John Travolta and his wife Kelly Preston are both successful actors. They have the rare ability to slip the bindings of their own life stories and enter dramas not their own, scripted to prompt reflection or bring laughter or tears. But none of their training in how to harness their emotions in service to a role could have been any help to them on Friday when they confronted the harshest of realities_ Their 16-year-old son Jett died after suffering a seizure and apparently hitting his head on the bathtub.
I have seen the loss of a child strip the most talented and richest and most politically astute parents of all composure, just as I have seen it undo loving mothers and fathers working for hourly wages. It is the kind of tragedy that should remind us we are all more vulnerable to our worlds collapsing than we believe, that we are all more united in our hopes and our fears than we allow ourselves to acknowledge.
Whether you are white or black, American or Israeli, Palestinian or Jewish, Catholic or a Scientologist, you know once you are a parent, what the worst news would be. It wouldn't have a thing to do with your own health or well-being, let alone your fame or your fortune. It would be that call from a hospital emergency room or that visit from a police officer or a doctor fresh from the operating room telling you that your child, the one you love so much, won't outlive you.
Scientologists hold psychiatry in contempt -- they often see psychiatrists like me as manipulating people's minds. They object especially to the use of medications in conditions like depression, panic disorder and schizophrenia. But on this, the religion and the profession must agree: Being able to give voice to your grief in the wake of losing a child is essential. So, too, is sharing it with other parents who have lost children. Because there are limits even to empathy, and neither a noble religious leader, nor a sensitive psychiatrist can fully feel (without having lived through it) what the loss of a child is like.
I tell my patients that they will heal, but that they should never expect to be the same. As J.D. Salinger once wrote, "the membranes between us are so thin;" we can't lose a human being whose soul is part of our own, and emerge whole. I tell them that the best way to honor their child is to celebrate the life that son or daughter lived and to live life as fully as they possibly can. I tell them our work may begin and end in months, only to begin anew with the first anniversary of their child's death, or the 10th, or another child's wedding that reminds them of the empty seat at the head table. I tell them not to hold back tears.
I also tell them that love is more powerful than anything in the world, and that if they can say that their son or daughter knew that he or she was loved by them, that they gave that child the greatest gift on earth, enough to last to heaven, if that is the family's belief or into the next lifetime (as would be the Travoltas' belief).
I don't know John Travolta or Kelly Preston, but having sat with more than my share of grieving parents for more hours than most human beings, I know something of their pain. And I know that, transformed by the human spirit or by God, it will connect them ever more firmly to their truth and to all humanity.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for FOX News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His newest book, "Living the Truth: Transform Your Life through the Power of Insight and Honesty" has launched a new self-help movement. Check out Dr. Ablow's website at livingthetruth.com or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.