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Mourning at the Movies: Manchester by the Sea and the Academy Awards

By Current Events, Exclude from Top Posts

It’s Oscar time again. On Sunday, February 26, all of the glitter and glamour and pomp and splendor will be on full display.

This year, one of the leading films in the Oscar race has some powerful things to say about the grieving process and the ways in which we attempt to cope with loss. This authenticity has become a rare thing in Hollywood, which often struggles to deliver accurate portrayals of grief. It’s not that filmmakers are incapable of conveying an emotionally engaging moment of tragedy or pain. But they often fail to capture the nuances, paradoxes, and complexities of the grief journey. The movies that are bold enough to examine a character’s road to healing are usually guilty of oversimplification.

But Manchester by the Sea, the critically acclaimed new film by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, gets it right. One of the most important films of Oscar season, it’s received six nominations including Best Picture. Manchester is a mature and honest examination of loss, grief, and the process of healing. The following summary will carefully side-step any “spoilers” and will stick to the meat of the plot. No important plot developments will be explored that haven’t already been depicted in the trailer and film advertisements.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a world-weary janitor and handyman in Quincy, Massachusetts. His simple life is disrupted when he gets a call that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died of a heart attack. He returns to his home town of Manchester to learn that he has been appointed the guardian of Joe’s 16-year-old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Dissatisfied with the role, but unwilling to leave Patrick in the hands of his alcoholic mother, Lee agrees to keep Patrick until he can think of a better solution, and makes plans to bring Patrick back to Quincy. Patrick doesn’t want to relocate; he’s the popular guy in school, with friends, love interests, and a good spot on the hockey team. He tries to convince Lee to move from Quincy to Manchester. But this doesn’t sit easy with Lee, who has painful memories associated with the town of his childhood.

It quickly becomes apparent that something else is tormenting Lee. Beneath his quiet, stoic façade, he is barely containing his grief and self-loathing. While the death of Joe hits Patrick extremely hard, Lee seems somewhat numb to this new pain, and the demons of his past trouble him more deeply.

The story of Manchester is painful and unsettling, but amidst the darkness, Lonergan finds room for subtle humor. This humor is not offensive: it does not aim to mock or cheapen the pain of the characters. Rather, it shows the paradoxes of the grief journey. After a loss, people go through a wide range of emotions. At a funeral, it is quite common to move quickly from hope to grief, laughter to tears. The film understands the full scope of human emotion in the aftermath of senseless loss, and adopts a tone that reflects this inconsistency.

Manchester differentiates itself from the average drama by refusing to provide the characters with closure. Funerals don’t end the grieving process. Rather, they get us off to a good start. Lee, Patrick, and the other grievers don’t have one big cathartic moment of pain, only to come out on the other side happy and refreshed. Rather, they embody a central truth that grief experts have always known: that healing is a slow, nonlinear process, a slog through the mundane rituals of everyday life. The journey does not consist of a few giant leaps (or epic movie scenes), but of many small steps and challenges. Grief is a lens that turns normal daily activities into titanic obstacles to be overcome.

Manchester depicts these small moments perfectly. Few contemporary films so effectively capture the minute details of daily life. Lee and Patrick fumble for their keys, forget where they parked the car, and pack the freezer with too much food, so that it all falls out when the door is opened. These relatable details show the subtle ways in which grief affects the day-to-day life of the characters. They are depressed, absent-minded, and unfocused. This approach is in direct contradiction to that seen in many tragic movies, in which the characters process their feelings and assess their pain with Zen-like clarity. Instead, Lonergan crafts a quiet but gut-wrenching scene in which two characters fail miserably to convey their feelings. It’s a brilliantly written scene, composed of broken fragments of conversation that are nothing more than desperate, incoherent attempts at connection.

