to Out on a Limb,
a monthly newsletter from Martha Clark Scala. This free e-zine
is meant to invite and inspire you to maximize the joy in
Digging Out of the Muck: An Interview with Poet and Memoirist, Madeline Sharples
In April’s Limb, you heard about Helen the Hummingbird and her two babies. Several readers have written to ask “what happened next?” The two babies successfully fledged! We have viewed them on neighboring bushes and branches, and on one occasion, Helen was seen feeding the kids. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of seeing a seal pup who was only one hour old, and observed the family activities of five goslings with their parents. In the wild, and in captivity, it is usually our parents who show us the way, and whom we are meant to emulate. It doesn’t always work that way but when it does, young ones are able to develop to their highest potential. Our parents do not need to be our only teachers; it is just important that we find them!
Grieving adults may not look like baby goslings but some part of us is very, very young in the aftermath of loss. We need someone to look up to who will show us the way. That is why I want you to meet Madeline. I met Madeline Sharples four months after the suicide of her multi-talented son, Paul. As fellow participants in a writing workshop led by Ellen Bass, Madeline’s stark, honest poetry about this devastating loss left me breathless. In periods of deep grief, I have often thought of Madeline, and tried to emulate her fierce determination to “dig out of the muck,” as she once put it, of sorrow. Sometimes it helps to have a person who you can think of to remind yourself “If she can dig out of the muck, then so can I.” Or perhaps it helps to have a parent or teacher like the seal pup’s who, within one hour of birth, was already being led to the water for important lessons about self-care and survival.
On Mother’s Day (May 8th), Madeline’s memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother's Memoir of Living with Her Son's Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide, will go on sale. Madeline took some time to share how she re-claimed joy despite the tragedy of her son’s suicide.
Martha: Did it ever occur to you, after Paul's death in the Fall of 1999, that you could possibly experience joy in your life again?
Madeline: No. I didn’t think there was anything to be joyful about. I had thoughts about taking my own life. The only thing that kept me from that was that I couldn’t hurt my husband Bob and or my son Ben that way. I also thought I was betraying Paul’s memory by doing anything that would make me remotely happy.
Martha: What brought joy to your life prior to Paul’s suicide?
Madeline: Some of the same things that bring joy now – family (especially the little children in the family), going to dinner with friends, feeling successful in my work, working out, writing, and my list of diversions – movies, theater, opera. Most of all I loved listening to Paul play his music and watching Ben on stage and on the tennis court.
Martha: What helped you cope with Paul's suicide?
Madeline: When people ask me how I managed to live through the suicide of my son, Paul, I tell them about my recipe for healing with writing as one of the main ingredients. Soon after I came home from that writing workshop we attended, I found a class taught by a cuddly chubby guy in the relaxed and intimate setting of his living room. He and the others in the class were very forgiving about the dozens of poems and journal entries I wrote about Paul. A goal to write a memoir started to formulate: perhaps if I could tell my story, I could help other parents with children with manic depressive illness that in many cases results in suicide. A goal and the sympathetic understanding of others have helped in my grieving and healing process.
Martha: Besides your writing, what else helped?
Madeline: It’s a long list: I spent time with friends and family, went back to my aerobics class, pampered myself, attended Survivors After Suicide meetings, found a job outside my home, and we were respectful of each other as a family: we stuck together, moved through our grief in our own way and in our own time, and we came out the other side as a family closer than ever before.
Martha: Your poetry always stays with me, Madeline. If you could only write one haiku to sum-up your path back to life, joy, and hope, what three lines would you write?
Madeline: I walk on the beach
follow the straight sun-lit path
eyes always forward
Martha: Last but not least, what two pieces of advice on how to access or re-kindle joy after devastating loss would you like to offer fellow grievers?
Madeline: 1. Take your time – don’t let anyone tell you that the time for grief should be over.
2. Pamper yourself: stay in shape physically, get massages and facials, eat healthy,
meditate, be open to new friends and new things to take your mind off of your loss.
Martha: Thank you so much, Madeline. I know your memoir will make a difference in many people’s lives.