Truth be told, I’m kind of a glutton for punishment.
I really enjoy bittersweet things, things that might make me cry, things where beauty is sometimes wrapped in tragedy. But the thing about tragedy and sadness? I’m always looking for the silver lining that rests somewhere beneath the layers, because it’s usually there, if you dig deep enough.
“Katie!” a friend will say to me after they read a book I recommended or even see a movie I drag them to watch (see: John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars” or Les Miserables, just to name a few recent examples) “Katie, that was SAD. But beautiful…I don’t…I was laughing and crying all at once, what are you DOING to me”
What am I doing to myself?
(I like happy things, too, I’m not a TOTAL masochist, I watch Disney movies and comedies with the best of them).
After losing my parents as a teenager and then my only living grandmother in my early twenties, I started searching for novels, memoirs, books, plays, anything that covered the overarching theme of grief and loss; it’s something that unites us all, but honestly, it was kind of REALLY hard to find anything for a while, and most of the things I found (aside from really terrible, not so helpful self help books) I stumbled upon by accident. I desperately needed answers, needed to know that someone, anyone, was experiencing what I was, that anyone felt as lonely as I did. And now, even years after the fact (grief, I learned, is a journey, not a something that simply ends) I find myself still asking the whys and hows of loss.
Oddly enough, I found three things over the past few months that look at grief in an unabashed, unblinking, beautiful way; one is a musical, one is a novel, and one is a memoir, and in this post, I’d like to discuss these three works, because the issues they talk about and use are incredibly important, issues that often get swept under the rug because we as a culture, or just as human beings, don’t want to talk about them.
Because talking about death, grief, loss, any word we might use, sucks.
Avoiding talking about it makes things a thousand times worse.
And talking about it can also be an incredibly cathartic, self-changing experience. It can change you, can change others.
Talking about it makes us significantly less alone, and when I read/listened to these three amazing stories?
I felt less insane for feeling the way I did.
Next to Normal:
I’m late to the party on this Pulitzer Prize winning musical (only the 8th musical to ever win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the last one was Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” in 1996, which is fantastic) and I actually discovered it after seeing the Les Mis film and falling in love with the actor who played Enjolras, the revolutionary leader, Aaron Tveit. I adored his voice, so I went on Amazon looking for more of his music, and discovered both “Catch Me if You Can” and “Next to Normal” which after a stint 0ff-Broadway, hit the Great White Way in 2009. When I first heard the score barely two weeks ago I cried, like REALLY cried, because it touched something deep inside me when it came to my own losses, and now I can’t stop listening.
The story focuses on the Goodmans, a “normal” American suburban family that is overcome by loss and subsequent mental illness. Diana and Dan, the husband and wife, lost their son at 18 months old to a sudden and unexpected intestinal problem, after which Diana falls into the throes of bipolar disorder. They have a daughter, Natalie, a couple of years later, but Diana still struggles, and Dan still refuses to acknowledge his terrible grief, leaving their daughter feeling a bit invisible. Dan desperately tries to help Diana, but in a vital plot point, it’s revealed that Diana still hallucinates their dead son, Gabe, a part of her still thinking he’s alive rather than realizing he’s a hallucination until her husband checks her back into reality. It’s been sixteen years since he died, so Diana sees him as he would be if he were still living as a nearly eighteen year old boy. It’s a bit complex, so I’ll link to Wikipedia’s plot synopsis here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Next_to_Normal
Diana goes through a series of treatments that attempt to erase the hallucinations from her mind, but because the family has such a difficult time accepting the idea that they need to actually grieve, Gabe continues to appear. As the lyrics in one of Gabe’s solos says “If you won’t grieve me/you won’t leave me behind.” And I think this is one of the most powerful ideas in the play; that people should be allowed their time to grieve, and to also accept the idea that while grief does dim, the loss of a major person in one’s life isn’t something that ever goes away…it changes us. I know, I know, it sounds dismal, but really, the play is filled with hope at the end. In a truly beautiful scene, when Dan finally says Gabe’s name for the first time in the play, and therefore starts accepting his grief and his loss, all of the family members realize that while pain is an integral part of life, sometimes letting yourself feel it can be a fantastic thing. It’s certainly better than pushing it down, which can only lead to self-destruction. One of the most powerful lines in the final song “Light” says:
“Day after day/give me clouds and rain and gray/give me pain if that’s what’s real/it’s the price we pay to feel/the price of love is loss/but still we pay/we love anyway.”
