'Love, Josh' relieves grief

Documentary helps a son over the loss of his father


May 31, 2002|By Faith Hayden | Faith Hayden,SUN STAFF

When 18-year-old Josh Keogh suddenly lost his father to liver cancer three years ago, nothing could get him to talk about it.

"Josh really sort of hid," said his mother, Debra Wertheimer. "He didn't want to share his feelings with anybody. It was scary to me. I didn't know what to do with him."

But some friends, Oscar-winning Baltimore filmmakers Susan Hadary and William Whiteford, had an intriguing idea of how to help: make a film.

"[They] suggested doing a documentary on [Josh's] feelings and what was going on," Wertheimer said. "So I asked him. His reasoning was it might help someone else who was hurting like he was hurting."

The result is Love, Josh, a 30-minute documentary that has been shown at film festivals in cities such as Los Angeles and New York and was screened at the recent Maryland Film Festival. It will debut nationally on the HBO Family channel tomorrow night.

Filmed over the course of a year, the documentary begins only a few months after James Keogh's death and candidly captures the emotions the grieving son hid from his family and friends. He speaks honestly about his anger toward God, his feelings of "irrational" self-blame and the fear of losing the only thing left to hold onto: memories.

"Being able to remember is a gift," Josh says in the film. "I'd much rather have a memory be painful than not have a memory at all."

Now, two years after the filming ended, Josh, who is graduating from the Gilman School next week, is able to speak freely of the times he had with his father with a big, toothy grin, signature of his family.

"My Dad was always the guy sitting at the movie theater laughing out loud," he says, sitting in a rocking chair in his wood-accented home in Mount Washington. "He had one of those great, full belly laughs. When my Mom and sisters would go shopping, my Dad and I would always go see a really bad movie. The last one we saw was Office Space."

While Love, Josh contains flashbacks created from old home movies, it focuses on the message behind the film, the reason Josh agreed to it in the first place.

"Life has to go on," says Josh. "You have to keep moving forward. It may sound cheesy, but time really does heal. Maybe by seeing this, it will help someone else who is experiencing the same thing."

In the film, Hadary and Whiteford, who won a 1999 Academy Award for their documentary on disabled Towson artist Dan Keplinger in King Gimp, use clips from family occasions, holidays and birthday parties to emphasize the point that life doesn't stop, not even for the tragic intrusion of death.

"It's not the end of everything," Josh says toward the end of the film, "it's just going to change everything."

Despite his own obvious grief before the film was made, his mother was the one hit the hardest by his father's death, Josh says.

"You never quite realize how much your parents do until one is gone. Mornings were rough. There was just so much that needed to be done, and my Mom was left to do it all. My sisters and I did try to pitch in and we took on more responsibilities, but my mother did a great job with making sure that we didn't lose our childhoods to this."

Routines, though, weren't the only things that changed. Today, two years after the documentary was filmed, Josh reflects on how his father's death altered his outlook on life.

"When my father died, I thought a lot about how I view the world. It made me realize that everyone is human and has [their] time. Life is fleeting, and I appreciate people more now. The most important thing is being a good person and loving others."

Love, Josh airs tomorrow at 9 p.m. on the HBO Family channel (available on many Baltimore-area cable systems). It will be shown again on June 10, 20, 25 and 30. Check your local listings for times.

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