Mark has worked in healthcare advertising and marketing for over forty years. In 1993, he opened a medical education and communications firm, The BioContinuum Group. In 2009, Mark mothballed the business to care for his wife, Donna, who had been diagnosed with Stage IV cancer and told she had six months to live. After Donna’s death in August 2011, Mark began to read, blog, podcast and Tweet about loss and grief. Over time, he recognized that he had collected a vast number of disparate memories of Donna and the two of them. These memories were small drops of silver mercury. Mark began to push those silver drops of memory together to make a larger and larger single memory. Donna, A Photo Memoir of Love and Loss is that single drop of mercury, a shining shimmery memory.
In the early days, weeks, months after Donna’s death, who or what inspired you to get out of bed?
It was less external factors that inspired me. Donna and I were both self-starters. We knew what had to be done and did it. Add to that we were not shy about pushing (i.e., berating) each other to empty the dishwasher, fold the laundry, etc. Add being a bit OCD. We did what needed to be done like clockwork. When Donna was diagnosed, the same factors came into play with the added pressure of keeping Donna alive and giving her the chance to be Donna. Donna handed me her cancer so she could continue to be her. That was my inspiration.
After Donna died, I think my motivation was I needed to do it all to keep going in the way WWDD (What Would Donna Do). I wanted to be the person who Donna loved into being by being the person who did not let ‘things’ languish. I had our standards to maintain.
What kept you upright?
I think the above is a significant portion of remaining upright. Moving and doing like a shark so I wouldn’t drown. The real drive was advice a good friend gave me on the day Donna died. “Do not run or deny your grief because it will only fester. Look at your grief and understand it.”
I did not run from my grief and spent time writing (an excellent exercise) about my memories, my loss, my love Donna, grief and more. I read and read as much as possible. I basically immersed myself in this exercise of self-examination, writing, reading and thinking. Closure is a myth. Closure is indifference. Closure is denial said pretty. I was not about to close Donna and that kept me going, seeking knowledge.
What helped you survive?
Survive? I wonder how to define that. Basically, I am surviving. I live a life. I cook, exercise, read, write and interact with people at times. That is the basics of survival. What is missing following Donna’s death I said to a grief counselor: “I know Donna will never come back, but I know I can go to her anytime I choose.”
That suicide ideation was a path for me. It was my out when I choose. It was a place marker for me to test ideas. If I failed, well, there we go.
I wrote an essay on my ideation. A good friend and accomplished writer liked it and spurred me to write more. Ultimately, I wrote Donna: A Photo Memoir of Love and Loss and self-published.
Writing that memoir was the perfect extension of the fierce and searching examination of my grief and loss. I discovered Donna again, new things about her and us. I was able to express my grief in ways that touched me deeply and a few others.
How were you able to re-enter the world?
I am not sure I have re-entered the world. I am different, perhaps newer. I do not subscribe to a new chapter idea as much as character development in a run on sentence. I am engaging with the world to a point. In many regards, I am holding back because the new different me is unsure and still retains my memories. In defense of memories, they are the anchors that hold us steady in the storm of grief. Yet there was a recent moment that is having me consider if it is time to load my memories and pull anchor.
I stopped by the local whiskey bar to ask if I had paid my tab and tipped last night (don’t ask why …). Sitting, chatting and one of the barbacks comes and sits with me. She was about 28 and from Brazil. A very lovely woman. Sweet, funny and you’ve got to be good to be a barback here. She says I want to tell you something, and I hope it’s okay. I really don’t share this with people because they don’t usually understand. I am a medium. The other day when you came in (on the anniversary of Donna’s death), suddenly, I understood. It became clear. There was this light around you. I saw that Donna is in a very good place and happy. She loves you and is waiting for you. This blew me away because in Donna: A Photo Memoir of Love and Loss, the very last line says: “Donna, are you waiting for me?”
As I allowed this little bit of magic to wash over my emotions and logical mind, I began to see it all from a broader perspective. I am now ready to see what this is telling me.
Why now? Because I joined the Hot Young Widows Club. #HYWC has been pivotal in my loss, grief and love. I have not shied away from my fierce and searching fight with my grief and loss. I believe the wound of grief is where light enters. But, I have become stale to where I started. Stale to my post-death immersion into grief. Everyone on HYWC is all new. I was/am taken back to my start. I saw my world through their eyes. They have helped make me better at understanding me and grief and Donna and love. Bravo wids. Bravo. I have laughed with them, cried with them, hurt and got pissed at their asshole family members that I don’t have.
I think now through this woman, Donna saw a chance to step back. Donna and anyone who knows me knows I have survivor’s guilt. Why do I deserve to travel, to have a meal, to live where I do, when Donna is dead. I think Donna wanted to let me know, “Get over your guilt. I am waiting for you. We are still in love. I am fine. Willy and Nina are here. I am dressed as I want and where I am is designed just how I like it. So get the fuck over yourself. And stop staining your shirts with food at every meal.”
She knows I am doing fine in being me, neat, organized, cooking, etc. That is me. I have to stop thinking that this is penance for my guilt. I need to be me, the person Donna loved into being and loved. I remember when we had an ugly painful breakup way back, I found a note she wrote that said, “No one will love you like I do.”
- Do not run or hid or deny your grief
- Rumi said: “The wound is the place where light enters you.” Our loss and grief is where the light enters us if we allow it. There is so much knowledge to find in our grief if we sit with it and allow it to guide us with an open heart.
- Think, write, post, share, join platforms and most of all, do not allow the pain of grief to paralyze you. Searching for knowledge in the darkness of grief feels like a dark, damp warehouse with much debris that will upend us. Grief can be a glow stick lighting a path.
- Our grief never leaves our hearts. But over time, it yields and opens, becoming a bas relief we can feel. This grief journey serves us to know the true depth and breadth of love. Memories will love you, and you will learn to love them.
- “What is real? That which is irreplaceable.” Westworld Your grief is real as your memories. They are irreplaceable.
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