Mourning at Mary Poppins Returns

My father died in January 2018. I still miss him badly and keenly feel his absence. I’ve never mourned anyone as much as Dad, and I’m learning things about the grief process that I previously didn’t fully understand.

Last Christmas a friend and I went to see Mary Poppins Returns. As the opening credits rolled, I began to cry. My parents separated in early 1966. That summer, on a scorching, humid New York City day, Dad took me to see the original Mary Poppins. I’d already seen it four times, no doubt at least a couple of times with him. But we had to get out of the one-hundred-five-degree heat, and there were few affordable places to take a sweaty six-year-old.

Mary Poppins
The Walt Disney Company. All Rights Reserved.

I always thought of my father sitting through that movie for the umpteenth time as a valiant act of fatherhood. So when the credits for Mary Poppins Returns began and the music swelled, all I could think of was Dad and that day. It moved me to tears. I have countless happy memories of my father, and they make me mourn his passing, knowing my memories are all I have left. Despite my sadness, I’m always grateful that this warm, funny, loving man was my father.


attractive-1867127_1280After my father died without warning, I often found myself crying suddenly. I cried while buying a cookie at a charity bake sale for a nurse who died in Iraq. I got choked up recalling how my high school class stood when our classmate who had cerebral palsy graduated, and became teary as I read about a homeless woman who died on the streets of New York City. At first I was embarrassed and perplexed by the waterworks. Over time I began to accept the unexpected crying as part of my grief process. We can’t always control our grief. Optimally we experience grief as it presents itself, feel it fully, and then let it subside until the next time it surfaces


When my father died suddenly after a four-day illness, my brother Charles expressed my feelings best when he observed, “We used to have parents. Where’d they go?” I felt exactly the same way. We had parents, and with Dad’s death, suddenly we didn’t. It was a strange, uncomfortable feeling.


Many people who supported me after Dad died confirmed that the world never feels the same after your parents die. I’ve had other sudden deaths in my life. My mother died of pneumonia when she was forty-nine, and my ex-husband, with no forewarning, killed himself in 2013. The latter left me traumatized, but I didn’t miss him the way I miss Dad. I’ve never missed anyone so intensely, and frankly, I want him back. I know this won’t happen, but it’s a primal desire I can’t control.

Every phase of life has its unexpected challenges and joys. My fifties have been wonderful in numerous ways I never could have anticipated. Despite my longings to have Dad back, I know I’ll get used to his absence. I just need to give myself time.


My wonderful father died suddenly, leaving me bereft. His memorial was postponed for several months until my family could gather from all over the US and Europe. As a result, I wasn’t able to engage in customary mourning rituals. I was in shock for the first several days after his passing. I purposely kept myself busy and in the company of kind, caring people. By day six, I returned to work, but in the evenings I only wanted to rest on my couch and sofa-2777510_960_720watch television. I didn’t want to talk to anyone or be productive. I simply desired to sit with my cats and miss my father. For two weeks, I gave myself permission to mourn in this manner, after which I felt ready to return to my usual life and its demands.

No matter how prepared we believe we are, the death of a loved one is often a shock. I still feel that the world is a duller, poorer place without my father, but I’m glad I allowed myself those two weeks to fully experience my loss before returning to a normal routine

Rest in Peace – Stephen Charnas

It’s taken a few days for reality to sink in: My beautiful, funny, brilliant, loving father, Stephen Charnas, died shortly after midnight on Wednesday, January 31. I and the rest of my family are deeply saddened, as well as profoundly grateful to have had him in our lives. Today it seems as though the earth should stop rotating for just a moment to aknowledge his departure. Everything is the same but nothing feels the same. He was a great father.00000342

Saying Goodbye to Dad Through the Mail

This Blog was first published on the HuffPost Blog on June 20, 2017

Love and hate often go together. I both love and hate writing to my father every week. When my stepmother placed him in an assisted living facility in 2014, I asked her if I could do anything for him in his new home. She suggested I send him cards. So for the last three years, every week I’ve mailed him a greeting card.


My parents divorced when I was six years old. For the first four years after their divorce, my entire family lived in New York City, and my brother and I visited our father, and later our stepmother, every other weekend. He never called us, but we felt connected to him through regular visitations.

After four years, my father and step-mother moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, two thousand miles away, and our visits went from every couple of weeks to three times a year during school vacations. Both our father and stepmother wrote regularly. Their correspondence became our sole form of communication between season-long gaps in personal contact. After Dad and Suzy moved away, I spent every Sunday afternoon at my paternal grandmother’s home, where I wrote letters to Albuquerque. I’m a terrible speller, and I felt hugely proud of myself when I learned to spell Albuquerque correctly. This enabled me to address the envelopes to my father and stepmother without my grandmother’s assistance.


Less than a year after my father and stepmother moved to New Mexico, my mother, brother, and I also made a cross-country move to California. The letters between me and my family in Albuquerque continued. My grandmother had helped me establish my writing habit. During the last eight years of my childhood, I don’t recall receiving even one phone call from my father, but by the time I left for college, I had a huge stack of handwritten letters from Dad and Suzy.

Our letters evolved into phone calls when I moved to college, probably because I was then in charge of my own phone bills and could pay for the calls out of my college budget. My father and stepmother had established, and were largely funding, this budget.

