Most people like Jonathan Koven used to die as infants.
Koven was born in southern Ontario the early 1960s with a congenital heart disease in which his aorta and pulmonary artery were connected to the wrong chambers of the heart, pushing an insufficient oxygen supply through the bloodstream.
Dr. William Mustard, pioneer of a surgical procedure that condition, saved Koven’s life at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.
So Koven grew up, went to college, married and had children.
His adult life in Toronto was full and rewarding when he died unexpectedly of a fatal arrhythmia in September 2002, leaving behind his wife Mara, and their two children, Noah, then 6, and Maya, 3.
“It was very tragic,” Mara Koven-Gelman told me recently, “but if it were not for that surgery, I would have never met him, he would have never had kids, never got an MBA.
“But it was sudden, it was a shock. We had a wonderful community who was around us and supported us.”
The perspective comes from more than a dozen years without her first husband – and an understanding born out of a project that she and her friend, Liz Pearl, started nine months after Jonathan died: a book entitled “Mourning has Broken: A Collection of Creative Writing about Grief and Healing.”
They believed that writing, and sharing, can bring some comfort after loss.
First published in 2004, the first edition of the book contained poems and short essays from 50 people who had lost loved ones, including rabbis and pastors, health professionals and bereavement specialists, moms, dads, spouses and kids.
Dr. William L. White lost a daughter to suicide and a son to a drug overdose, and founded an arts program dedicated to their memory. Darcie Sims lost an infant son, and became a guru in the bereavement field. Transportation engineer Michael Chiu lost a wife and was left to raise two children, and today helps run bereavement support groups in Ontario.
Koven-Gelman and Pearl recently published a third edition, which includes 20 new writings, including one from Nancy Weil, director of bereavement support services with the Catholic Cemeteries in the Buffalo Diocese. Weil helped me put together a story on holiday “grieving” late last year. You can read the story here.
I might have used the “word” mourning had I spoken to Koven-Gelman before writing that piece, because of the way she described the last writing in her book, by psychiatrist Dr. Edward Pekus, who maintained that “words organize the chaos of grief.”
“He takes the words bereavement, grieving and mourning,” she said. “I remember him saying that grief is something that happens to us all, to animals, but mourning is the deliberate process of digesting…, that grief is taking a bite of the food, but mourning is actually chewing it and swallowing it.
“That meant reading something that that loved one had written to you, or smelling their bathrobe. It’s engaging in the process of where your feelings are already going.”
Koven-Gelman, subject of this weekend's Healthy Response feature in WNY Refresh, was born in Montreal but doesn’t speak French.
She was raised mostly in Rochester, got a bachelor’s degree in Jewish communal work from Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and landed a job with the Jewish Federation of Greater Toronto. Friends introduced her there to her soon-to-become husband and the two got their advance degrees in London, Ont. (She has a master’s in journalism from the former University of Western Ontario, now just called Western University.)
She was working in the national office for the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation when her husband died. Pearl, an exercise buddy, approached her nine months later and suggested they work together on a book “designed to show the reader how people coped with loss, not how they got stuck,” Koven-Gelman said.
“Death is inevitable for all of us,” she said, ‘so we hope that this book can be helpful to any of us who would pick it up.”
She edited every piece in the book, a process she described as cathartic. At the time she worked on the first edition, she was 40-year-old single mom who regularly attended a young widow/widower support group.
“Unlike somebody who is older when they experienced a loss, this was very different,” she said. “You had to sort of keep it together to help the kids function.”
Her children also attended bereavement groups.
“Somebody called me just a few hours before Jonathan’s funeral and she had gone through the same thing maybe a year before” Koven-Gelman recalled. “She told me, ‘Take one minute at a time, not think about how awful everything is, just take one minute at a time. And she also said, ‘Take all offers of help.’
“A lot of people said I was so strong. I just think I had quite a large motivation, which was his memory, the plans we had for our kids. I do remember talking to my kids about this in terms of this is a terrible tragedy, but we have so many things to be grateful for.
“It’s kind of unspeakable, but as we get older, you see (death) happen to many, many people.”
As they worked on their book project, Koven-Gelman and Pearl reached out to bereavement experts across North America, and to others who were finding thoughtful and creative ways to channel their grief online or in support groups.
Why write an expanded third edition?
“I had gone to a death café and had written something in My View (in The Buffalo News). I went to about five different sessions. There are two in Western New York (read a related story here from news staffer Gene Warner). It’s not a bereavement group, it’s becoming for comfortable with the concept of death. Really what it becomes is discussion about life and how you want to live your life.”
Koven-Gelman said she also wanted to add another piece about someone who didn’t have the best relationship with the person who died. “Sometimes we put that person on a pedestal and life is real, so that piece has been added in a very thoughtful and moving way. It’s honest.
“Many stories are very raw, but I think when you’re in that moment and your struggling, it can help. I sold a book to a women (recently) and she wrote me a day later saying, ‘I have to let you know that I’ve waited for a year to write what happened during the final hours of life for my her mother-in-law; to write what happened and send it to my father-in-law.’ It was a beautiful, beautiful piece. If I’d see it before four months ago, it would have been in the book.
Koven-Gelman goes to Toronto see Pearl regularly, or they meet in Grimwald, Ont. for a bike ride. Her co-author has written “Brain Attack: The Journey Back,” for people who survive a stroke, and another on multiple sclerosis. She is an independent educator, and therapist who specializes in psychogeriatrics, a branch of health care that focuses on the challenges the elderly have after moving into institutionalized care.
Six years after Jonathan Koven died, his widow started dating and was introduced to Irwin Gelman through a friend in Rochester. A year and a half later, in 2008, they married. He’s now the chair of cancer genetics at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
The couple live near the Elmwood Village.
Today, Koven-Gelman is a freelance journalist and grant writer. She volunteers with Adult Congenital Heart Association, based in Philadelphia, is a volunteer grant reviewer with United Way of Buffalo and Erie County, and serves on the board of the Hebrew Benevolent Loan Association, which gives out interest-free loans to those in need.
Noah Koven, now 19, is a City Honors graduate and attends SUNY Geneseo State; his sister, 16, is about to finish her junior at Nichols School.
Koven-Gelman said she and her children appreciate the step her first husbad’s mother took after Jonathan died, asking many folks she knew to write a vignette about him.
“She put them all together and gave it to the kids,” the book editor said. “It’s an incredible thing. They have some memories. We were certainly active in our community. There were 1,300 people at Jonathan’s funeral. So this was definitely a source of pain but I think they also know what sort of person he was. I’m not afraid – nor are his family members – to talk about him, which I think is so important.”
It’s an idea that goes hand-in-hand with the book, which is available at www.mourninghasbrokenbook.com; there also are several copies on consignment at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital.
What would Jonathan Koven make of all this?
“He knew my heart was always in writing, so I think he’d be proud of it,” Koven-Gelman said. “He was always helping others, so he’d be the guy in the downtown subway holding the door for people while I’m walking ahead talking to the air. He was that guy, so I think anything to help others, he’d be very proud of us.”