The World's Worst Club

James Hollis reviews books by Charlotte Mathes and Mary Jane Hurley Brant, which address the difficult task of moving forward after the death of a child.  

The World’s Worst Club

Through the years, I have had the sad duty as a therapist to attend the shock, grief, dismay, and debilitation of parents who have lost a child.   One never gets over this.   Other great losses—death of a spouse, parents, divorce--all are devastating because they so profoundly interrupt the plan, expectation, hope, and eviscerate the implicate “contract” one had provisionally struck with the universe.   But none equals the trauma or sustained effects of the loss of a child.   A child is a carrier of our best parts.  Yes, therapists wrestle with pathologizing projective identifications with children all the time.  Most often, parents are kvetching because their children have not elected the values or life course of their elders and the parent feels rejected.   This is the narcissism of the parent which it is the duty of therapy to ferret out and confront.   It may similarly be argued that the lost child, as the carrier of our deepest hopes, is also a recipient of our projections and therefore their loss is similarly a narcissistic wound.   I am not so sure about this, but I do consider the possibility that we all over-identify with our children.  And how can we not?   We are their progenitors, protectors, providers, even as another part of the brain tells us that we are but the transient husks which nature employs and through whom they pass en route to their own appointments with destiny.  As Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson expressed it, “my sinne was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.”  Later he notes that a vital part of him lies in the grave as well: doth lye
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.

 So, how does a parent react?   Zorba reported that he scandalized his village by dancing about in ecstatic abandon all night after the loss of his daughter.  He knew no other way to express the magnitude of his emotion.   Like Edward Wallant’s protagonist in The Pawnbroker, Ben Jonson reports that he learned to protect himself from such further primal emotion by not feeling much at all, whereby “what he loves may never like too much.”  Blunting or numbing is how some get through patches of rough road.   Others have tried to freeze time, to preserve things as they were, maintaining bedrooms, clothing, artifacts for someone who, against all reason, just may come home again some day.  Still others mobilize libido in service to causes which somehow honor the values embodied in the child.  Still others escalate into a manic defense against grief by distraction, hyperactivity, or sublimated service to others.   There is no “right way”; there is only the way people find.

Two friends, colleagues, have written of their private paths, paths which, because written, now enter the public conversation.  One, Mary Jane Hurley Brant of Philadelphia, describes the course of her daughter Katie’s brain tumor in When Every Day Matters: A Mother’s Memoir on Love, Loss, and Life (Washington, D.C.: Simple Abundance Press, 2008).    For a first-person description of the daily struggle of the soul to find its course, this is a book to read.  While Brant describes herself as feeling like “the handless maiden” of the fairy tales, in fact she and her husband worked heroically to save their daughter’s life.   When such an outcome proved not possible, she wishes to die as well and comes to realize that she is still stuck in this life and that there are tasks remaining—the transformation of her Katie now asking for a transformation for the Mother as well.   Out of the ashes, Brant founded Katie’s Kids for the Cure to fund research to prevent pediatric brain cancer.   As a therapist, she now attends the grief of others as well, knowing that “while something very big is indeed broken inside of me, it is not the whole me.”

The other, Charlotte Mathes, Jungian analyst in New Orleans, writes of the dual death of her son, Duncan, first to the loss of childhood she wished for as a result of his schizophrenia, and secondly from his suicide.   (And a Sword Shall Pierce Your Heart.: Moving from Despair to Meaning after the Death of a Child.  Wilmette, IL, Chiron, 2006).  This is a book to read for a survey of the different forms of child loss, the range of personal therapeutic practices for people going through this experience, and for a list of resources available ranging from films, to music, to support groups.Central to Mathes’s gift to others is her illustration of the importance of finding one’s myth, that is, the energy-laden ideas to which one’s life has been in service hitherto, whether consciously or not, and reconfiguring that myth in the light of a more radical rhythm of love and loss with its obligatory deconstruction of one’s former sense of self and sense of world.  In drawing upon classical literature, the techniques of dream work and active imagination, Mathes demonstrates that one need not remain passive, nor stuck in victimage, even in a situation in which one is least capable of action. 

Both of these works arise from women whose Jungian perspective brings a depth of insight and working knowledge often absent in other psychologies.   Each speaks with eloquence and candor; each offers hope for those who share their loss without minimizing the horror, trauma, and lasting pain.   Each is honest.   Each offers a gift I value greatly as I write this brief review a year to the very week that my son Timothy died, and I joined the World’s Worst Club with them.

James Hollis, Ph. D.
Jungian analyst
Houston, Texas