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Tears, the gentle balm of grief

[Times photos: Lisa DeJong]
Watching his mother slide toward death has been "both heartbreaking and heart opening," says Charris Ford. Marilyn encourages her sons to grieve openly.

By JEANNE MALMGREN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 8, 2000

Marilyn Myers, her family and her friends have begun the process of grieving their approaching separation. At many points along the way tears have eased their progress.

Aretha Franklin was on the stereo, singing a soulful version of Bridge Over Troubled Water.

Marilyn Myers, her son Charris, daughter-in-law Dulcie and two close friends sat around Marilyn's oak dining table at her St. Petersburg house, having lunch. It was a rare afternoon, 10 days ago, when Marilyn felt well enough to be out of bed and in her wheelchair.

Suddenly she put down her fork. She looked around the circle of familiar faces.

"I love you all so much," she said.

Then she started singing along with Aretha.

If you need a friend,
I'm sailing right behind.
Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will ease your mind.

Tears began to spill down Charris' cheeks. Soon everyone was crying, including Marilyn. She reached out; they held hands.

It was a precious moment, says Marilyn's close friend Janet Maddox. A memory laid upon countless other memories, one more chance to let Marilyn know how they cherish her -- before it's too late.

Dancing In The Twilight

As the end draws near for Marilyn Myers, who is terminally ill with ovarian cancer, she has embraced dying, finding joy where others often see despair. We are visiting her regularly for a series of conversations; you can find links previous installments here

"These last few months we have had ample opportunity to grieve and cry and really express our love," Maddox says. "This is so helpful. It makes it so much easier to be present, when you don't have a river of unexpressed emotion dammed up inside."

Seeing her loved ones cry doesn't disturb Marilyn, who is 50 and terminally ill. In fact, it makes her happy because she knows they've begun the important business of grieving. During these last few months of her life, as her cancer takes its inevitable toll, she has been working to prepare not just herself, but also those who will be left behind after she's gone.

She knows it will be a long process for them, and she'd like to help them start now.

"One of the things that I've learned, having lost my own parents, is that grieving is an ongoing process," she says. "And sometimes there's a real difference between how long society expects a person to grieve, and what really happens inside that person. People end up feeling guilty or like something's wrong with them, because they're not over grieving and everyone else expects them to be "done' by a certain time."

In November Marilyn and her friends watched the television movie Tuesdays With Morrie, based on the bestselling book of the same name. It's the story of a young man who spends time -- and learns valuable life lessons -- from an older man who is dying of Lou Gehrig's disease.

"The thing I was so struck by was that Morrie, at one point, started talking about his mother dying when he was 9. And, of course, now he's 70-something. But he started crying about it. That many years later. He said, "The grief never completely goes away. It comes and goes. And when I feel sad, I cry and then it's over. And then I get on with my life."'

Marilyn, as a longtime practitioner of alternative healing methods that emphasize the connection between body and mind, appreciates Morrie's philosophy.

"That's what I'm committed to in life, as well as grieving death, that when feelings come up, that we let them come, that we give them room and feel them and then we move on."

People often shy away from expressing strong emotions, Marilyn knows, particularly a painful one such as grief.

"They're afraid, if I feel this feeling, I'm going to be overwhelmed. I'll never get over it. Life will never be normal again."

Marilyn doesn't believe that, and she made sure her two sons heard a different message.

"Particularly with Charris, I have tried to show him that it is okay to express emotions and he can do that and he won't fall down in the muck, that he will laugh again and his life will go on. But it's something he has kind of resisted. He has always said, "Well, that's you, Mom, that's not everybody else.' "

Jean Takach, R.N., a Hospice nurse, changes the access needle in Marilyn's surgical port. Grateful for the care she has received, Marilyn is giving a $20,000 endowment to Hospice of the Florida Suncoast.

Marilyn laughs.

"And sometimes he even said, "There's something wrong with you, Mom. You're out of control!' I think it was the feeling that he's a man, he has to be strong and he can't be out of control."

Facing something as huge as his mother's dying, though, has changed Charris, she says.

"He took the risk and he had the experience of giving in to his emotions and it was powerful for him."

Charris, 30, says he is like many American men: He isn't afraid of showing emotion; he just doesn't cry much.

"But this year I've done some sobbing," he says. "There has been a monsoon of tears. And I love it. I feel like it washes my spirit, it's so cleansing."

Marilyn is confident Charris and her other son, Boomer, 28, will be able to handle their grief after her passing. Most of her friends, too. A few, though, she's not so sure about.

"I keep encouraging them to know they can grieve, and it'll pass and they won't be consumed by it. Some of them have come here and cried with me. They were very afraid that if they started crying they wouldn't stop, or that they'd upset me or hurt me. But then we cried together and they were relieved and it was all okay."

Marilyn also assured her loved ones that death won't sever their connection.

"I told them that if they call on me, I will be there. My spirit will come to them."

How can she be sure?

"I think we don't have any concept of how big our spirits are, and their capacity to be in 50,000 places at once, if need be. We take these big spirits, and we squeeze them into these tiny little human bodies with tiny little consciousnesses, and we think this is it.

"I've read, and I don't know if this is true, but I like the notion, that even after I reincarnate (in another body), my spirit will come to my children in the form that they recognize."

When she passes from this world, Marilyn would like to leave a legacy.

"I want to make some kind of contribution, a significant contribution to the things that I have loved and believed in during my life. I want to leave some footprint of that in the world."

She decided to give $20,000 to Hospice of the Florida Suncoast, an organization she has come to admire through her experience with it.

"They have contributed so much to my process of dying, so much to my joy, that I really want to give back."

Marilyn's donation will create an educational program with classes in alternative healing methods for Hospice nurses, volunteers and caregivers. They'll learn therapies Marilyn has long practiced in her professional and private lives: massage, nutrition, acupressure, aromatherapy, energy healing and craniosacral therapy. Her dream is that those methods will be practiced at bedsides of terminally ill people all over Pinellas County.

"They'll have to make a commitment before they attend the classes that they're going to use these skills with patients, that they'll actually use the tools in their work," she says.

Local Hospice officials already had been considering such a program, and they were delighted to have Marilyn's expertise and inspiration.

"She's a perfect person for sharing this because she has so much knowledge and has used this in her own life," said Jane Schafer, director of admissions and professional relations at Hospice, as well as a friend of Marilyn's for several years.

"We're really about palliative care and comfort. And any time you increase the knowledge of our staff, their bag of tricks, you increase patients' choices. Which is tremendous."

It was Schafer who suggested Marilyn lend her own name to the program. It will be called the Marilyn B. Myers Enrichment Fund for the Study of Complementary Medicine.

When she heard the name, Marilyn let her feelings flow freely: She wept.

COMING FRIDAY: What will she miss most from this life? Marilyn muses about such joys as the waves at Pass-a-Grille and Kopper Kitchen pancakes.

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