There might be grief, loss, and even mental illness, but there will also be light, and this musical looks deeply into all of these ideas, dealing with subjects that have never been dealt with before in a musical theater medium.
To finish up this section, here’s a lovely performance of a scene from Next to Normal from the 2009 Tony’s:
And then the soundtrack version of the finale, “Light” :
Looking for Alaska:
I focused my last post on the Green brothers, and I also just finished reading John Green’s novel “Looking for Alaska” which deals with this topic so, so well. One of the main themes in the novel is how we emerge from what John Green and his character Alaska refer to as “The Labyrinth of Suffering.” Alaska lost her mom tragically as an eight year old, and ends tragically herself because she couldn’t find her way out of her own labyrinth of suffering. In turn, the main character Miles Halter and his friends must deal with the sudden death of their friend and what it means. They tussle with questions like “Could we have saved her?” or “Why couldn’t she save herself?” They tussle with the question of whether or nor her death was intentional even though it was deemed an accident.
Throughout the novel, Green confronts and deals with death, grieving, and the great human question of suffering in a poignant, fearless way, and it’s not something I’ve seen a great deal of, especially not in a novel dealing with teenagers and young adults; it makes me love this author even more than I did before, which I didn’t think was possible. The first half of the novel focuses on Miles’ growing friendship and potential romance with the grief-stricken Alaska, although the reader doesn’t find out why she’s so grief stricken until she’s nearly gone, and the second half of focuses on how Miles and his friends deal not only with her death but the mystery behind it and the girl herself. Miles, who has an obsession with memorizing the last words of famous historical figures, has never experienced death until he loses Alaska, and it hits him hard.
But it also gives him an answer to the question Alaska poses early on but could never find the answer to: “How do we find our way out of the labyrinth of suffering?” After Alaska’s death, Miles’ world religion teacher poses this as the question for their final exam, and Miles, drawing on Alaska’s death and his relationship with her, answers in part: “Although no one will ever accuse me of being much of a science student, one thing I learned from science classes is that energy is never created and never destroyed. And if Alaska took her own life, that is the hope I wish I could have given her. Forgetting her mother, failing her mother and her friends and herself-those are awful things, but she did not need to fold into herself and self-destruct. Those awful things are survivable, because we are as indestructible as we believe ourselves to be.”
Cue the tears.
But cue the catharsis.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius:
When looking to start work on my own memoir, I read this fantastic book at the recommendation of one of my summer interns at the library…and and I was REALLY IMPRESSED. It was published in 2001 so again, I’m late to the party, but nevertheless, Dave Eggers accomplishes something extraordinary in this memoir. It’s hilariously witty in parts, but it’s also unfailingly honest.
Eggers tells the story of losing both of his parents to cancer within a few months of each other when he was in college, and the subsequent task of raising his eight-year old brother in conjunction with his two older siblings. (But Eggers was the primary care-giver). He pours his heart and soul into this book and not for a moment does it feel anything less than genuine. He looks at society’s habit of squashing grief, stares it straight in the eye and refuses to look away, refusing to agree. He tackles the societal obstacles he and Toph overcame without flinching, and without apologizing. In one such passage, he discusses taking Toph to school functions and parent-teacher meetings:
“We are orphans. As orphans we are celebrities. We are foreign exchange people from a place where there are still orphans. Russia? Romania? Somewhere raw and exotic. We are the bright new born stars of a screaming black hole, the nascent suns burst from the darkness, from the grasping void of space the folds and swallows- a darkness that would devour anyone not as strong as we- we are oddities, sideshows, talk show subjects.”
Throughout the memoir, Eggers faces his grief, faces his little brother’s grief, and challenges society’s need to sweep tragic things under the rug. He runs from his grief and then faces it, accepts that it will always be a part of him, but he also channels it into his truly breathtaking talent for writing; he founded McSweeney’s literary journal, MIGHT maganzine, he’s written novels, screenplays, other non-fiction, not to mention that A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was a Pulitzer Prize nominee.
In the end, death, loss, and grief will eventually be a part of all our lives.
But that doesn’t mean it’s something we ignore; quite the opposite.
It means we face it, we share it, we feel it…
And it might just turn into something beautiful.