Other essential grieving elements that the film captures are the importance of symbols and the role of memorialization in the grief journey. After a loss, it’s important to take time to remember the life of the loved one. Often, it’s hard to fully accomplish this with words alone. When words fail, we turn to symbols to capture our feelings. In the film, Patrick views the family fishing boat as an important symbol of his relationship with his father, while Lee suggests that they sell it to get them through a financially difficult time. This ongoing conflict speaks volumes about the ways in which the two characters deal with grief: one attempts to process his emotions, the other avoids them by hiding behind practicality.

Manchester by the Sea embodies many of the truths that grief counselors emphasize in trying to help people cope with loss. It’s a sophisticated work that sheds some much-needed light on end-of-life issues. Pop culture often tries to intersect with important topics and profound human experiences, but rarely is the result so genuine, heartfelt, and enlightening. Kenneth Lonergan’s film is worthy of its many nominations, and if justice is served at the ceremony this year, it will receive some love from the Academy. It’s challenging and complex, rich and rewarding, a work of great maturity and clarity. Many of those who have lost loved ones will find it relatable, and many of those who haven’t will find that it provides them with a necessary perspective. To put it simply, what we take away from the film is a deeper understanding of what it means to grieve.

Coping with Grief on Valentine’s Day

By Exclude from Top Posts, Seasonal

Valentine’s Day can be a beautiful opportunity to celebrate your relationships, whether your loved ones are here with you or whether they have been gone for some time.

For those who are grieving the loss of a spouse or loved one, Valentine’s Day can be a particularly difficult time. But Valentine’s Day can also be a special time of remembrance, an opportunity to reflect on the love you shared and to find comfort in memories. With a little bit of planning, it is possible to find avenues for healing during this time.  Here are a few ideas to help you breathe a little easier on Valentine’s Day:

Take Time to Honor and Remember the Person You Love

Do something special in memory of your loved one, and celebrate their life and the time that you had together. You may want to look through photographs, listen to their favorite song, or watch their favorite movie. This would also be a good opportunity to visit the graveside and bring a fresh bouquet of flowers. Taking a little time to reflect on the past can be a healthy way to cope with the holiday, but do so in a way that feels right for you.

Have Some Quiet Time

Take deep breaths and allow yourself to feel whatever it is that you need to feel. If painful emotions come to the surface, find a healthy way to express those emotions. Remember, it’s okay if you need to cry. Grief journaling can also be a very effective way to channel your feelings during this season. Find a comfortable location and pour out your thoughts on paper. You might try listing all the things you are grateful for having experienced with your loved one. Meditation is another great tool for managing grief. Find a quiet spot and focus on your breathing. If this is hard for you, pull up a guided meditation video on your phone or computer. It’s amazing what a 15-30 minute relaxation session can do for your state of mind.

Talk About How You’re Feeling

Your friends and family care. Don’t be afraid that you’re going to “bring them down” if you talk honestly about the sadness that you’re experiencing during a culturally-sanctioned “happy” time of year. If you need some time to get something off your chest, this is perfectly acceptable. You shouldn’t feel guilty for taking time to express your grief around others. Too often, our culture encourages us to stifle sad emotions and to put on a happy face. This can make those who grieve feel guilty or ashamed for not being able to pretend to be happy all the time. Reject this irrational guilt, stay in the presence of people who care about you, and confide in them. Let them support you. If your friends and family are unable to support you at this time, join a support group or find a counselor to talk to.

Spend Time with Loved Ones

While it is good to spend some time in solitude and reflection, it is also important to find a healthy balance. Find opportunities to socialize with people who support you and care about you. Go out to dinner or prepare a meal together. Meals are communal experiences, opportunities to show love and support. You might even enjoy a favorite comedic film or television show together. Numerous studies have shown that laughter plays an important role in lowering stress, improving mood, strengthening our relationships, and contributing to our overall health. By taking time to laugh with people that you love, you take a healing step, and the stress of the holiday becomes a little easier to handle. Remember: couples aren’t the only people who can celebrate and have fun on Valentine’s Day.

