Tag Archives: loss

The Missing Piece and a Journey to Healing

August 22, 2017 by
Photography by Tim Guthrie

Tim Guthrie, an art professor at Creighton, produced the award-winning documentary Missing Piece. The documentary details Guthrie’s journey to find peace with the death of his wife, Beth, from complications of Parkinson’s disease and dystonia.


Sometimes I cant believe I can go on without her.

The loss feels too great, too heavy. We didn’t simply have each other as companions. We had each other to lean on when we needed one another—when I was struggling with work or my master’s degree, when she was devastated over a pregnancy that ended in an emergency room, or as her diseases put her through increasingly more pain.

Now she’s gone. She’s not here to lean on.

I’ve done everything I can to find ways to live without her, to find a way for life to be a little less difficult and painful. I spend a lot of time revisiting pleasant memories, working to get to a point where I can feel happy—to a point where those memories can overpower the persistent image of finding her that awful morning. I want to do anything to erase that vision from my memory bank. I wish for a willful and controlled amnesia.

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

I made a film about, and for, her—my wife, Elizabeth Broderick.

Showing the film has been a challenge. I don’t attend most of the film festivals, but during the screenings of the few I have attended, I usually leave the theater before her film begins. The film is my love letter to Beth, but it’s also painful for me to watch.

Sometimes, I think the film, and the Missing Piece photos I took, are too personal for me to talk about. Mostly, though, everything from Beth’s death until now has been extraordinarily painful and personal to talk about, so why should the film or photos be any different?

I started a blog, “Traveling with Virtual Beth,” for family and friends who wanted to track some of what I have been doing, and where I’ve been going—especially for my parents, who wanted to follow my travels. I’ve openly shared both the physical and emotional journey. I’ve opened up on the blog. I’ve opened up on my Facebook page, as well. Most people are respectful. I don’t mean to make people uncomfortable. I don’t mean to make my grieving process seem worse than anyone else’s. I know I’m not unique in losing a loved one. It’s a pain that is unfortunately universal.

Original photo taken at Tim Guthrie’s apartment (early 1990s); revisited in their house (2017)

I’m aware that I’ve been grieving pretty publicly, which was an issue as I began to be approached by reporters. One by one, I turned all but one away. Everyone expected that I wanted to talk more about everything, but it has always been a struggle. It adds to the challenge when someone else who didn’t know her, or even me, wants to tell a story I’m still struggling with myself. I somehow still want to protect her, even in death.

One reporter, who assumed I’d want to talk more openly than I did, wanted to write about details I have never talked about online or in the film. When I pointed out that if that’s what she wanted to include in the story, I ultimately wasn’t interested, her response was, “I’m the reporter, I decide the story.”

And like that, I was done with the interview and never talked to her again. Granted, months later, another writer, Kim Carpenter with the Omaha World-Herald, gently got me to open up, finally, so a story was eventually written from someone’s perspective other than my own. Still, it was a challenge. It actually felt a bit as though she was my therapist over months of talking with her.

At Fontenelle Forest (early 1990s); revisited at Red Rocks Park in Vermont (2016)

I don’t talk about it often, but I actually saw a therapist. It was helpful for about a year, but I stopped going this past summer, mostly for financial reasons. I think spreading Beth’s ashes, revisiting places and taking photos, keeping the blog, and making the film probably helped more than a therapist could.

In the first six months of this journey, I kept arguing with people who insisted the photos were works of art. For me, they weren’t art, but a very personal process that was helping me deal with the loss. I initially loathed thinking about them as art. I never, ever, ever wanted to reduce Beth to an art project, and calling them art somehow felt insulting to her memory and shameful to me. Grief makes one say and think absurd things.

I’ve thought about ending the blog many times, and, even though I know I will ultimately bring it to a close by the end of the year, I find myself recalling comments I’ve received—like the many messages from people who have thanked me for sharing—comments that expressed gratitude because sharing my journey has helped others deal with their own grief. The comedian/writer/actor Patton Oswalt even sent me a message after his wife died, and after he discovered and read every post on the blog. It felt like an odd honor, but also like being part of a widowers’ club. Such messages have made the blog worthwhile, though. Knowing it has helped others is strangely comforting.

