We do with the Online Dead?
The issue of virtual memorials struck a chord with me, although not everyone, including my sister, leaves a blog or personal website behind that forms the backbone of an online legacy. I am well aware that I am the keeper of her memorial in whatever form it takes and the film I am doing now is an aspect of that. To me, there are real issues to be explored along the lines of “How Should We Behave About Death Online?”
A friend of mine from school told me how she and her husband raced home after the death of his mother, rushing to tell their children in person before they saw an aunt’s posting on Facebook. They got home within twenty minutes and the Facebook posting had already gone up but fortunately their kids had not seen it yet.
I remember also a young girl still in high school in the hospice kitchen with her best friend. I was getting a cup of coffee and her father had just died moments before. With tears coming down her face, she was calling her friends to tell them what had happened and pleadingly asking them to stay off of Facebook until she could decide how to handle it.
In the day after my sister’s death, aunts and uncles who hadn’t seen my sister in years took to posting on Facebook, taking public sympathy laps that I found extremely vulgar and self-serving (especially for people in their 60s and 70s). The relative that started Facebooking, hadn’t seen my sister the last year and a half of her illness and had had a bad final phone call with my sister that caused my sister to ask me to cancel any wake we might plan for her. Other relatives who chimed in were ones that hadn’t seen her in even longer. One uncle, who seemed so sentimental online, never returned my sister’s last phone call to him three months before she died. (She left a couple of messages and he basically blew her off.) He and many others did not even attend her funeral. However, online they treated my sister’s death as if it was some kind of event or happening of which they did not want to be left out. But worse, it seemed that they were crafting a false relationship for the public to see that portrayed them as far more present and loving than they were.
In the end, I realized their Facebook postings were mostly for themselves, serving as a construct of a family and love and loyalty that they did not actually possess and a very weird way for them to publicly grieve amongst themselves and with other Facebook friends unrelated.
So much of social media is driven simply by our efforts to construct reality and ourselves, to get others to see us as we want to be seen, to accumulate numbers of friends and connections that in many cases do not at all signify real relationships, and to build a look of a life that may never ever have existed at all.
I’ve spent a long time deciding on what to do with my sister’s things – her physical remains, her clothes, her journals, everything she had. I closed the credit cards and bank accounts and paid the debts that could be paid. But for now, I’ve let her social media and email accounts be. They are certainly not Michelle, not even close to who she was. But every once in a while someone posts something on her pages. It’s really something about themselves, something aspirational, something myth-building about a relationship that they do not have and most likely never had at all. It’s fantasy and like all fantasies some of their postings are beautiful and some are ugly.
David Eagleman expresses…beautifully in his collection of short stories, SUM: “There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.” So on the one hand, we get to carry our loved ones with us much longer than perhaps we thought. But on the other hand, Eagleman also says, “Since we live in the heads of those who remember us, we lose control of our lives and become who they want us to be.” So it’s a double-edged sword. But it’s our double-edged sword; it’s just the nature of our impermanence. The situation isn’t much different as when we’re alive; even in living we are what people think we are.
I still do wish that people would be more humble and modest and delicate and would refrain from jumping on social media the moment they hear someone they know has died. I may be the keeper of my sister’s memorial but the thing I spend the most time thinking about how to respect the mystery that was my sister, the life inside her that only she knew. No amount of digital portraiture can do that justice for any of us.
Shooting starts next week and I’m drafting a post to wrap up how pre-production has concluded. However, in the meantime, I came across a posting on the Dish that appealed to me because it combined the subjects of my last film and my current film by addressing how women, who provide the majority of end-of-life care, are particularly impacted:
The burden of unpaid care work that women continue to shoulder plays a major role in women’s persistent economic inequality. Directly, there is the opportunity cost that comes when women cut back hours or drop out of the paid labor force to provide care; economist Nancy Folbre has referred to this cost as the “care penalty.” Indirectly, unpaid care work affects women’s compensation in the paid labor market. Research has shown that a portion of the gender pay gap is attributable to the fact that women with children are, on average, paid less than their otherwise identical counterparts. Another study found that working in a caregiving occupation is associated with a 5 to 10 percent wage penalty, even when skill levels, education, industry, and other observable factors are controlled for.
