” I was praying, ‘Please don’t let me die,’ ” says former CNN correspondent Jill Brooke, recalling the day in March 1998 when she was rushed to a Manhattan hospital, hemorrhaging from a cervical pregnancy. But it wasn’t her own life that concerned her most. “I worried about what my 1-year-old son Parker would remember me by,” says Brooke, who was saved by an emergency hysterectomy. “I hadn’t planted enough tangible memories.”
It was a fear grounded in experience. Brooke’s father, a Manhattan slipper salesman, died when she was 16, and her devastated mother encouraged Jill to move on. “To this day, I would do anything to hear a recording of his voice,” Brooke says. So after her near-death experience, she set about preserving her family’s legacy in videotapes and journals. And in 1999 she left CNN to write a book that would help others find constructive ways of dealing with bereavement. Don’t Let Death Ruin Your Life: A Practical Guide to Reclaiming Happiness After the Death of a Loved One is based on two years of interviews with therapists, hospice workers, doctors and survivors of loss—including stars such as Rosie O’Donnell and Shania Twain. “It’s like a cookbook,” says the author. “You can sift through it to find recipes that apply to you.”
Now editor-in-chief of Avenue magazine, Brooke, 42, lives in Westchester County, N.Y., with husband Gary Goldstein, 46, who runs an executive recruitment firm, their son Parker, now 3½ and Goldstein’s daughters Jessica, 16, and Vanessa, 14. Brooke shared her thoughts on grieving with PEOPLE’s Eve Heyn.
What tips do you have for people in the first stages of grief?
In the early throes it’s important to experience your pain and let it rage through your body. You should talk to friends, family or a cyber-shoulder—most major Internet sites have chat rooms for those who are grieving. I also think it’s important to write what you’re feeling, what you miss about the person. You can find ways to connect to your loved one even though his physical presence is no longer here.
Doesn’t trying to stay connected make the hurt greater?
No, it can help you suffer less. When someone dies, you’re overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness. It becomes empowering to realize that the deceased can still be included in our lives.
How can someone who’s dead be included?
You can keep a few objects that the person used, like a watch or favorite book, close to you. You can also create a special place for missing loved ones during ceremonies and holiday get-togethers. At my wedding we left a seat open for my father. And you can think of ways the loved one has left a mark on you—do you relish mystery novels like your father did? Also tell stories about the person, and weave their interests into your life. Rosie O’Donnell, who was 10 when her mother died of breast cancer, now plays her mom’s favorite Barbra Streisand songs for her own kids. It makes her feel her mother is still with them.
What’s the best way to help a child cope with a parent’s death?
Kids’ first concern will be for their own safety, so you have to tell them they’re taken care of and still loved. Then tell them that even a person who is deceased can be with them in spirit. Katie Couric had a smart idea: After her husband died, she asked friends to write letters about him so her daughters can know him better.
Interestingly, many young people who lose a parent become achievers, because they recognize their own mortality. Ted Turner told me his father’s death when he was 24 taught him he had no time to waste. And Shania Twain said that after her parents were killed in a car crash when she was 21, she learned how strong she was. Now her music is infused with a feminist message: “I can take care of myself.” Of course, that’s something no parent wants their child to have to do.
How can parents make sure that if the worst happens, their children’s memories of them won’t slip away?
Parents—everyone—should write letters to their loved ones. Before he died of complications from AIDS, Arthur Ashe wrote his 6-year-old daughter Camera a letter so she’d know exactly how he felt about her. You should also take photographs and videos and keep a diary of your family. Preserving stories from your family’s past is important too.
What’s the best way to do that?
When I interviewed Steven Spielberg during his Shoah project, in which he documented the stories of Holocaust survivors, many of them had never even told their own families their stories. I realized that it was the job of this generation to prod the stories in a loving way from our parents and grandparents so our histories won’t disappear with their deaths. But you can’t turn on the video camera and say, “Tell me your life story,” because anybody is going to clam up. Do it in several sessions and pick a theme for each one.
Have you followed all your own advice?
I write notebooks for Parker, so he’ll know my thoughts on everything from the importance of kindness to good table manners. I have hours and hours of family videotape—I’ve taped my stepdaughters answering questions like “What do you want in a boyfriend?” (Little do they know I can’t wait to show that at their weddings one day.) I feel that if I die tomorrow, I’ve left something that has meaning.