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“Next to Normal" and walking the path of grief
It’s Halloween week, the high holy week for witches. The veil thins, we say and the boundary between the living and the dead weaken. We think of our dead, we honor them, we communicate with them and we invite them to communicate with us, too. We do everything but send them cards (It may be that some do that, too. It’s all good)
Sometimes we grieve them, too.
I’m prompted to write this entry because of a play I saw Sunday night called “Next to Normal”. (WARNING: there are spoilers ahead).
It’s a Tony-award winning play. I knew very little about it, other than that. “It’s about a woman with mental illness,” I told my husband. I was looking forward to the play. I believe that the experience of mental illness has dramatic value worth investigating and wondered how a musical might do that. (Custom Made Theater Company, a theater company that’s been making plays for 15 years in San Francisco, did an absolutely superb job.)
I left the theater two hours later; gobsmacked. It was not the play I thought it would be. It was better.
“Next to Normal” is not about mental illness. It’s about the conditions that produce and precede mental illness. I get why the play gets described that way: it’s hard using nuanced descriptions of plays for press releases and things. But that’s not really the terrain it explores. This play is about ghosts, and the beloved dead and the horrible things that happen when the process of grief gets misplaced.
Some people, when the worst happens, want to avert their eyes, stop speaking and walk on. And some people want stop walking and start talking. “Next to Normal” is about the latter response: a woman’s soul refusing to budge from its place of pain until attention is paid.
(Spoiler! Stop reading here if you haven’t seen the play and don’t want to know too much about it.)
We see Diana, the lead character, speaking to a son at the beginning of the play: her dead son, it turns out, dead from infancy. The viewer doesn’t know this straightaway; the fact that she’s communicating persistently with him isn’t revealed until midway through the first act. Is he a figment of her imagination, proof that she’s delusional? Is he a ghost? Both explanations work. Some wise person once said that within the heart of all ghost stories is grief.
Diana’s grief is treated as something pathological; clinical. After a barrage of medication, a suicide attempt and electroshock therapy, she finally comes to consciousness of a simple fact: she was never allowed to grieve. “My first psychiatrist told me that according to the manual, grief that continues past four months is pathological and should be medicated. Four months. For the life of my child. Who makes these decisions?” she asks. She was told she was mentally ill. But if I understand the play and the playwright’s intentions correctly, her health was horribly neglected.
She couldn’t heal because she was rushed from the scene of the catastrophe, told to move on. Get pregnant. She wasn’t allowed to dialogue with her grief or with the spirit of her son. Her soul refused to budge from its need to grieve, and its need to dwell, for a while, in a psychic space where she spoke to her son, her beloved dead, often and out loud.
When I speak to my father, who died in 2007, I think it’s probably a one-way communication. I’m really dialoguing with the energy that remains of our living relationship. He’s dead. But my love for him lives, and so I communicate with that. It feels real and tangible. Our relationship is alive: it still gives me a sense of being loved, and of well-being. And this is more or less unchanged from that moment in June 2007 when he died. Likewise my two grandmothers, who were magnificent women. And even with distant ancestors: Mable, Odelia, Alice, Emily, Florence, Frances, Mary, Anne. I didn’t know these women, but my parents and grandmothers knew some of them and had stories, wonderful stories. And on and on.
I enjoy my relationship with people I knew and people I didn’t, and it enhances the relationships I have with the living.
I don’t feel grief any longer for my father’s death. But should I ever feel grief- and it’s probable that I will, since I love- I can’t imagine anyone telling me I had four months to feel it. Or two years, or … any set time at all.
A terrible price is paid when grief gets forcibly pinned to a timeline. I believe in challenging the sort of restrictive emotional culture that issues forth from the timetables of human resource departments or doctor’s manuals.
Grief and love are big phenomena; they come from the things that define our humanity. They need room to roam. And we need time to feel.
During this week of honoring our dead, let’s make room for everything that we feel: love, anger, grief- anything. Let’s pay attention to what happens upstream: that’s the place health is produced. We must eat, we should all sleep soundly and well, we should get out of bed most mornings with a sense of purpose. We should enjoy each other’s company and each other’s good fortune. If our physical or mental health is compromised, it should be treated with appropriate and responsive healthcare.
Let’s create and hold space for those who are traveling that path of loss. Let’s never, ever tell them they aren’t walking fast enough.
I value our tradition of communing with the dead: it is, to me, a reflection of the enormity of our human hearts that they continue to love, argue, and question even after death.
Let us stay connected. Hail the goers.
Apropos of all that… RIP, Lou Reed, you brilliant, beautiful man. I will always sing your songs.
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