Catch-up grief: how visiting my brother helped me grow

by Jerry Waxler

When my older brother Ed was diagnosed with cancer, he was 37, married, with two young children and the owner of a growing cardiology practice in a small town in Georgia. It did not take long for the disease to rip it all away. When he died, I was 30, still entrenched in my protracted struggle to grow up. We were living almost a thousand miles apart and so I experienced his death once removed, as if the loss was happening to someone else.

As I write my memoir, these 32 years later, I discover the gaping hole his death created, as if I was postponing my grief until I was mature enough to better understand what happened. I now watch our relationship unfold in slow motion, and this time I intend to learn as much as possible about what happened and what I missed.

Much of my childhood is hazy, and as I struggle to remember it, I sometimes gain clarity by comparing notes with my sister. I had no such opportunity with my brother, at least not in physical conversations. But by imagining discussions with him, I have improved my memory as well as my peace.

It started in a psychiatrist’s office. I was complaining about the fact that after decades of earning my living sitting in front of a computer, I didn’t feel comfortable telling people I was a therapist. Even though I had my Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology, and was working with clients, I was still not able to see myself as a mental health care provider. In fact, I often tried to hide it.

The psychiatrist, Lyndra, was helping me sort out my self-image problem by using a sort of modified hypnosis, called EMDR. I sat with closed eyes while she alternately tapped my knees and told me to think about how I could break past my reluctance. Out of the haze, my brother appeared. He was kind and respectful, the same as I remembered him in life, and he “gave me his blessing” telling me how proud he was of my new role.

The vision boosted my confidence, helping me proceed more energetically along my new path. The following year, I conceived of a book in which Ed was a character who communicated with me from the Other Side. I imagined he must have achieved great wisdom by then, and I asked him to help me sort out the meaning of life. Although I still have not figured out how to tie together the loose ends of the book, the hours I spent with him in my imagination helped me restore our connection.

During the process, vignettes about our early relationship peeked from their hiding places. When he was trying to earn a place on his high school basketball team, he needed a place to practice. I helped him build a court in my grandmother’s yard. We dug the hole, poured in concrete, and erected the backboard. The summer before he left for college, he assembled a hi-fi system from a kit. He taught me how to read the color code on the transistors and solder them onto a circuit board. I was 11. The following summer, we played chess out on the patio. I had been studying chess books, and we were an even match. Sometimes he would make me play two or three games in a row, leaving me begging for mercy, and yet at the same time feeling bonded to him in the strange way competition connects opponents.

After he moved away to college, I had a premonition. I was watching a drama on television about a young boy who heard news of his older brother’s death. An inexplicable rush of sadness washed over me. And then there it is. I see myself at 30 flying down to Georgia to be by his side as he lay dying and instead of feeling grief, all I could feel was admiration.

I can’t go back to change the way I reacted, but I can use my writing to reorganize my thoughts and feelings now. By illuminating early memories, my writing has helped me appreciate growing up with him. I am developing a richer range of emotions about his passing. And moving forward, I have made better sense of his absence, filling in some of that gap with warm stories, images, and sometimes even a sense of his presence.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene in which you were together with someone you miss.

Life with a famous parrot, Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg

by Jerry Waxler

I first learned about Alex while I was on a spiritual retreat in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania. Our host played a video of a talking African Gray parrot named Alex. Alex’s trainer, Dr. Irene Pepperberg held a tray of objects and asked questions. For example, she asked “which square?” and the parrot answered, “green,” because the square object was colored green. She asked “which same?” and Alex correctly said “key” because the keys were all made of cork. He even concocted his own words, for example describing an almond as a “cork-nut,” a word he was never taught.

Tell me more about that parrot

Alex was cute, zany and unpredictable, and while Pepperberg watched him learn, he was teaching her about the mind of a bird. His bobbing head, hyper-alert eyes, and clever voice mesmerized me, making me an instant fan. I was not alone. Everyone who saw Alex fell in love with him. A few years later I heard that the parrot died, a loss that surprised and saddened me. Then I saw the memoir “Alex and Me” by Irene Pepperberg, and thought, “Hey, I know that bird!”

The book starts with Alex’s sudden, unexpected death in 2007, followed by the outpouring of sympathy from around the world. Pepperberg read a sampling of the letters and obituaries from Alex’s many admirers. As each one played upon my heart, I was amazed at how much compassion they stirred. Like a group hug, Alex’s well wishers were drawing me in to Pepperberg’s pain.

Outpouring of compassion creates secondary compassion

I looked for a similar effect in my own life and remembered my mother’s memorial service. Her old friends came up to me and said “You were lucky to have such a great mom” and “I admired her so much,” and “We miss her.” Later, I turned their comments over in my mind, and was awed at the complexity of emotions.

