Book Review: Starting With Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love After Loss by Lisa Romeo

If an author is not famous, the trickiest thing about writing a memoir is to include material that interests others besides friends and family. This book makes that leap for the most part if you are grieving the loss of a father and your grief is ambivalent. That is, he was not abusive, but he lacked essential ingredients of closeness present in a healthy relationship between him and you as a son or daughter. If you are grieving a father who connected with you in some ways but not in others, and especially if he suffered from dementia in his final years, you will identify with Romeo (with a name like that who needs a pen name?) and feel that she has validated your mixed and confusing feelings of longing, resentment, remorse and perhaps admiration. If you are of Italian descent, you will find even more to relate to, with the author’s details on her Italian heritage.  As a “bonus” in this book, she has profound insights about dementia: “Did he know that his fondness for home, the spiked worry when not home, was him not being an old fart, but him needing to stay safe?”

Having to summarize her book in one word during a question and answer session, I was fascinated with her choice of “insistent.” I think this means she yearned to bridge the distance she and her father had created by using her imagination to “talk” with her dad after he died.  She explains, “I know that, for reasons I don’t completely understand yet and maybe never will, I’ve constructed this father to fill in for the one I could not talk to before.” Talk about yearning! Throughout the book she refers to second chances and how her “postmortem conversations” helped her gain more insights about her father and  accomplished the work of grieving.  By doing this, she is comforting readers who have felt something akin to this, thereby normalizing their feelings and helping them grieve as well.

As I read through Starting With Goodbye, my motivation for continuing to the end evolved. First I wanted to know what she meant by having conversations after the death, and what it means to have a relationship after the death, and what the conversations were about.  She is up front about imagining these dialogues as a tool to self-understanding, implying its relevance to the reader.  But hospice chaplain that I am, I started to analyze why she had the conversations. I was aroused to do so when she stated that guilt was not the issue in her “unfinished business.” I think it very much was, and I state this not to “win” an argument or show off, but to make the book even more relevant to a griever dealing with ambivalence toward a father or to any key family member. I also mention it because guilt and the like need more recognition as one of the tasks of normal grieving, especially in conflicted relationships. Romeo mentioned over and over how she regretted playing her own part in keeping a distance from her father, either through her sarcasm to him or avoiding visits as an adult.

If she is still grieving, then the part that may be unfinished, or had been unfinished while writing the book, may have to do with guilt or its cousins such as remorse, regret, and resentment. These emotions are a key component of ambivalent relationships: we yearn to be close to someone who could not be fully available that way. Yet we feel repulsed and rejected by the behavior that barred us from emotional access to them in the first place. That is indeed a painful thing to mourn. Romeo may not have explicitly stated this, but her whole book pulsates with this paradoxical theme, thereby rendering spiritual and emotional healing to  readers who themselves are stuck in this agonizing push-pull with loved ones even beyond death.

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Lisa Romeo is a manuscript editor and consultant. Her nonfiction is among Notables in Best American Essays 2016 and she has been published in The New York Times.  Her book is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble as well as from independent bookstores. Her YouTube video is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJENeXCAKbs

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Movie Review: Departures (“Okuribito”) 2008

If you think being a hospice chaplain is not your cup of tea, just wait till you see this film. What could be weirder, you say, than being a hospice chaplain? Maybe a Japanese “encoffiner.” A what? A deliberately misleading classifieds ad draws an unsuspecting unemployed cello player to what he thought was a tourist company. But surprise surprise, and with the help of an advance, the boss cajoles the young man into learning how to ritually prepare a body in front of the mourners and gently place it into a coffin. This is a young man who has never even seen a coffin before, let alone touch a dead body.

As I watched his first days on the job, and subsequently other people’s reaction to his new career, I thought about the beginnings of my own. Both the movie and my own story share many elements: the sense by some in society that the young man and I were contaminated by our work; that there was the “eesh” factor; that we were plain old weird.

As the movie progresses, I suspect that along with me, the average viewers feelings evolve with the protagonist’s and ultimately with those of his wife and of the broader society. We feel less afraid, then curious, and then finally, in awe of a ceremony that can get family conflict out in the open or help mourners release their feelings, or take “honoring the dead” to a refined level.

This movement from fear to admiration is the main plot in the movie (This is no spoiler, because the way this happens is of supreme interest.) But there is another significant plot not referred to at least in the very short reviews I read: The protagonist felt unresolved intense anger at his father for abandoning him when he was quite young. As he confronted these feelings—I  cannot tell you how without it  truly being a spoiler—this somehow forced me to confront my own feelings about people I have not yet been able to forgive for abandonment of a different sort, and thereby be done with some of this hurt at long last. What more coveted review can there be for a movie or book or other creative work than for the reviewer to say that it provoked a healing change within?

Disclaimer: I saw this movie for free on television on September 20, 2014. I was not required to write a positive review and was not asked to write a review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Announcement:

See this link for a comprehensive article about Jewish perspectives on hospice care. I was one of the rabbis interviewed in this September 15th article by doula Amy Wright Glenn:  http://jewishexponent.com/judaism/2014/09/the-growing-appeal-of-hospice-care

A Cold Case Solved

Like Detective Lilly Rush in the television show Cold Case, I have helped others unearth emotions that have lain unresolved for years and years. This time it was at a social hour taking place in the copious back yard of a mansion in New Hampshire…No no, my husband and I did not sneak in; our ticket to this privilege was making a donation to the Walden School, a summer music composition camp for children and teens. I was talking with one of the parents, and soon after she asked about my career, that gave her her own ticket to revealing an aspect of her mother’s death to me. “I just don’t understand,” she was saying. “Near the end, she was trying to tell me something.” Waiters bearing trays of dainty hors d’oeuvres traipsed by as she started to descend into progressively deeper layers of a mystery that had been haunting her.

I started at the surface, which I often do before making my way down to layer after layer of a person’s concerns to get some clues as to where to go. I also do that to see if they want to go further. If successful, I make it to the core. So I started out with, “What did she say to you?”

Anna [not her real name] replied, “Well she couldn’t speak really. I heard her moan. I could not make out what she wanted.” I moved down a notch with, “Sounds like something was unresolved there.” I waved away a tray laden with tinted glasses of pink lemonade as she elaborated, “I felt so bad; I did not know what her last wishes were.” For her, the mansion, the trays, the other people forming clusters on the lawn like grapes on a vine, had ceased their social demands. Her absorption in this intimate matter gave me permission to dig around the core: “Maybe we will never know what she had intended, but what would you guess she was after? What did she need? What do you think you provided her?” As tears came, I knew I had uncovered the core, that tender center of helplessness and love. Anna said, “I think she wanted to be hugged.” A pause, enough for one solid breath. Almost in unison we said to each other, “She might have felt isolated and afraid. She wanted to be comforted, to simply know that you were there, beside her.”

The party came back into existence as she swiftly removed herself from that vulnerable core, perhaps for Anna to approach again when she could be safely alone with her thoughts and emotions. Later one of those clusters comprised of a few “grapes” including me, were seated on steps leading down to the lawn. She saw us, paused to join in, but did not accept my invitation to sit alongside us. As the chit-chat skidded upon this and that pleasing topic, however, I found that she had sat down after all. Her irritation at my pressing against a painful spot had subsided, but I am sure the reawakened anger and regrets surrounding her mother’s death would not be so short-lived.