When I was in my early thirties, a friend living in another state became acutely sick. I bought and sent a year’s worth of greeting cards to cheer her up. After the year ended, I replaced the cards with letters. I took pride in sending those weekly letters, and I hoped she enjoyed receiving them. This correspondence was entirely one sided, with no expectation of reciprocity. Our friendship was reciprocity enough. I ended this correspondence about fifteen years later when I became so sick, I missed two months of work. I simply couldn’t muster the stamina the letters required. After my health rebounded, I realized I’d burned out, and I stopped writing them. My friend didn’t seem to notice or care, but I hoped the fifteen years of cards and letters from me had brought her a small amount of pleasure.

I’ve also carried on a correspondence since 1979 with a childhood friend I reunited with in college. My friend and I rarely see each other or speak on the phone, but the correspondence is so intimate, I feel as if we’ve been having a thirty-eight-year conversation. Our letters are the bedrock of our friendship.


When Dad was first institutionalized, I tucked photos I’d taken in with the cards. I’d ask interesting looking strangers if I could photograph them, explaining my purpose. Two especially memorable photos depicted a baby in a straw fedora and a woman with rainbow-colored hair. I called it the Alzheimer’s Project, and no one ever refused my request. But over time, I realized Dad’s cognitive abilities had declined so significantly, he might not be able to understand the reason for the photos or the brief comments accompanying them. I expressed these concerns to my stepmother, who agreed that a simple message would now be all Dad could understand.

My greetings on the colorful cards I mail him weekly have simplified into two true sentiments: I hope you are enjoying your day and I’m thinking about you. Occasionally I check with my stepmother to ensure that the cards are still welcome. She assures me that Dad continues to enjoy them, and he shows them to her when she visits.

I hate sending the cards to Dad because they remind me of all that my family has lost—a brilliant, caring, and funny man who is now a remnant of his former self. But I love sending them because the cards allow me to care for Dad and connect with him through this small gesture, even if he no longer remembers who I am.

Dad established my life-long role as a letter writer, unintentionally setting the stage for our current one-way correspondence. I’ve been writing and publishing professionally since 2015. I’ve learned writing lessons too numerous to list here. But one of the most important things I’ve learned is to do my best and let go of the outcome. I’ll continue to write to Dad every week without any expectation of how my cards are received. This is a small part of the on-going process of letting go of my beloved father.



Phantom Child: Mourning Motherhood

This blog was published on the HuffPost Blog on June 29, 2016.

My uncle urged me to write a novel. His suggestion was an attempt to help me conquer a recent, brief episode of depression. He meant well, but as I explained to him, I have a narrow literary skill set that does not include creating fiction. I rarely feel depressed, so we were both at a loss as to how I should deal with my current emotions. The last time I’d been this blue had been after my father’s placement in an assisted living facility for worsening Alzheimer’s disease.

The most recent depression came on suddenly after completing a year of whirlwind activity centered around publicizing my first book, followed immediately by six months of revising my second one. I took only a few days off from these ventures. With the second book edited, suddenly my literary life didn’t require as much focus. Old issues came bubbling to the surface— primarily, the dwindling down of my family, with no children of my own to fill the void.teddy-bear-524251__180

I decided not to have children twenty years ago after becoming acutely ill with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, now called Systemic Exertional Intolerance Disease. I’d longed to be a mother since my teens. After two years of dating my future husband, I broke up with him for nine months because he didn’t want a child. We resumed our romance only after he changed his mind. I’d been sick since I was nineteen. Until my mid-thirties, I managed my health problems without major disruption to my life. But by the end of the first year of marriage, my health had taken a serious downturn, and I wasn’t improving. I missed weeks of work and could barely function at home.

I will always be grateful to my former husband for keeping his word about having a child and allowing me to make the decision to give up this dream. Quietly and repeatedly, he asked how I could raise a child when I struggled to take care of myself. Eventually I realized he was right.

Once I made the decision, I knew immediately it was the correct thing to do—not just for us, but also for our phantom offspring, the one I’d imagined for two decades. Many disabled and chronically ill people choose to raise children and do it well. But I would not have been one of those people. I was too ill. I knew my husband wouldn’t be able to make up for my deficits, nor did I have local family who could assist or adequate financial resources to pay for help with housework or emergency childcare. I’d fantasized about a child for twenty years and was attached to my imaginary offspring. I didn’t want to bring a baby into the world knowing I couldn’t give her or him what they needed. So my phantom child remained just that—a phantom, a wish, and an unborn spirit.


At twenty-four I thought my birth control had failed me. Although pro-choice, I never considered having an abortion. In 1984 you couldn’t pee on a stick to find out if you were pregnant. It took two weeks to learn I’d had a false alarm. I felt neither relief nor happiness at the news. That was the closest I ever came to having a child. I often imagine how old that person would be now had the results been different, and I wonder what kind of life he or she might have led.

As my friend’s children leave for college or start their post-college lives, I miss having a child more than I thought I would. I naively believed that the decision I made twenty years ago would be less painful with time. Instead the loss has its own life, just as a child might have. I feel the absence more and more as my father slowly declines, and whenever I am not kept busy with my literary life. I realize now this feeling will probably wax and wane for the rest of my life. And as I grow older, I’ll have to continue to learn how to be at peace with it. I feel the approbation of my phantom child, thanking me for making such a sad, hard choice.