At Durham Museum (early 1990s); same location (2016)

It’s one thing for me to get through this myself, but the thought of it helping anyone else actually motivated me to continue for as long as I did. I thought I’d only continue the blog for a year. It will have been two years by the time I bring it to a close. When I imagine it has assuaged anyone else’s grief by sharing my own, it makes her death a little less difficult to bear. If anything good can come from her death, it eases my mind and soothes a broken heart to think she is helping others, even long after she’s gone. Yet, as I run out of photos and work to move forward, it feels like the right time to end it.

I know I can’t return to the person I was, but if I can get to a place where I can at least move forward again, and spend less time curled up alone, then maybe that’s something. To be honest, everything I’ve done to honor her these past couple of years has been worth it.

She may not be here to lean on in times when I need her most, but I’ll keep the good memories, which the photos help me recall.

I can’t move on without her, but maybe I can move forward with our shared memory, learning to carry it all with a little more ease. Hopefully the loss will someday be a little less heavy, more bearable.

The simple fact is, I miss her so damn much; that’s one thing I know I’ll carry until the day I die. 

Honeymoon at Dolwyddelan Castle, Wales (1994); same location (2016)

Visit virtualbeth.wordpress.com to view Tim Guthrie’s blog. A screening of the documentary, Missing Piece, is tentatively scheduled at Film Streams on Nov. 7 (7 p.m.). Photographs will be exhibited at Gallery 72 in November with an opening reception Nov. 9 (5-9 p.m.). A special preview at the gallery will follow the Nov. 7 screening.

 

 

 

Acclaim for Missing Piece

Missing Piece was accepted into several national and international festivals. Here is an abbreviated list of screenings and recognitions.

Omaha Film Fest

Best Short NE Documentary

Audience Award for Best Short Film

Global Independent Film Festival

Best Documentary Short Film

2017 Humanitarian Award Winner

Sydney Film Festival

Best Documentary Short Film

Canada World International

Film Festival

Best American Film

High Coast Film Festival, Sweden

Honorable Mention

Sweet As Film Festival

Honorable Mention

Hollywood International

Independent Awards Festival

Finalist

This essay was printed in the September/October 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Honeymoon at Llandanwg, Wales (1994); same location (2016)

Joy Johnson

January 20, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It wasn’t a funeral. Or a viewing. Or even a celebration of life.

When Joy Johnson’s husband Marvin passed away earlier this year, she held a roast. “We had what Marv would have called one hell of a party,” Johnson says.

Johnson, who co-founded with her late husband the Centering Corporation, a nonprofit grief resource center, has spent the last three decades trying to change the language of death, or at least improve the way we communicate about it: you know, that fate we cannot escape, when we bite the dust or cash in our chips so we can be called home to sleep with the fishes…?

“We don’t have a language of grief yet,” Johnson says.

Seated around a table eating breakfast with a few old friends—hospice nurses and chaplains who have also spent years around death and dying—Johnson continues. The root of the word, ‘widow,’ she says in citing just one example, is ‘destitute.’

“That’s not a good word,” Johnson says.

She and her husband worked with counselors, crisis centers, hospitals, and funerals at Centering Corporation to provide books on death and other grieving resources meant to help people find comfort in the right words. Along with their daughter and former son-in-law, the couple also founded Ted E. Bear Hollow, a nonprofit focused on working through grief with children, who may need different kinds of consoling words. Johnson has also written several books on the subject. But when her husband passed after a battle with esophageal cancer, Johnson found herself on the other side, and those accumulated coping skills were tested. “I like to say I’ve had 37 years of research and writing,” she says, “and now I’m in my practicum.”

Johnson knew there were places to turn and people she could talk to, and she knew what she needed: to get out and do things. So she wrote up a list, which she named ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’—30 names of people she could call to go out with, or meet for breakfast.

“Every grief has its own note,” Johnson says, and dealing with each type is different for everyone.

Long-time friend and retired hospice worker Marcia Blum says a sudden death can be much harder to handle than a prolonged illness. “There’s no anticipatory grief period,” she says. Blum says her parents died within five months of each other; her mother after a long battle with Parkinson’s, and her father shortly after, suddenly. “They were two totally different griefs,” she says. “It was the wrong death in my mind.”

