Facing Up to the Gargoyle of Cancer

Lovis Corinth, "Franz Corinth on His Sickbed"

Last week I wrote about how one of my students, in her senior project, has been using the Faustus story to process her grieving about her recently departed mother. Today I write about another student who is using her senior project to wrestle with grieving–Erica Rutkai’s  mother has a malignant brain tumor—although Erica is taking a more direct route than Caitie. She is looking directly at different psychological theories about grieving and applying them to her own situation and to a fine novel by Gail Godwin entitled The Good Husband.

I’ve written in the past about Erica’s journey here and here. Erica is a Human Studies as well as an English major (Human Studies includes both psychology and education) so her senior project falls into two parts. In the first half, she looks at grief, most notably Elizabeth’s Kubler-Ross’s five stages (but other theories as well). In the second, she analyzes the Godwin novel. She has discovered that, while the theories provide a road map, they cannot do justice to the nuances that individuals experience. A good novel does a better job (although a less generalizable one) at capturing the complexities. Erica has found inspiration in all four of the major characters in Godwin’s work.

Magda, the foremost of these, is a William Blake scholar who is dying from a brain tumor. She decides that she will use the experience to explore death and dying rather than simply allow herself to be a victim. Her young husband Francis, a very caring man who was once a seminary student, devotes himself to her, and she also picks up two other friends—Alice, who is in emotional freefall from a stillbirth, and her husband Hugo, a novelist. At different points of the book each of these characters takes center stage.

Because she is a teacher as well as a scholar, Magda turns her death into a teaching occasion as well as course that she is taking, and the three other characters find themselves using her experience to wrestle with their own grieving. Each learns something vital. Francis, for instance, discovers that he cannot only devote himself to his wife but must learn to acknowledge his own needs. Alice discovers that, rather than dealing with her suffering by folding in on herself, she must open up to the suffering of another if she is to find healing. Hugo meanwhile, learns that his novel writing is an attempt to control the world and that, until he acknowledges that the death of his child has affected him far more than he is willing to admit, his creativity will be stymied.

In writing the project, Erica is constantly go through a balancing act: at times she examines her own grieving as though she were a psychologist, even though she must also face up to the fact that she is always, necessarily, inside it. (We keep saying that “the only way around is through.”) Literature allows her to study her grieving at an emotional remove, even while she periodically applies the lessons to her own situation.

I will share other material from Erica’s project  after she submits it (she has given me permission), but I’ll note a couple of her profound discoveries here. Writing about Magda has allowed her to see that grieving can be an exploratory journey, not just pain to be endured. She is also learning that her grieving can be, as it is for Magda, a way of teaching others.

When my son died in a drowning accident, I used my own grieving in that way—this is one reason why I have attracted two students writing senior projects on grieving—and Erica, who plans to be a teacher, realizes that the wisdom and sensitivity that she is gaining from her ordeal can be a boon to others. This provides some comfort at a time when she needs all the comfort she can get.

In the book, Magda refers to her cancer, and to herself when she is grimacing in pain, as a gargoyle. Erica has entitled her project “Facing the Gargoyle: How Studying Grief and a Gail Godwin Novel Provided Strength in a Time of Crisis.” Erica is courageous beyond measure as she faces the gargoyle and so is her mother, who is determined to stay alive long enough to see Erica get the college degree that she herself was never able to get.

I, meanwhile, am honored that they are allowing me to witness the process.

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