Marianne Leone

A mother’s grief — without time limits

By Marianne Leone
September 8, 2010

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FIVE YEARS ago, I found my 17-year-old son dead in his bed, and apparently five years is too long to be manifesting the symptoms of sadness: sleeplessness, the sudden and inexplicable onset of overwhelming memories and tears, the occasional entire day spent lying in bed. My time was up two weeks after we found him, according to the proposed fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. If the new edition is approved, my symptoms will be diagnosed as a major depressive disorder.

I don’t go to a psychiatrist. I don’t take anti-depressant drugs. I don’t judge anyone who does. But I bristle at the idea of a group of psychiatrists giving me an arbitrary cutoff date for how long I am allowed to grieve.

My mother died six months before my son, my favorite aunt four months after him, my favorite uncle and the family dog a year later, along with my fictional television son on “The Sopranos.’’ Does that appalling list net me a few extra weeks grace from the people who want me to be a regular customer of Big Pharma? (OK, maybe the fictional son is a stretch.)

I wrote a book about my son Jesse, a memoir celebrating his life and mourning his death that was published yesterday. Most people ask me whether it was “cathartic’’ to write the book, a tremor of hope fluttering under their hesitant words. Catharsis means “the purging of emotions.’’ But Jesse hasn’t been disappeared from my life, Soviet-style. His memory is with me always, and sometimes it makes me cry because I miss him so much, because it hurts to see his friends becoming fine men when he didn’t get the chance, because I want to hold him with a longing that is visceral, even after he’s five years gone.

My mother grew up in the Abruzzo region of Italy, where the inhabitants of that old culture have experienced war, earthquakes, famine. They are not afraid to acknowledge death and the sadness that follows; a folk song about death is called “scura mai’’ — you have left me dark. They’re not afraid to represent the archetypical mother, Mary, with seven swords in her heart after the death of her Son. What are we afraid of here in the United States?

Since Jesse died, I have felt joy. I have even laughed until tears came to my eyes. I have written a book and essays, I have acted on television and in film, I have hosted huge family parties.

But, full disclosure: I have taken to my bed for the entire day sometimes, on Jesse’s birthday, and on the January date I found him dead. Because what makes more sense to me, the actual person who has suffered a loss, are the words C.S. Lewis’s character speaks in the film “Shadowlands’’: “The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.’’

And if the shrinks think that’s a major depressive disorder, they’re the crazy ones, not me.

Marianne Leone’s acting roles have included Joanne Moltisanti on ”The Sopranos.” She is also the author of “Knowing Jesse.’’

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