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Sunday, March 25, 2007

When concern trolls strike
Posted by Jill | 9:55 PM
When the daughter of a co-worker passed away suddenly last year, I can't tell you how many people said to me, "You can't possibly understand because you don't have kids." My response to that was, "And YOU can't possibly understand because YOU are going to go home tonight and tuck your kids into bed" [or call them on the phone, depending on their age].

You do not have to be in the exact same situation as someone, or even potentially be in that situation, to empathize with someone's loss. In the year since then, I've become closer to this person, and I have often said that I only regret it took a tragedy for us to become friends.

The other day we were talking about meaning, and she said that in an odd way, her daughter's death served to give her own life meaning in that she now appreciates every day in a way she never did before. She worries less about what is to come. Listening to her in the context of the revelation of Elizabeth Edwards' illness, I understood how there can be a serenity in the face of a grief that would seem to be too big to endure; in the Edwards' case the loss of their 16-year-old son a decade ago. Whether John Edwards' political life in general, and this campaign in particular, are a search for meaning or a manifestation of the meaning that seems to be a compensation, however small, for such a huge loss, is something only they can answer. My guess, reinforced by the astonishing interview they gave to the mean-mouthed Katie Couric on 60 Minutes this evening, is that it's the latter -- that dealing with a son's death and a life-threatening illness make life that much more precious -- and add urgency to the drive to make the lives of others better.

There are "concern trolls" who don't see it that way. Couric is apparently one of them, questioning as she did the decision to continue to campaign instead of staying home with their children. The Edwards' response to this was heartbreaking -- that they want their children to have the wings they'll need to leave the nest. Somehow I don't think the children's departure from the nest was what this remark referred to. But whether this campaign is about doing something positive for this country or about preparing the Edwards children to live without their mother (and I don't believe the two are mutually exclusive), I don't think anyone is in a position to question them. Until you've walked in a particular pair of shoes, you have no idea how you would respond.

The pundits, howver, think they know better, one of them being Joan Venocchi of the Boston Globe:

Together, they are running for political office. Together, they are also running from deep family tragedy -- the death of their son, Wade, at age 16. He died in an automobile accident on April 4, 1996. In reading their family's story, it's hard to tell where one race begins and the other ends.

As a mother, I found this book painful to read, but impossible to put down. Elizabeth Edwards's grief is so sharp that it slices through the page to your heart.

But as a political observer, I also find it hard to read "Saving Graces" without noticing the frenetic new life she and her husband invented after their son's death.

John Edwards ran for the US Senate, then for president, and then for vice president as John Kerry's running mate in 2004.

Elizabeth Edwards had two more children, a daughter and son, who are now 8 and 6. She took on the daunting task of new motherhood in her 50s; they also have a daughter, Cate, 24.

Elizabeth Edwards also immersed herself in every aspect of her husband's political campaigns, all the time thinking how much Wade would have relished the adventure. The Edwardses are building an extravagant 28,200-square-foot dream house, west of Chapel Hill, N.C.

This is not a judgment on the way this family chose to deal with their loss. Still, the memoir reveals a desperate effort, especially on Elizabeth Edwards's part, to fill her life with anything -- speeches, travel, lofty goals for America -- that will fill the void left by her son's death. She never will; no mother could. But she will keep on running until someone makes her slow down.

That is where John Edwards could step in, or should. But, for whatever the reason -- her strong will, his strong ambition -- the two keep racing forward.

How does Joan Venocchi know that Elizabeth Edwards is running away from her grief over her son's death? Obviously Venocchi has never actually known someone who lost a child, because one thing I've learned is that there is no "right way" to handle this loss. You don't "get over it", but you find a place in your life for it; like a room you close off and visit every now and then when you can bear it. And as long as Venocchi, if she has children, can get on the phone and talk to them any time she wants to, she should just shut the fuck up.

The fact of the matter is, as Jane Hamsher points out, that right now the Edwards' are making people very uncomfortable. For all that our society medicalizes everything from childhood to menopause, we don't want to have to look at sick people, let alone sick people who have endured a grief few of us can imagine -- and can still manage to find some good in the world and in their lives. People like Rush Limbaugh, who didn't even wait 24 hours before going on the attack, and Joan Venocchi, want Elizabeth Edwards to just go away -- so they don't have to think about how THEY would behave under similar conditions.

I don't know how I would behave either. But I would sure as hell hope it would be as courageously as the way Elizabeth Edwards has handled the crap that the fates in their infinite cruelty have dished out to her.

UPDATE: David Sirota has more on Katie Couric's double-standard where working through a family illness is concerned, and Athenae has some thoughts on the "work or family" choice under the circumstances.

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