As writer Jane Glenn Haas pointed out, eldercare isn’t sexy enough to be a feminist issue. It lacks the naughty allure of reproductive rights, the seductive appeal of body image. It doesn’t even have a sassy Lean In-like catchphrase. But it should be a feminist issue, since the numbers show that women are most likely to shoulder the responsibility of looking after parents in their twilight years, and the most likely to live well into those twilight years. A lot of them have missed out on career and educational opportunities. A lot of them—like my mother and her friends—are doing this by the skin of their teeth, with scant to nonexistent resources. A lot of them will outlive their spouses (if they have them), exhaust their pensions (if they have them), and die alone.
The fuller article on the Baffler is here. The blog post that started it all, a personal essay really, called Eldercare: The Forgotten Feminist Issue and quoted above is here. And I include the lovely picture of the mother of the writer, Jamie Nesbitt Golden, as this post’s featured image because all of us caregivers can relate.
Research goes on. Just finished the poignant Lament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstorff. Besides being a very quick read, which when you are doing research is much appreciated, it is indeed a deep lament. Even though I have not lost a son, I easily recognize the states of feeling and mind filling the pages.
Let me try again. All these things I recognize. I remember delighting in them. Trees, art, house, music, pink morning sky, work well done, flowers, books. I still delight in them. I am still grateful. But the zest is gone. The passion is cooled, the striving quieted, the longing stilled. My attachment is loosened. No longer do I set my heart on them. I can do without them. They don’t matter. Instead of rowing, I float… I’ve become an alien in the world, shyly touching it as if it’s not mine. I don’t belong anymore. When someone loved leaves home, home becomes mere house.
I can testify that this is mood or state that that blows through one during the first year after death. As a person who has been bereaved and is still sorting it out, I find the personal accounts – my story, your story – to be where the comfort is. I’ve noticed this both in the bereavement group I’ve attended and in the variety of books I’ve read. When I am in group and it’s being run ineptly, the facilitator is droning on about some statistical or anecdotal fact of grieving. It’s not comforting. It’s a display. When the group speaks and stories are told, there is resonance.
When I consider Fatherloss, my last piece of reading research. I cannot say it was not informative. But it wasn’t moving or comforting. The author came between me and the stories of his subjects by focusing more on his interpretation of them than letting them speak for themselves. And percentages of this type of loss and that type of response are valuable but not for those who’ve actually had the loss and are looking for consolation.
Something I need to bear in mind as I start shooting. Bereaving is like filmmaking: It’s more important to follow the river of feeling than the trail of facts.
This little observation about life after loss came to me via Andrew Sullivan. The full piece by Roger Angell appears in the New Yorker.
A few notes about age is my aim here, but a little more about loss is inevitable. “Most of the people my age is dead. You could look it up” was the way Casey Stengel put it. He was seventy-five at the time, and contemporary social scientists might prefer Casey’s line delivered at eighty-five now, for accuracy, but the point remains. We geezers carry about a bulging directory of dead husbands or wives, children, parents, lovers, brothers and sisters, dentists and shrinks, office sidekicks, summer neighbors, classmates, and bosses, all once entirely familiar to us and seen as part of the safe landscape of the day. It’s no wonder we’re a bit bent. The surprise, for me, is that the accruing weight of these departures doesn’t bury us, and that even the pain of an almost unbearable loss gives way quite quickly to something more distant but still stubbornly gleaming. The dead have departed, but gestures and glances and tones of voice of theirs, even scraps of clothing—that pale-yellow Saks scarf—reappear unexpectedly, along with accompanying touches of sweetness or irritation.
Liam Neeson is starting to speak about the loss of his wife, Natasha Richardson, five years after her death. (He is so articulate. I hope he speaks more. …Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to get an interview at some point.)
I love it, of course, when men come forward to share their journeys! They are providing guides to other men and some comfort whether they know it or not. I also was glad to hear Anderson Cooper’s observations about how little we discuss grief publicly. That lack of “grief talk” increases the social isolation felt by so many.
Finished up Widower and am now a quarter of the way through Fatherloss. I enjoyed Widower so much…or at least can say I found it moving and informative. I think this is because the interviews in the book preserved the voices of the men as they relayed their stories and experiences. The author let them tell their own stories straight from their own mouths. All the different voices and personalities came through. (For me, it was just like going to bereavement group!)
Fatherloss, however, draws on the interviews of 376 different men and Neil Chetchik, the author, paraphrases all the interview. The first-hand words of the subjects are only referenced in pull quotes here and there. (Chetchik bills himself as an “Expert on Men” which seems like a mighty inflated claim. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t let his subjects talk!)