How much were they seeking to support me, and how much were they hoping that somehow my presence could help them relieve their own grief? These moments showed me how intertwined we all are. During our communal grieving, we were each trying to make sense of what just happened, while supporting each other as we moved forward.

Writing Prompt
When in your life did empathy flow towards you? Was it related to the death or illness of a loved one? Or did others reach out to comfort you when you were in the hospital yourself? Describe the scene, keeping in mind that it will give the reader an opening through which they too can feel connected.

Emotional Bonds to Our Companion Animals

Dr. Pepperberg and Alex were close companions and so the book turned out to be a buddy story between human and bird. Sharing genuine emotions with animals has become widely respected, as evidenced by the runaway success of “Marley and Me,” by John Grogan, a memoir about the author’s relationship with a dog.

To make the relationship even deeper, Dr. Pepperberg showed how it evolved over the years. At first, she tried to maintain distance in order to create an objective, scientific perspective. She worked with him closely for years. Then after Alex died, Irene cried and cried, making her and her readers realize how deeply emotionally involved she had become..

Writing prompt
List your pets, and other encounters with critters. When you remember a scene, stop listing and start writing. See if you can string a few scenes together to show how the relationship changed over time.

Structure of a story, beginning, middle, and end

Every memoir writer seeks excellent story structure. Pepperberg’s memoir offers a couple of insights. For one thing, she grabs our attention with a bang, shocking the reader into the midst of the action, a technique the Greeks called “in medias res.” Then the story returns to the beginning, and moves forward through the long middle, towards an ending that resolves the dramatic tension. I love this structure.

Writing Prompt
What powerful event can you start your book with, to grab readers and yank them into the action. Worry about the transition to the flashback later. For now, just consider what event would get readers into the thick of your story.

Alex and Me ends with a Personal Witness to the Evolution of Knowledge

At the end of Alex and Me, Alex dies, as we already knew he would. So how does an author finish a book about loss? Pepperberg has chosen to review what Alex contributed to her and to the world. It turns into a poignant eulogy that contemplates a life well-lived, during which, Alex contributed not only to his trainer but to the world’s understanding of humans and other animals.

Considering his brain was the “size of a shelled walnut,” the vast majority of scientists were confident that Alex could not possibly be learning as much as Pepperberg claimed. But she doesn’t need to debate her findings with me. Even though I don’t have an advanced degree in bird brains, he seemed pretty smart. In fact, I believed that the other scientists were wrong and Pepperberg was right. It turns out that most people believe they know more about their own companion animals than scientists do.

Irene Pepperberg’s experiments herald a sea change in our attitude towards animal intelligence. With incredible persistence and love these two creatures demonstrated a thinking capacity that science had not yet imagined. As Shakespeare said, “There are more things in heaven and earth than your philosophy dreams of.” After reading “Alex and Me” I can feel this little creature’s beautiful influence on Irene Pepperberg and everyone else he touched. And their relationship touched me. My respect for pets, for intelligence, and the evolution of knowledge has been expanded by this loving connection between a scientist and her little winged companion.

Writing prompt
Do you have a story about your pet that demonstrates intelligence, loyalty, curiosity, or other “human” characteristics? The writing exercise may come in handy in unexpected ways for comic relief or to help readers identify with particular situations in your life.

Note
Click to visit Amazon’s page for Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence–and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process by Irene M. Pepperberg

Note
According to Thomas Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” science regularly changes its idea about what is True. My favorite example is that in the 20th century, all neuroscientists claimed that brain cells can never grow, but only die. Around 1995, science changed its mind. After the shift in perspective, scientists have agreed that adults can use their brains and grow. In fact, if you don’t use your brain it will die. This sort of shift in Truth from one decade to another is an ordinary occurrence in the history of science. And so, to study science is to study the constant evolution of ideas.

Note
For another book that shows how the brain has a capacity for wholeness, read Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight – in which she was forced outside the box by direct perception. Click here for my essay.

Note
For another example of starting in the middle of the action, see Bill Ayers’ Fugitive Days. Click here for my essay about Fugitive Days.

Note
For another famous buddy memoir read “Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog by John Grogan”

Kate Braestrup’s memoir transforms grief into love

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: a guide to memoirs, including yours.

At the beginning of the memoir, “Here If You Need Me,” Kate Braestrup takes us into her home, sharing her romantic, mutually respectful marriage to a state trooper, their love for their children, and their plans for the future. It seems like an ideal relationship. And then bam! In an instant, her partnership is torn asunder by an auto accident. The cereal bowl from which Drew had eaten an hour earlier sits in the sink while his body lies across the front seat of his police cruiser, the life crushed out of it by a broadside collision.

