Nov 29

“The Holdovers”: New Holiday Film Is Special

If there’s a theater movie I’ve enjoyed more than The Holdovers this past year, I don’t remember it.  And I’m not the only one praising this story that on varying levels—but not heavy-handedly or without humor—involves issues of grief, loneliness, secrets, anxiety, depression, and alcoholism.  A sampling of critical reviews:

  • Johnny OleksinskiNew York Post :  “…the warmest cinematic experience you’ll have all year.”
  • Leonard Maltin: “…the year’s best movie to date.”
  • Jackson Weaver, CBC: “…best movie of the year.”
  • Peter Travers, ABC News: “…has all the makings of a new holiday classic.”
  • Maureen Lee Lenker, EW.com: “…the closest thing we’ve had to a new holiday classic in quite some time.”
  • Brian Truit, USA Today: eighth of 20 “best Christmas movies ever.”

Currently at 96% approval from Rotten Tomatoes critics, the following is the site’s description:

From acclaimed director Alexander Payne, THE HOLDOVERS follows a curmudgeonly instructor (Paul Giamatti) at a New England prep school who is forced to remain on campus during Christmas break to babysit the handful of students with nowhere to go. Eventually he forms an unlikely bond with one of them — a damaged, brainy troublemaker (newcomer Dominic Sessa) — and with the school’s head cook, who has just lost a son in Vietnam (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).

Here’s a preview:

THE THREE MAIN CHARACTERS

Maureen Lee Lenker, EW.com: “There is something so relatable, so deeply human about their pain and their circumstances — there’s a startling honesty in the kaleidoscope of emotions they all are experiencing at any given time.”

Oliver Jones, Observer: “None of these characters ask for sympathy, but command it nonetheless.”

Tomris Laffly, The Wrap: “…three broken misfits lifting each other up.”

THE STORY

Brian Tallerico, rogerebert.com:

Hollywood has a long history of stories of ‘makeshift families that learn something,’ but then why does ‘The Holdovers’ feel so fresh? It’s probably because it’s been so long since one of these stories felt this true. Payne and his team recognize the clichés of this life lesson, but they embed them with truths that will always be timeless. Everyone has that unexpected friendship or even mentorship with someone who forever altered their direction in life. And everyone has that young person who has shocked them out of their stasis, either through revealing what they have become or failed to be. ‘The Holdovers’ is a consistently smart, funny movie about people who are easy to root for and like the ones we know. Its greatest accomplishment is not how easy it is to see yourself in Paul, Angus, or Mary. It’s that you will in all three.

Nick Schager, The Daily Beast: “…a story about the lies we tell ourselves (for good and ill) and the reality of our not-so-dissimilar human conditions. Moreover, both looking forward and behind, it’s a film that grasps that everything has been done before and that absolutely nothing is set in stone, and that what bolsters and binds us most of all is compassion for ourselves, each other, and the histories we can never truly escape and are always free to leave behind.”

Stephen Farber, Hollywood Reporter: “Both teacher and student discover secrets about the other that prove traumatic and therapeutic at the same time.”

CONCLUSIONS

Oliver Jones, Observer: “When it’s over, the chill it leaves in your spine is destined to last nearly as long as the smile on your face.”

Max Weiss, Baltimore Magazine: “Wry, funny (with some zingers that will stay with you long after the film is over), and closely observed, The Holdovers is my kind of Christmas film.”

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times: “…gets us there with honesty rather than sweetness.”

Aug 30

Anxiety Vs. Bargaining in Loss Model: Claire Bidwell Smith

Claire Bidwell Smith‘s book Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief  took its roots from a magazine article in which the author had posited that anxiety should actually take the place of the bargaining stage in the most commonly accepted model of bereavement.

Even more than depression, anxiety is the response my grieving clients express a desire to overcome since experiencing loss. They describe feelings of panic and obsessive thinking about their own deaths and potential illness. They tell me about bouts of helplessness and of feeling overwhelmed by life itself, about panic attacks and moments of such paralyzing fear that they pull their cars over on the way to work.”

From an interview Caroline Leavitt conducted with Smith: “There is simply no question that loss causes anxiety. Loss is nothing but a reminder that life is precarious and that we are not in control. This realization coupled with the intense emotions of grief are the perfect recipe for anxiety. It also doesn’t help that we live in a ‘grief-illiterate nation,’ as Maria Shriver says. We often feel very alone and unsupported going through the grief process and do not know where to turn. Not having the proper support can also lead to a greater sense of anxiety.”