What is nice about Fatherloss so far is the sprinkling of stories of public figures dealing with father loss as a way to introduce new segments. For example, JFK Jr. who lost his father before he had any memory of him experienced one kind of grief. Someone like Michael Jordan, whose father died when he was thirty had a very different kind of grief. (e.g. He instantly lost all interest in basketball and took up baseball to fulfill what he thought was his father’s wish.) These narratives are ones with which we are all vaguely familiar but they take on a new dimension when viewed through the loss of their fathers.
I’m still hoping to find some good research material on men’s grief in relation to the loss of a mother. No one has written a book about this it seems. Some kind of taboo maybe? If it’s still considered awkward and/or verboten for a man to experience prolonged grief at all, I guess it’s even more forbidden for a man to be grieving his “mommy” in any on-going way.
Also, still looking for some meaningful material on sibling loss for men. As one blogger I came across noted:
I have actually found more support for people who are grieving the loss of a pet, than I have for people who have lost a brother or a sister.
In my experience, sibling loss definitely gets low ratings on the empathy and attention meter. What would have been my sister’s 51st birthday passed recently. Even though I was my sister’s caretaker, health care proxy, power of attorney, etc. etc., even though I’m the one who planned the funeral and cleaned up her business, all the calls of remembrance, every single one, went to my mother.
Brain Pickings offers a plethora of suggestions for how to handle creative blocks. Two of my preferred methods are listed. I prefer physical distraction (after I self-assign my brain to go away and work on a problem without my attention.) I get a lot of solutions in the shower and when I’m falling asleep this way. The second is by trying to put together all the things that are absorbing my interest at any given time – from memes I’ve seen on the internet to the thing on the Science Channel I think is interesting to the issues I’m having with a friend. What’s the common thread? How do these things fit together? The author Jessica Hagy recommends reading books to prep what I call “brain stew” to gather information as such:
By forcing your mind to connect disparate bits of information, you’ll jump-start your thinking, and you’ll fill in blank after blank with thought after thought. The goblins of creative block have stopped snarling and have been shooed away, you’re dashing down thoughts, and your synapses are clanging away in a symphonic burst of ideas.
Many good suggestions and links to others at Brain Pickings.
Legendary lands and places are of various kinds and have only one characteristic in common: whether they depend on ancient legends whose origins are lost in the mists of time or whether they are an effect of a modern invention, they have created flows of belief.
The New York Times is running an eight-part blog series in its Opinionator column written by Olivia Judson, a biologist and writer based in London, on her experience with packing up her parents’ house in Baltimore after the death of her father. It’s called “the Task.” Dealing with “the stuff” is, in my opinion, an annoying aspect for the next of kin. For every meaningful item, there are twenty pieces of stuff you would rather not deal with. The whole process of cleaning out becomes metaphorical to your grief, your relationship with your dead loved one, and to life and existence itself in sometimes ridiculous ways.
I’ve heard all kinds of stories and debate even amongst the bereaved about when and how to clean out. Some people clean out everything instantly. Some people resolutely make a shrine by removing nothing – which in my view is a terrible way to go because the effect is simply to pass your task of cleaning out to some other next of kin.
When you tackle the Task, you struggle constantly with the value of things. What’s this worth to you? Is it worth something to someone else? Is it worth something to anyone? What’s it worth to your dead loved one? You don’t want to disrespect them, you think. Of course, sometimes you think, they didn’t think about you by being such a pack-rat! Then there’s the stuff you find you didn’t expect. And there’s the stuff you’re looking for that you cannot find.
My parents’ house at one point was so cluttered up with stuff that I joked that when it came down to it, I was just going to burn down the house for the insurance money rather than clean up their mess. I tried to sell my sister on it as a plan but she would just laugh and roll her eyes. So much for that though anyway. Not only did I clean up their house but I’ve been so involved in its upkeep and renovations for years now that I’m paranoid that something might happen to it before it gets fully back into proper shape.
However, I still have one little part of my father’s closet to clean out and he passed away almost four years ago. And as for the things of my sister who passed away last spring, the two car garage houses only one car because the furniture from her apartment and boxes of her stuff that wouldn’t fit inside the house is there. It was only a year and a half ago that I packed up her apartment and arranged a move while she was in the ICU. I spent a month driving in exhausted circles between her apartment, the house and the hospital. When the move finally came, the movers did the furniture on Friday and Hurricane Sandy hit the following Monday and there was no rest as we were plunged into a ten day blackout. It’s probably going to be some more time before I have the energy to revisit all that stuff.