But even in hospice, where one might imagine family members would be prepared for the inevitable, Blum says people are so often surprised by death. It occurs behind closed doors—in hospitals and hospice; it’s not discussed openly. “Nobody sees it,” Blum says. “I think people still avoid real death. There’s the gruesome death that we see on television, but real death is different.”

Words didn’t work for Johnson’s daughter when she faced a sudden and up-close death. Janet Roberts, the executive director of Centering Corporation and the daughter behind the founding of Ted E. Bear Hollow, grew up around the family business and started helping out when she was eight. “I was always comfortable with grief as part of the life cycle,” she says, leading a brief tour of the center’s offices—small and unassuming; shelves of books, boxes and packaging tape stacked behind a circle of couches where visitors can warm themselves with hot coffee and tea. But at 18 years old, Roberts’ boyfriend was killed while she was with him, and the shock threw her into a depression and PTSD. She recalls her mother offered books to help work through her grief, but they were geared to adults, and she couldn’t relate. She left the business for a while, and when she returned decided to start Ted E. Bear Hollow to help teens and children dealing with grief. Teens respond differently, she says; they often they need to write through their grief, or just acknowledge they’ve had a loss.

When Roberts went through that loss, there were few books or resources available for teens, she says. But today, she explains in gesturing to the piled-high shelves, there are thousands.

Back at the breakfast table, Johnson and her friends said attitudes about death have changed significantly in the last couple decades. Communally tragic events like the bombing of the twin towers on 9/11 have made grief and death more public, and people are able to connect through social media as they mourn. But our words are still lacking and our condolences can seem trite—particularly to a group of people who deal with death and its aftermath on a daily basis. I’m sorry for your loss—that’s one Johnson grew tired of hearing. I know how you feel—that’s another. “Don’t assume you understand,” says Blum.

Johnson has her own words for her grief, like DTT, or Designated Tear Time. She’s not a public crier, she says, so she gives herself time alone to let it out.

And aside from ‘hello’ when Johnson goes through her list and makes the call, the words of condolence that she’d like to hear?

“What a bummer.”

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Family Success Story
: The Murceks

November 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Grief is an unavoidable part of life. Everyone encounters it at some point, and it usually strikes when least expected. And though no one grieves the same, the emptiness that follows losing a loved one is universal, whether it’s for a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a friend, a child, even a pet.

But the true test is not the grief itself—it’s coming back from it.

Looking at John and Cindy Murcek of Millard today, you wouldn’t know that they suffered a terrible family loss. John is a painting contractor; Cindy is a social studies and English teacher at Andersen Middle School in the Millard Public Schools district. They’ve been married for a little over 20 years.

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They have three children—sons Eric, 14, and Will, 7, and daughter Jamie, 5. “Eric’s in tennis. Will’s in football. Jamie’s in gymnastics…It’s kind of busy, but it’s the good kind of busy,” Cindy says. When asked how the kids get along, she laughs. “Will and Jamie will either play together or be at each other’s throats. Eric, being the teenager, thinks they’re annoying sometimes. But they’re all good kids.”

John and Cindy’s devotion to their children is what Cindy believes binds their relationship. “We want our children to know that they have a secure home, and that we’re giving them the best life that we can. I came from a divorced family, so it’s important for them to know that that will never happen. And John’s from a big Catholic family, so family and staying together has always been important to him.”

Twelve years ago during the Thanksgiving holiday, however, their family was shaken when they were on their way back to Omaha from Billings, Mont., after visiting Cindy’s sister and her family. Their truck hit black ice and rolled. John, Cindy, and Eric were all fine, but Cindy’s mom, who rarely traveled, and the Murceks’ oldest son, Andy, were killed.

“It was devastating,” Cindy says. “That’s an understatement.”

While they grieved, John and Cindy found support in each other. “I think that incident made John’s and my bond stronger. Nobody loved Andy like we did, nobody can break that, and nobody can understand our loss. We had that grief to share; and though we grieved differently, we both knew exactly what the other was feeling.”

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Eric, at the time, was 2. While he didn’t understand everything, he knew Andy was supposed to be there but wasn’t. “He’d ask where Andy was and if he could play with him,” Cindy says. “When we went to the grocery store, he’d ask if he could get Andy a snack. Of course, I let him. We’d even tell him stories about Andy.” Although they missed their oldest son, Cindy says that she and John were grateful to still have Eric. “He was my reason to get out of bed in the morning.”