Smith knows from personal experience as well as professional. Her mom died of cancer during the author’s freshman year at college. Panic attacks and self-medication with alcohol became a significant part of her life. A powerful article excerpt:

My mother’s death rocked me. I was absolutely floored by it. Nothing could have prepared me for it. Not the five years we’d spent helping her combat her illness, not the talks my father had with me about her potential demise, not the school guidance counselor’s sessions. The truth was I never believed she would actually die. Because: Mothers don’t die. Bad things don’t actually happen.

I now understand that these beliefs were at the root of my anxiety. When my mother’s death disproved the two things I’d so fervently held onto, the whole floor dropped out. If my mother could die, anything, absolutely anything could happen.

Now Smith coaches grievers on understanding this aspect of the process and on learning ways to work through it. From the critique of Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief by Kirkus Reviews:

The author notes that while the brain is processing the separation, regret, and other emotions accompanying loss, that loss is also tangible: ‘We are forced to rearrange our lives to accommodate for the absence of this person.’ In discussing that rearrangement and those emotions, Smith turns from the canonical work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross to more recent practitioners, such as Thomas Attig, who analyzes the changes that accompany loss, including, inevitably, changes in one’s own identity, a potential cause of grief all its own. 

Not everyone can be Claire Bidwell Smith’s actual client, of course. She does, however, provide a self-guided online grief program. Visit Smith’s site.

Mar 06

“It’s OK That You’re Not OK”: Megan Devine

Therapist Megan Devine, author of It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand (2017), offers on her Refuge in Grief  website: “If your life has exploded into a million little bits, you don’t need platitudes. You don’t need cheerleading. You don’t need to be told this all happened for a reason. You certainly don’t need to be told that you needed your pain in order to learn something about life.”

What do you need instead (besides her book)? Perhaps her website—Refuge in Grief: Grief Support That Doesn’t Suck. The site has great info, including posts on helping a grieving friend and surviving your own grief.

Devine lost her male partner to an accidental drowning when he was 39. Contrary to what our culture sometimes demands, she notes, “Grief no more needs a solution than love needs a solution.” Also, “Some things cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.”

Other selected quotes about grief from It’s OK that You’re Not OK:

The reality of grief is far different from what others see from the outside. There is pain in this world that you can’t be cheered out of. You don’t need solutions. You don’t need to move on from your grief. You need someone to see your grief, to acknowledge it. You need someone to hold your hands while you stand there in blinking horror, staring at the hole that was your life. Some things cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.

There is not a reason for everything. Not every loss can be transformed into something useful. Things happen that do not have a silver lining.

When you try to take someone’s pain away from them, you don’t make it better. You just tell them it’s not OK to talk about their pain.

Acknowledgment–being seen and heard and witnessed inside the truth about one’s own life–is the only real medicine of grief.

If you can’t tell your story to another human, find another way: journal, paint, make your grief into a graphic novel with a very dark storyline. Or go out to the woods and tell the trees. It is an immense relief to be able to tell your story without someone trying to fix it. The trees will not ask, “How are you really?” and the wind doesn’t care if you cry.

When someone you love dies, you don’t just lose them in the present or in the past. You lose the future you should have had, and might have had, with them. They are missing from all the life that was to be.

True comfort in grief is in acknowledging the pain, not in trying to make it go away. Companionship, not correction, is the way forward.

Mar 01

“Modern Loss” and How to Cope

People often bemoan the lack of manuals for the hard and complicated stuff like grief. Well, The Modern Loss Handbook: An Interactive Guide to Moving Through Grief and Building Your Resilience (2022) by Rebecca Soffer might convince those who’ve experienced loss there actually is a guidebook, one that’s been highly praised as useful, candid, humorous, and real.

For starters, check out the comprehensive Modern Loss website. Headings include Types of Loss, Hot Topics, and Advice.

Prior to the handbook we also had Modern Loss: Candid Conversation About Grief. Beginners Welcome (2018) by Soffer and Gabrielle BirknerIn addition to contributions from themselves, the authors provide pieces from 40 others.

