When a loved one dies . . .

Monday Books

June 13, 1994|By Janet P. Zinzeleta

LOST & FUND: A JOURNEY THROUGH GRIEF. By Ellen Uzelac. WRS Publishing. 140 pages. $16.95.

I NEEDED to write this book in the same way a tree sheds its leaves, or a salmon swims upstream." So writes Ellen Uzelac in the epilogue to "Lost & Found," a book about dying and grief.

Everyone grieves in a different way when a loved one dies. Some, like Ms. Uzelac, a journalist, have a need to try to express in words the inexplicable: the utter desolation one experiences during a loved one's terminal, painful illness and in the aftermath of the death.

The writer bring us into the private world where she, then 31, and her husband, Jim Thomas, a 40-year-old editor for The Baltimore Sun, are confronted by the sudden onset of his cancer. We experience with them what the young couple and their families ** (especially each of their parents and Jim's two daughters from a previous marriage) endured during the six months before his death from the disease which robbed them of their promising future together.

Ms. Uzelac expresses with clarity and in detail the horrors of the experience. She shares her emotional reactions at every stage of the process, and we who have walked this path recognize the validity of her effort and admire her candor. Her style is artistic and compelling; she even manages to incorporate humor into her account.

She writes of the exceptional intimacy that develops when one is the principal care-giver of a dying spouse: "I had begun to feel that my body was an extension of his . . . At times, I did not know where I ended and he began."

The author holds nothing back. She tells of an outburst of anger when, in frustration, she yelled at her dying husband, and of her shame afterward. Referring to her feelings after her husband's death, she writes of the "wretched bleakness of Jim's absence . . . His death created between us a chasm so deep, a space so vast, that at first I could not appreciate its measurements."

Later, she writes, "So pronounced was Jim's absence it seemed a presence, something just beyond sight."

Five years after her husband's death, Ms. Uzelac prepared to take a hiatus from work to write this book. It was then that her mother, her closest friend (except for Jim), was stricken with cancer, and once again she assumed the role of care-giver. She showed strength and courage in this new challenge, as she had during her husband's illness, but this time the outcome was positive; her mother overcame the disease.

Writing of this period of her mother's illness, she says, "Looking after Mother . . . was like returning to some distant yet familiar country, a place with its own customs, culture and language . . . I had been there with Jim."

Just so, this reviewer thought. I, too, had been there, and the return through Ms. Uzelac's eyes was extremely painful.

Each of us is sure, initially, that no one else could ever have felt as badly. It is only after hearing the stories of others, as Ms. Uzelac discovers, that we realize the commonality of our pain.

In the weeks and months immediately after a loved one's death, survivors frequently seek out any reading material they can find which will ease their intense, overwhelming emotions. They are looking for someone with whom they can identify, someone who TC might suggest what they are going to do with their pain. They want to know, "What happens now?" For these people, "Lost & Found" will bring consolation. They feel that it is not possible to survive; Ms. Uzelac shows that it is.

Ms. Uzelac explains what comes after a period of time: "Although the years have weakened grief's hold, I suspect it will always be a presence," and, "Now, in the quiet distance between us, I revisit him in memories that no longer torment, but soothe." For those who have moved forward in their grief work, the return, through reading "Lost & Found," to such a painful time may be too emotionally draining. They may do better to stay at that "quiet distance."

Near the end of her book, the author includes interviews, done five years after Jim's death, with his daughters, Anne and Aimee, and with his parents. The reader gets valuable insights into the perspective of children and parents on the death of a father and child.

Writing "Lost & Found" undoubtedly provided a catharsis to the author; reading it can do the same for the grieving. An unusual and telling aspect of this book is an invitation from the writer to share responses, including an address where mail can be

directed. This generous offer to connect with others and to provide them with an avenue of expression shows the author's compassion and empathy.

Janet P. Zinzeleta writes from Ellicott City. Ms. Uzelac will appear at Borders, 415 York Rd., from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Friday and at Brentano's, Towson Town Center, from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Saturday.

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