Today, Cindy aches for Eric almost more than she did when he was too young to understand his brother’s death. “He’s a freshman in high school now. Andy would’ve been a senior. He would’ve had his big brother in school with him.”

The grieving process for the Murceks was always about time. Some days were harder than others, but each day, it got a little easier. “As time goes on, grief is more a silent battle…You deal with it on your own, you face it, and go on.”

During that silent battle, Cindy says she bought a “full library” of books on grief and went to grief groups, looking for a fix. But it was faith that turned everything around for her.

“I wasn’t really a spiritual person before. My mom was,” she says. “It’s weird, but I feel like that’s why she was on that trip with us. She knew she was going to a better place and teaching me a little faith as well.”

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Cindy swears her mom is still teaching her lessons in faith to this day. She recalls a Sunday when her church’s pastor asked the congregation to open their Bibles to a specific verse. “My mom had given me a Bible several years before, and I’d never used it. But I brought it with me that day.” When Cindy opened the Bible to the verse, she realized it had been underlined. “I flipped through some more pages and saw that my mom had underlined verses she thought would be good for me to read. It was the most incredible thing.”

Andy, too, seemed to connect with them in unexpected ways. “Last Christmas, we went to the cemetery to visit him,” she says. “I thought ‘Give me something from Andy, God.’ That night, we had a party, and a neighbor brought over a journal where other people had written about memories of Andy.”

These little moments strengthened Cindy’s faith and helped her see that everything would be all right again. Then again, the addition of two more precious gifts took her mind off the grief, too.

“We assumed it was just going to be the three of us.” But John and Cindy talked about having another child. Certainly, they viewed adding another child to their family differently after Andy’s passing. “Another person to love and lose,” Cindy says. Nevertheless, it was a chance they were willing to take.

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In 2005, they heard about a young girl looking to give her baby up for adoption. “[Will] was born, and in six months, we had a new baby…We hadn’t really planned on it. It just kind of happened.” Another surprise took shape when Cindy found out she was pregnant. “I turned 40 and learned I was pregnant with Jamie. John and I were both like, ‘Two little ones in diapers? We can’t handle this!’” But Jamie, like Will, was a blessing in disguise. Cindy jokes that they finally got a “little princess” after all boys.

“We feel truly blessed,” Cindy says. “Yes, we lost my son and my mom, but there are situations much worse. We’re glad to have a loving family.”

For others grieving the loss of family members, Cindy has some good advice: “I would recommend that you let your family be there for you and understand that grief is a lifelong process…I realized that I couldn’t do it on my own, and that realization made me feel so much better. Just let people help you. Talk to families with similar losses. The sadness won’t go away, but the hopelessness will.”

As for her mom and Andy, Cindy smiles. “I know we’ll see them again.”

Coping with the Loss of a Pet

May 25, 2013 by

Q: We had to give one of our dogs to another family because we’re moving, and my daughter is not handling it very well. What should I do? She is 9.

A: Losing a pet, for any reason, is often hard for kids. Pets become part of the family, so expect your daughter to go through a grieving process. Anger, tears, irritability, sadness…any of these might show up, so be patient as she works through them.

If your daughter is one who likes to talk at bedtime, hang out with her a little longer than usual. Even if neither of you says anything, your presence can be comforting. Share your feelings, but chances are there isn’t anything you can say that will change the situation, so let her do most of the talking. Also, take her lead on discussing the possibility of a new pet in the future. Be cautious not to convey the message that her pet is easily replaceable, and don’t make promises you might not be able to keep.

Will the new family send pictures? Your daughter might not want to see them right away, but it’s helpful to have them if this changes. Pictures also help hold onto good memories, so try putting together a photo album or scrapbook of the pet if it’s something she would enjoy. Working with her on the project provides another opportunity for her to talk to you about whatever’s on her mind.

As she adjusts to life without her pet, keep her busy. If you can make it work, trying letting her spend some extra time with friends or family. Having fun is a great way to keep her mind off feeling sad.

Deb Fuller is a mental health therapist with Real Life Counseling in Omaha.