Important info about Sofer and Birkner (Shondaland): “Both women lost their parents when they were young adults: Birkner’s father and stepmother were murdered when she was 24; Soffer’s mother and father died four years apart when she was in her early 30s. The two women, both writers, found space for their grief, rage, and confusion in a weekly gathering of other young women who’d lost their parents (aptly named ‘Women with Dead Parents’). Six years after their first meeting, Soffer and Birkner took that community worldwide with their online publication Modern Loss, allowing even more people to share their stories and find help in navigating what it’s like to be the one left behind after a death.”

Birkner had received (per her Shondaland interview) paradoxical pieces of advice regarding her own healing. Both turned out to be helpful to her process.

One was: Don’t expect too much from yourself. My friend told me, ‘Get up, brush your teeth, and be proud of yourself for doing it. Everything else is icing: bills, laundry, writing, whatever. Icing.’ And my grandmother, who’s my father’s mother, who had just lost her son, said to me, ‘You don’t have to expect too little of yourself.’ My friend gave me permission to be kind to myself, to pace myself, to assess where I am, to breathe, to be proud of getting up every morning. My grandma gave me permission to forge ahead in spite of everything, to keep my foot on the pedal at work and to forge ahead in my career.

An essential New York Times article by the authors offers a modern glossary reflecting the idea that “Loss is messy, melancholic and often darkly hilarious. It also lingers forever.”

Finally, some pithy quotes from Modern Loss: Candid Conversations:

Everyone will lose somebody they love. And I don’t say that as a threat, I say it as a fact.

Our grief can’t just be buried alongside the ones we love. Even years after our losses, we still have moments of gut-wrenching sadness.

Grief alters us, body and mind, by splitting us in two. It is the only way to live with it and not be destroyed by it.

Mar 16

Assisted Dying: Amy Bloom’s “In Love”

Heller McAlpin, NPR, asks potential readers of the new book by writer/therapist Amy Bloom, In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss, “Would you agree to help your beloved end his life when he receives a hopeless diagnosis?” The issue of assisted dying is what Bloom faced in her own marriage.

The diagnosis in question is early-onset Alzheimer‘s, which struck Brian Ameche in his mid-60’s.

Not everyone will agree with Brian’s decision, or with Bloom’s agreement to support his wishes. Bloom understands that euthanasia is a controversial subject, and she addresses it with the gravitas it deserves. At various points, she worries ‘that a better wife, certainly a different wife, would have said no, would have insisted on keeping her husband in this world until his body gave out.’ In Brian’s sharper moments, she worries that they’re acting too soon. She also, rightly, rails at a system that allows animals to be put out of their misery, but not human beings.

The bumpy road to assisted dying, or in this case legally “accompanied suicide” (involving drinking sodium pentobarbital) brings the couple to an organization in Switzerland called Dignatas. But you can’t just access Dignatas because you want to. One of the stumbling blocks was proving Brian’s level of “discernment and determination”:

The couple know that if they wait too long, he will no longer be capable of passing this test. They hit an upsetting delay when they learn that Brian’s neurologist had written on the MRI report that the reason for the test was a ‘major depressive episode.’ Depression is a deal-breaker for Dignitas, which does not want to be in the business of helping clinically depressed people commit suicide. Brian and Bloom have to prove that the neurologist’s note is simply not true.

Simon Van Booy, Washington Post, believes In Love demonstrates that “perhaps the two most challenging issues for Bloom as a wife” are finding alternatives to Dignatas if rejected and deciding how to tell loved ones.

While the latter, i.e., telling others, produces “some unusual reactions,” the former involves pondering various other methods of assisted dying: “The author recounts how she considered drowning, procuring fentanyl from a drug dealer, DIY suffocation, and VSED (voluntary suspension of eating and drinking), which in the case of her husband (a former Yale football player) could take as long as a month…”

In Love is currently on many critics’ must-read lists. The following review excerpt from Publishers Weekly echoes the sentiments of many, including my own: “With passion and sharp wit, [Amy Bloom] jumps back and forth between the beginning of their relationship, the Herculean effort it took to secure an agreement with Dignitas, and the painful anticipation of the final trip to Switzerland. Most poignant are the intimate moments they share as they make the most of their last days together. As she writes, ‘I imagine that Brian feels as alone as I do but I can tell he isn’t as afraid.’ The result is a stunning portrayal of how love can reveal itself in life’s most difficult moments.”