Now that Drew is dead, Braestrup continues to let us into her heart, this time to cry with her, while she learns the ancient lessons of grief. In order to raise her young children and get her life back on track, she enrolls in school to become a minister in the Unitarian Universalist Church. After graduating, she works as a chaplain for the State Game Warden Service in Maine. Traipsing around the countryside, she comforts loved ones while the wardens searched for lost children, potential suicides, and accident victims. If the search ends with a death, she offers the survivors condolences, embraces, and support.

On her journey from grief back into full connection with the living, Braestrup sets her sights beyond her personal experience. Through her study to be a minister and her work with the public, she raises huge questions, and then through the magic of storytelling makes me feel that together we can understand it all. As a result, this memoir turns out to be one of the most intelligent, loving, and compassionate books about life and death that I have ever read. It is one of those rare books I feel pulled to read again, and in fact, it was only after my third time that I began to tease it apart to see how such a simple story could carry me so far.

Her job with the game wardens takes her through the woods and across streams. With them she flies through the air, drives across ice, awaits the recovery of swimmers who had fallen 70 feet over a waterfall, stands in frigid silence as divers search for a body beneath the solid surface of a river, holds a mother’s hand as the wardens search the woods for a missing child. Through Braestrup’s eyes, nature becomes a backdrop for life, and also a backdrop for death. A tree grows through the skeleton of a dead body. A bear plays with a skull as if it’s a toy. After the death of her husband, Kate Braestrup dresses his corpse with her own hands, certainly the most affection directed towards a dead body that I have ever considered. Her relationship to his earthly remains expands my notion of death, by embedding it lovingly within the natural order.

Despite her religious training, or perhaps because of it, she treats people with equal tenderness no matter what their affiliation, or even if they have no interest in religion at all. To her, religion is simply one of the ways humans have chosen to explain love. Take for example this incident in which she consoles the brother of a woman who killed herself. The brother asks Braestrup if she thinks a suicide victim can receive a Christian burial. Here’s what she says.

“The game wardens have been walking in the rain all day, walking through the woods in the freezing rain trying to find your sister. They would have walked all day tomorrow, walked in the cold rain the rest of the week, searching for Betsy, so they could bring her home to you. And if there is one thing I am sure of, one thing I am very, very sure of, Dan, it is that God is not less kind, less committed, or less merciful than a Maine game warden.”

At the center of the book lies the great theological question, “How can an all powerful compassionate God allow evil in the world?” Attempting to answer this question is known as “theodicy” and whether we know it has a name or not, many of us grapple with it. If we conclude that suffering proves God cannot exist, we cut ourselves off from a valuable source of hope. For example, after my brother died of cancer, my dad landed on the “God can’t exist” side of theodicy. His choice drained his vitality. My mother responded to Ed’s death by extending her search for truth, a decision that allowed her to become an increasingly generous and spiritual person.

Braestrup steers through the battle of good and evil with exquisite finesse and dignity and comes up with an inspirational message. After a particularly horrifying crime was committed in the woods of Maine, she quotes the devil who threatens all goodness by claiming his forces are legion. In the aftermath of that crime, the community, whose hearts had been broken, stepped forward to care for those who suffered. Through Braestrup’s eyes, I feel this outpouring, and I agree with her that the multitudes of people are basically good. After making this case she throws it back in the devil’s face, asserting that he’s wrong about which side has the real advantage. “No,” she says. “We are legion.”

Guided by her images and explanations, the theodicy problem collapses into a tribute to love. From a psychological standpoint, I suppose grieving might mean simply recovering poise. Her story shifts the focus and shows how grief can extend what it means to be human. In fact, I wonder if this is the central challenge of grieving, to return from the loss that rips apart your soul, while accepting the presence of hope and goodness in the universe.

Writing Prompt: Consider the things, people, or opportunities you have lost. Write a story about that loss, but instead of letting the story lead you towards your pain, start from where it hurts, and move forward from there. Describe how you regained sanity, confidence, and the other things you have needed in order to maintain your healthy connection with life. Take advantage of tips from the Hero’s Journey, and focus on the allies and amulets that helped you proceed on your quest.

Notes

For another memoir of grieving see Joan Didion’s “A Year of Magical Thinking” in which she describes with exquisite insight her relationship with the person who is no longer here, and how her mind works and doesn’t work during the year following her tragic loss.

See also “Losing Jonathan” by Robert and Linda Waxler about recovering from the loss of their son.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.