By Mike McMahan, LPC
Recently, both CNN’s Brianna Keilar and standup comedian Patton Oswalt have shared deeply personal thoughts on the recent deaths of loved ones; in Keilar’s case it was her mother, while Oswalt lost his wife.
Brianna Keilar detailed her experience to the network that employs her, CNN. Keilar went viral during coverage of the presidential election after a conversation with Donald Trump’s lawyer. On the heels of this success, she thought that her key challenges this year would be career-related, but instead she faced the passing of her mother. Keilar’s mother died less than 24 hours after being diagnosed with leukemia. She still managed to find a balance between work and life, even though her mother was seemingly her biggest fan, hooked into the primaries like her own “reality show.” The experience provided Keilar with insights into what matters in life and led to a shift in perception towards a greater appreciation in her life. A death can provide these types of lessons, especially for those who choose to embrace the positives of what the tragedy may teach or show them, and look for ways to keep the spirit of their departed loved ones alive.
Oswalt’s piece is similarly personal and has an open-ended aspect, as the cause of his wife’s death is undetermined by the medical examiner at this time. Nonetheless, he too has thrown himself back into his work, which is standup comedy. The idea that comedians are “sad clowns” is not a new one, and the public was reminded of this when Robin Williams committed suicide. In the article, Oswalt admits that he has suffered from depression in the past, but grief is different from depression, though grief can certainly morph into depression after some amount of time. It makes more sense that he could tell jokes after his wife’s death when you consider the “sad clown” aspect of his chosen career, though he could have faced significant barriers that Keilar didn’t have to deal with. After all, while she missed her mom, her job is very serious and if she seemed slightly more serious, well, who would notice in a reporter? But a comedian wants to make people feel better via laughter. How does one do this when you’re hurting inside?
This idea of throwing yourself into work is an obvious commonality in both pieces. When a person suffers a loss, sometimes returning to normal routines can be comforting. Human beings are creatures of habit, and many of us find comfort in daily routines and rituals. On the other hand, many experts suggest that maintaining rituals for family events can be difficult and suggest that a death is an opportunity to establish new traditions. Consider the difficulty of the first Christmas without a beloved family member. If that person was very active in the Holiday traditions, their absence will be felt acutely. Some ideas include holding the gathering or celebration at a different house, or doing an activity that might not have been done before, such as going to a movie as a family. Of course, these things are not one-size-fits all. Some families choose to maintain traditions as a way of honoring the family member who has passed, which is understandable and may be therapeutic in different ways. After all, when someone dies, they will live on in our memories and hearts, and many choose to honor the person in that way. Some also find comfort in asking “what would my family member want me to do?”
In working with clients who have experienced a loss, virtually every single one says “my loved one would want me to go on and live life to the fullest.” Oswalt’s statement that he will “never be 100% again” struck me as extraordinarily sad. I am not remotely questioning how he chooses to feel or process his wife’s death, and he certainly may be right. But given that he has a young daughter to raise, he may not feel that way in the future and I am skeptical that his wife would want this (without knowing her, of course). I believe strongly in the basic goodness or people and choose to believe that they want the best for loved ones, even after their passing. His wife was giving her all to the true crime book she was writing, so she understands passion, commitment and achievement, which is why I believe she would want him to live to the fullest. For his own sake, and that of his daughter, I hope that he gets where he wants to be and finds peace.
Facing a significant loss is one of the most difficult things we face in life. If you are struggling with a passing, please reach out to a mental health professional or a doctor. There are people and resources who can help at these difficult times.
Mike McMahan, LPC is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
By Mike McMahan, LPC
When Robin Williams committed suicide two years ago, the entire nation mourned. He left behind a vast library of work that covered a wide range of the emotional spectrum, from Jumanji to Good Will Hunting to What Dreams May Come to One Hour Photo. We all have our favorite(s).
But while we may have felt his loss acutely, that feeling likely doesn’t compare to what his family members went through. His daughter, Zelda Williams, recently spoke about her journey through grief and the death of her father.
When I have a client that has a loss in their life, I remind my clients that though their loved one has passed, they will still live on in our memories and our heart. I ask them to consider what their loved ones would say to us if they were here. I also ask clients to consider how they will keep their loved one’s contributions to the world alive for others. In the case of Robin Williams, this may be an easy question. After all, his most famous films will likely be enjoyed for years to come. But that is an answer for us, as the public and does not reflect how a close family member might feel. Perhaps they treasure those movies as much as we do; perhaps not. Until his family members address that subject, we have no way of knowing.
There are also coping strategies that can help a person cope with grief. I was impressed to see that Zelda was using several good ones. “…for a while, I was kind of left to my own devices and a lot of stuff came out of that, because I ended up writing 12 scripts.” Writing and other artistic pursuits can be a great coping mechanism. Art can be a great way of exorcising emotional turmoil, as evidenced by, well, every artist ever. There must be a reason that artists seem to live volatile, troubled lives. Many would likely agree that artists feel things deeply and see things in ways that others may not. This perspective gives them insight, but may come at a cost.
In the article cited above Zelda also says that she has “gotten involved in one charity that dealt with ‘rescue dogs, people suffering from disabilities, and our nation’s wounded veterans’ — freedomservicedogs.org.” Volunteering can help a person get out of their own head and making a positive impact in the world can help us move on from grief in a healthy way.
Kudos to Zelda Williams for speaking out and setting such a great example.
