Planes Trains and Automobiles to Planet Grief and Back
It has been 26 years since our son Kelly died, and what a ride it has been. He had just turned nine in 1987 and was actively dying of cancer with only a few short weeks to experience his life. In those last 8 months of his life, we flew to Disney world, Disney land, Denver, North Carolina, Hawaii, Mexico; we took the train to Chicago and a taxi to “Ripley’s Believe or Not Museum”. We drove to see Paul Bunyan, the Jolly Green Giant and the giant ball of twine. We cashed in our savings and did what Kelly wanted to do; we were proactively living and learning to proactively die at the same time and seemingly for the most part we did it in planes, trains, and automobiles.
Then the movie came out on the big screen and Kelly absolutely loved John Candy movies. Although very weak and frail, the day before he died we took him to see “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”. He laughed until it hurt, and despite the small doses of morphine -it did hurt; that was the last time I heard him laugh or smile.
Kelly’s sister Meagan was only six years old when she saw this movie and when her brother died. Today she is 33 years old and the mother of two girls ages four and seven. She is the same age I was when my child died and it’s impossible for her to conceive of this happening to her, yet she has witnessed it in us. We are bereaved parents and will always be bereaved parents as she will always be a bereaved sibling. She wanted to come with us to participate in the conference for the first time…and for us all to take the train to Chicago; the last time she was on this train was with her brother.
We made plans early, purchased train tickets to Chicago on the Empire Builder and we had good friends in Chicago who would drive us around when we got there. We would then catch a plane back on Sunday. It was our own Planes, Trains and Automobiles adventure, which it turned out to be. The evening before we were to depart we drove to our daughter’s house in Red Wing Minnesota. She lives only blocks from the small train depot where we would catch it in the morning. Later that evening checking my email I saw one from Amtrak stating that the train had been canceled and that they had made arrangements with their bussing service to provide us with an 8 hour bus ride to Chicago. We all screamed no way! There is no Bus in the title of the movie and busses make me car sick. We asked for a refund and I bought the last three flights on American Airlines to Chicago. I know Kelly is laughing his butt off, we should have known, that’s what the movie was about on the surface -a traveling fiasco. It was a hilarious movie but we also see someone (John Candy) who is grieving deeply for his loss but keeping it a dark secret and is the really the most important tenet of the movie.
In his role Steve Martin clearly had no idea about the man’s loss; he knows only that he is stuck with a very odd fellow who irritates him to no end. He tolerates him as many do with us in our grief, and we wear masks or practice avoidance to cover up our aching heart, becoming clever at faking it until we make it. The movie clearly shows how sometimes we as the bereaved relate to the world with unique survival strategies and the fortunate others seemingly have no clue to our inner pain. At the very end of the movie Steve Martin’s character starts reflecting in an almost whimsical way; not out of anger or irritation but with honest love and compassion; then and only then does he see the clues of the grief beneath the surface.
We all have those same mirror neurons that fire in our consciousness that makes compassion a physical reality and empathy a healing tool. It is the love that neutralizes the defense neurons and changes the neuro-pathways and our system is flooded with the hormone oxytocin. This is when our heart takes control and we feel that lump in our throat, our eyes mist up and our mind takes the back seat; we get it. When that happened to Steve Martin at the end of the movie on the city train in Chicago is what most would call an epiphany; a confirmed hormonal response that drives the need to do the right thing without regard to self (hero); changing both their lives in an instant when he responded to the revelation.
In many ways this is what happens at The National Conference of The Compassionate Friends it brings out the hero in us. We become heroes when we provide light in the darkness; we become heroes when we get it; we become heroes when we validate; we become heroes when we listen; we become heroes when we hold the elevator, we become heroes when we speak their loved ones name; so many opportunities to be a hero at the conference. When we save someone else we save ourselves, its hormonal we cannot help it.
So many come to the conference scared, apprehensive, even begrudgingly but the love and authenticity of so many attendees is almost overwhelming and it can be felt physically in many ways; it is palpable and very real. It can enervate you, as well as wipe you out. One must realize that with the group energy level of so many people and the extremes of hormonal and emotional responses it can be chaotic, unpredictable and even painful. Emotions will be all over the map, but we find unification and validation that we are not alone; we are not crazy, and we are not over it. We are doing the best we can to discover how to live with our loss and still have a meaningful life. Coming to a Compassionate Friends National conference can help us do that.
I want to conclude with an article below that I had penned following The Compassionate Friends National Conference held in Costa Mesa California in 2012.
Traveling to Planet Grief and Back
I am continually amazed at the choreography of the dance that I experience at a TCF national conference and the huge impact is has on my body, mind and spirit when I walk off the dance floor and return home. From spending 3 or 4 days on “planet grief” we return home to the mundane realities of the real world and try to blend in with its preoccupied inhabitants who for the most part know nothing of our secret planet. They don’t wear buttons of a dead child pinned to their clothing; they don’t wear name tags around their neck identifying their loss, and for most part don’t wear butterfly clothing or shirts with a broken red heart.
When I return to work I get surprised looks from people who are caught off guard when I hug them good morning without thinking. I feel a deep separation anxiety for my fellow travelers to planet grief with its honest hugs, cathartic kisses, and deep seated dialogues. The heart I wore on my sleeve now feels vulnerable and exposed to the harsh elements of the daily routine and the machine of the workaday world. I am jonesing for my friends, my family of wounded survivors who succor my soul and I theirs in our dance of the broken hearted. In a word I feel “drifty” and lost for a few days; like getting your land legs back slowly after a week at sea I feel unsteady and unbalanced and I weep easily. I miss my family from planet grief and feel the impact of its loss for another year.
Today I am decompressing, degriefing so to speak, remembering and cherishing the magic moments of the weekend and thanking God for the privilege to be there and serve the bereaved with every quark of my being. I help to facilitate healing in the most sacred of places, the human heart and sou. I am always humbled and healed myself by the experience. Cost Mesa California with its oceans of love and mountains of memories was an incredible experience and I had a lot of quality time with my family of the heart. I met many newly bereaved and made new friendships wish I will cherish as much as the old.
We all come to planet grief from many different worlds. Worlds of all kinds; a plethora of differences in race, age, religion, occupation, economic class, intellect and political views, yet we congregate as one family and find a common ground in compassion; finding common ground in love. It is in helping to heal that we are healed ourselves, like one beggar sharing his bread with another beggar both are sustained for another day.
On the walk a few years ago held in Washington D.C. it was revealed to us that TCF had to register our Sunday TCF walk as a protest if we were to walk as a group on the streets of our nation’s capital. First I was surprised and then I thought about it…and you know that’s quite alright -we are protestors. We have our signs, our banners, our bibs, our T-shirts, our name tags and buttons. We all arrived from a network of paths and losses as varied as the stars and together on common ground we protest society’s ignorance of our forever journey and the injustice to our hearts.
Together we are changing the world views of grief and loss. We are educating the fortunate others of our journey and how we survive. We are intentional survivors who are working on our grief proactively, living our loss, not letting go, not get over, not becoming bitter, but becoming better and turning loss to legacy and honoring of loved one.
God bless you all and until we meet again…like Brigadoon “planet grief” appears for a few days in the summer and for a short time we find the camaraderie of hope, hugs and heart to sustain us for another year.
Peace, love and light