Treat Yourself

If you don’t have someone to bring you flowers and candy, there’s nothing wrong with treating yourself to something special on Valentine’s Day! Get a massage, choose a beautiful bouquet to brighten your home, or pick out your favorite chocolates or dessert. This is a day to spoil yourself and enjoy a little self-care, especially if you are missing someone special.

Valentine’s Day will never be the same without your loved one, and it’s okay, even healthy, to experience sadness at this thought. But by planning ahead and incorporating some of these activities in the days leading up to Valentine’s Day, you can prepare yourself for the holiday and find peace of mind in the midst of a dizzying array of hearts, cards, and candy.

Grieving During the Holiday Season

By AfterCare, Christmas, Exclude from Top Posts, Seasonal, Thanksgiving No Comments

The absence of a loved one during the holidays can bring extremely painful feelings to the surface. Just as you’ve found your groove in a “new normal,” the holidays come at you with a whirlwind of joy, good cheer, happiness, and all things family. Needless to say, the holidays can be an emotional roller coaster for grieving individuals. Having a plan for the holidays can make this time a little more bearable. First, it’s important to acknowledge that this holiday season will not be perfect. So, what is the next step for grieving in a healthy way during the holidays? Here are five actions you can take to help heal your heavy heart:

Save a Seat

Some individuals feel sad or frustrated when a loved one’s missing presence goes unacknowledged during the holidays. They might feel as if the person they love has been “forgotten” or “left behind.” One way to include your loved one into the holiday festivities is by dedicating a specific seat at the dinner table or a spot on the couch in the living room just for them. Consider decorating the memorial area to make it more personable. For example, light a candle, set a place at the table, or fill a space with photos of your loved one and surround it with their favorite flowers or holiday decorations. Having a designated place to honor your loved one allows you to acknowledge the absent family member without feeling like they are being ignored or excluded from your holiday activities.

Keep Traditions (or Try a New One)

Sometimes it takes more than a visual reminder to keep the legacy of your loved one alive during the season. You might find comfort in keeping sacred traditions you shared with your family member prior to their passing. Cooking their favorite dish to serve at the family feast or watching their beloved classic film before bed can bring back happy memories of times once spent together. Keep in mind that new traditions can also be helpful if old traditions are too painful to face. Whatever you decide to do, setting aside time for activities that can be both joyful and painful are healthy ways of coping with your loss.

Take Time to Reminisce

Remembering the past can be bittersweet for grieving hearts. You might find talking about past times with your loved one can be an effective way of coping with your loss. Find pictures from some of your favorite memories and share the stories behind them with a family member or friend who you feel comfortable with. If you are not quite ready to openly talk about the past, scrapbooking is a creative way to share memories without having to speak a word. Another private option is to share your feelings and reminisce with the love one you miss through a letter. Transferring thoughts of memories into words may be painful, but processing them into words can assist in the healing journey.

Call a Time Out if You Need To

The hustle and bustle of the holiday season can leave anyone physically and emotionally drained. You might feel especially fatigued if you are grieving during the holiday chaos. It is essential to take time away from the commotion and schedule in some time for restful activities that you enjoy. You may want to take a walk, splurge on a massage, listen to meditations on grief and healing after loss, or curl up with a cup of coffee and a good book. Give yourself time to process your emotions and refresh your spirit so you are better able to navigate the hectic pace of the season.

Give Back

Holidays are known for being a time of selflessness. A grieving heart can make the idea of giving seem exasperating and exhausting. However, if you find a cause your loved one was passionate about, you may find that giving in their honor is an outlet for your emotions. Giving can come in many different forms. If you feel capable, volunteering your time can be a great way to make a difference and keep your mind at work. Sign up to ring the bell for Salvation Army or volunteer at a donation center. If physical work is too strenuous or you are on a tight schedule, giving your resources can also be beneficial. You could gather donation items like canned goods or sweaters and blankets to give to local charities or join a local Toys for Tots or Angel Tree program.

Try to choose a cause that doesn’t require an extra errand. Financial contributions are always appreciated if that method of donation is more preferable for your family. You can do any of these activities or contributions in honor of your loved one, helping you continue their legacy, cope with your grief, and actively help those in need.

The holidays will never be the same. Going forward, the challenge will be finding a healthy balance between joy and sadness, tears and laughter, activity and rest. Remember to pace yourself, take care of yourself, and don’t take on more than you can handle.

Grieving Well During the Halloween Season

By Exclude from Top Posts, Seasonal No Comments

As the seasons change, you may begin to see Halloween décor pop up all around your neighborhood. Spider webs and tombstones, skeletons and caution tape, and all manner of ghouls and goblins begin to grace the streets in anticipation of the holiday.

But if you have experienced a sudden, tragic, or violent loss, the Halloween season can feel like navigating a minefield, especially if children are involved. What may have once been a fun, candy-filled holiday now seems distorted, insensitive, and disturbing. Grotesquely exaggerated images of death seem to be around every corner. Symbols of death, such as cemeteries, become horrible scenes for entertainment—making a mockery of death.

You may even feel betrayed by those around you. They may not seem to understand how hurtful their enthusiastic celebration of Halloween can be.

Below are a few tips that might help you manage your grief during the Halloween season:

Decide What Feels Right

First and foremost, spend a few minutes deciding what you want Halloween to look like for you and your family this year. This is a time to guard yourself and your family – not yield to the expectations of others. You can avoid that spooky house on the way to work by taking an alternate route. You can skip the store aisles displaying seasonal items. Make a plan for how – and to what degree – you will celebrate this year…if you choose to celebrate at all. Most of the time, anxiety comes when there is no plan in place. To avoid unpleasant emotions, decide ahead of time what feels appropriate for you and your family.

Choose Alternate Activities

Rather than celebrate Halloween as you have in years past, you could choose other, more neutral fall activities, such as picking pumpkins in a pumpkin patch or going on a hay ride. Or, you might choose lighthearted or funny costumes instead of scary ones. If you do decide to trick or treat with kids, be sure to check with them to see if they are prepared to face some of the scary, gory costumes or yard decorations they may see. In addition, be sure you know exactly what you are getting into when you go to a Halloween carnival or party. As a safer alternative, many churches offer more “family friendly” fall festivals or “trunk or treat” opportunities for children.

Mourn in Your Own Way

Mourning is a deeply personal journey, and only you know the right way to mourn for you. You may want to light a candle in remembrance, decorate with fall leaves and gourds instead of skulls and cobwebs, or start a new tradition! Make caramel apples, watch It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, or make some s’mores over a fire–maybe even spend time remembering what you loved most about the person who died.

If you are having trouble with this holiday, it is important to be honest about how you feel with those around you. If your friends or your children ask you to participate in something you are not quite ready for, let them know what you are going through. You may also wish to share your feelings with a support group, online forum, or trusted counselor or friend. Sharing your feelings can help you process through any emotions that are triggered by this season and help you move toward healing and reconciliation with the loss.

Try Not to Blame Others for Their Halloween Zeal

Although this time can be extremely difficult, others haven’t experienced what you have. Most people see Halloween as a chance to dress up and be someone else for a while. Try to understand that most people are simply oblivious to the pain you feel.

Dealing with Grief on Mother’s Day

By AfterCare, Exclude from Top Posts, Seasonal

Mother’s Day is a special day, set aside to honor the mothers who have done so much for us. But Mother’s Day is often a very difficult day for two sets of people: those who are mourning the loss of a mother, and mothers who are mourning the loss of a child. On a day that celebrates the mother-child relationship, these people are faced with painful reminders of their loss.

The differences between losing a parent and losing a child are massive. They cannot be compared, nor should they be. Each has its own challenges, its own hurts, its own obstacles. But there are some similar things you can do to prepare for the hard days you will face, particularly ones that you can see coming, like holidays. That said, if you have experienced the loss of a mother or the loss of a child, you have our sincerest sympathies. As we approach Mother’s Day this year, here are some tips to help you get through the holiday and cope with the great loss you have suffered.

Emotionally prepare in the days before the holiday

It’s not just Mother’s Day that’s hard. The week leading up to Mother’s Day can also trigger painful memories and stir up strong emotions. Thoughts – your internal life – will be one of your biggest obstacles. Take some time before the holiday to plan how you want to focus your thoughts. You may choose to focus on the gratitude you feel for the time you had with your mother or child. You may choose to spend some time in solitude, allowing yourself to freely vent your emotions. Or, you may think of a new way to honor your loved one’s memory this year, such as taking a bouquet to the graveside or working on a special memorial project. Try to avoid stressful situations (such as the grocery store aisle with all those pink cards and candy boxes) as much as possible.

Tell your story

Every grief journey is different, and there’s no “right” way to grieve. But it is important to talk about your loss. Find someone you trust – a friend, spouse, family member – who will wholeheartedly listen to your story. Your relationship with your child or your mother doesn’t end with death – that relationship continues on in you. By sharing how you loved them, how they impacted you, the difference they made in your life, you keep your loved one’s memory alive. But also, by telling your story, you allow others into your life and offer them an opportunity to comfort and support you.

Journal about how you are feeling

Grief journals allow you an honest, private, and judgment-free place to process your thoughts. Write down everything you are feeling about your loss. Anger, sadness, and things left unsaid, along with gratitude, appreciation, and memories. Don’t leave anything out. Sometimes the most painful part of loss is knowing that there will be moments you never will share with a loved one. Our hopes and dreams and expectations are dashed in a moment, especially with the loss of a child or a mother much too early. Write down all your hopes and expectations so you can see them in black and white. Sometimes simply acknowledging your hopes can help you come to grips with your feelings and help you work toward releasing them and finding a measure of peace.

Honor the other mothers in your life

For those of you whose mother is no longer here, you may have one or two women in your life who have been like a mother to you. It could be a teacher, a mentor, a colleague, a leader in your faith group, or a close and trusted friend. Honor these women by acknowledging the contribution that they have made to your life! This activity can also apply to someone who has lost a child. Have any of your child’s friends continued to be close to you and your family following the loss? Make sure to tell them how much their continued presence means to you.

Pay a special tribute to your loved one

Some people work out their grief by finding an activity or creative outlet. Art therapy can be very helpful in processing emotions. You may like to paint, woodwork, quilt, crochet, sew, scrapbook, or make a video slideshow, to name a few. No matter what you choose to do, you can make it especially meaningful when you share it with others as a memorial gift. Another way to honor your loved one’s memory is through giving back. Volunteering for a beloved charity or giving back through memorial gifts can be a special way to pay tribute to a loved one.

Talk to a professional

All grief is difficult, and some grief is unbearable. If you are stuck beneath a heavy burden of grief, perhaps it’s time to visit a counselor or therapist. There is no shame in seeking professional help. We all go to the doctor for a physical checkup and we all have our annual dentist appointment, so why shouldn’t everyone have a professional to watch over their mental health? A grief counselor or psychologist could be a helpful resource and might provide useful tips for battling grief. Perhaps you could use this season to plan a session. Talking to an educated, informed individual about problems that he or she has some perspective on couldn’t hurt. Why not give it a try?

Do something that you enjoy

Participate in an activity that you enjoy. Your mother or child would want you to be happy. You may feel guilty about feeling happiness – like it’s an emotion you no longer have a right to feel. But that’s not true. It’s not a betrayal to find hope and joy, and any loving child or mother would want you to find these things again. Oblige them by doing something that gives you joy. Hang out with friends, go to the movies, or buy yourself a treat. Do something relaxing or find an opportunity to laugh. Honor your loved one by living the life you have been given and treating yourself the way that they would treat you.

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