Mike McMahan, LPC, is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
There’s no right way to grieve. And Vanessa Hudgens showed the world this by throwing down an acclaimed performance in Grease: Live on the same day that her father died. According to CNN (http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/31/entertainment/vanessa-hudgens-fathers-death-grease-feat/index.html), Hudgen’s father passed away on Saturday and she announced his death yesterday, with the note that she is performing “in his honor.”
When people have a death in their life, I have noticed that they often seek assurance that they are responding in the right way. “I don’t think I’m sad enough,” some might say. “I feel like I should be crying all the time but, I’m not. Is something wrong with me?” The answer is a resounding no. We all experience and respond to grief differently, and the best we can do is be honest about how we are feeling.
One thing that always strikes me about this situation is that, like each of us, every death (and surrounding circumstances) is unique. We are going to have a different emotional reaction to the death of an elderly person who has been suffering and in pain for year, as opposed to the sudden and tragic death of a child. So a person who experiences both of these losses is likely to respond differently to each. But even people who are experiencing the “same” loss (such as siblings who lose a parent or parents who lose a child) may respond in different ways. This may even cause some conflict: “why aren’t you as upset as me?”
Sometimes people assume that when someone loses someone with whom they are estranged, that they won’t “feel it” in the same way. “They weren’t close, so I’m sure she’s fine.” That may not be the case. Consider someone who always wanted to be closer with a now-deceased family member. The chance that this closeness will ever happen has now died with the family member.
Something I ask people when they have experienced a loss is “how would your loved one like you to respond? What are you doing to keep their memory alive?” Which brings us back to Vanessa Hudgens, and her reaction to her father’s death. I’d like to believe that she had the option to not appear on the program last night. With the amount of money going into such a presentation, surely there are understudies (like in theater productions) in case of illness or injury. So, setting aside the idea that Hudgens had no choice, I commend her bravery. We don’t know what she was feeling about her father’s passing, and, it’s a mistake to assume we CAN know, given that we know nothing about her relationship with her father. But I think it is safe to assume that it was challenging to sing, dance and make merry given what had just occurred. And, no matter how we might act in the same situation, I think it’s fair to commend her for carrying on in the face of adversity. Maybe it’s what her father would have wanted. Maybe she felt like she needed some semblance of normalcy. Maybe she had no idea what to do, so she did what she was planning. And sometimes, that’s enough. Or even just right.
Mike McMahan is a psychotherapist in private practice in San Antonio, Tx.
Arts and music fans were shocked to wake up this morning, only to be greeted with the shocking news of David Bowie’s death. The music industry has changed immensely since Bowie came to prominence. He was a very gifted and chameleonic rock star and performer; it’s unlikely we will ever see the likes of him again. In my experience, people react with a variety of emotions when someone famous passes, and it can be hard to know if what we are feeling is “right.” In this post I would like to address both issues about death and grieving, as well as an important lesson that we can all take from David Bowie’s life and art, fan or not.
On one hand, we may feel superficial mourning the death of a famous person. After all, David Bowie had a family, children and others who likely had a real-life, loving connection with him. They will be mourning him in a different way, obviously, but I do not believe that his being mourned by people who were touched by his art diminishes that in any way. And art (especially successful art) is a very personal expression. If it moved us, it likely touched us in a “soulful” or “spiritual” way, so it makes sense that when the artist passes, we feel sadness, despite not having a real, personal connection with this person.
When I am talking to a client about a loved one passing, I often ask them to consider what can be done to keep this person alive via memories. “After all,” I say “now they only live in your heart and in your recollections.” This question is very easy to answer with an internationally successful artist like David Bowie, as his art has inspired disparate artists from Kanye West to Lady Gaga to Phish. His influence is literally impossible to miss. This question may not be so easy to answer when we lose people who we love in our real lives, especially if we are used to regularly interacting with them, perhaps seeing them or interacting with them daily. So I ask clients to consider the following: “If your loved one could see you right now, what would they want to see you doing? What is the positive impact they had on the world and how can you keep that spirit alive?”
I also want to address something that I found very inspirational about Bowie, which was his ability to completely throw himself into a character or a persona. When clients come to me looking to make a change, it can be difficult, especially at first. For instance, a client might want to learn to control their temper. However, as they learn to react to in a more healthy, positive, fashion, it may feel “weird” or “unnatural” at first. Sometimes people may feel that they are somehow untrue to themselves, as if by not blowing up or being angry, they no longer are respected by others. I often tell them “you have to fake it ‘til you make it.” This attitude sums up what I feel to be the major artistic lesson of Bowie’s life. He seems to have thrown himself 110% into the characters that he inhabited, perhaps most famously Ziggy Stardust. This is why we, as audience members, were so mesmerized by his performances. They seemed to be real—he fully inhabited the persona. I am suggesting that this type of commitment is sometimes necessary to make a change. “Fake it til you make it,” may need some modification. Perhaps we need to be asking ourselves “What Would Bowie Do?” The answer is, he would play the character to the hilt. When you’re ready to make some changes, perhaps you need to do the same thing. When you believe it, others will, too. And before long, your new, more healthy characteristics will be the “real” you. Perhaps it was the “real” you all along, but you were just scared to show it. Perhaps this is a new layer. Either way, by embracing change, I suggest that you are honoring the spririt of the legendary, charismatic David Bowie.
Rest In Peace, Starman.
Mike McMahan is a psychotherapist in private practice in San Antonio, Tx.
Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture