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Mother's grief subject of documentary

Seven years ago, an Ashland car accident took the life of 3-year-old Koa Markham, launching his mother, Victoria, on a long and painful journey through grief — an emotion that she found didn’t have much of a place in our society.

That had to change, says Markham, the subject of a new documentary, “RE:MEMBER,” by Ashland director Katie Teague.

In the opening lines of the film, which just had its prerelease showing in Ashland, Markham states that, far from the “get over it” attitude in our culture, people need to be “intimate with death, dying and grief again,” instead of being victims of “catastrophic numbness” from not feeling it.

The film details the initial trauma of losing her son in the emergency room at Asante Ashland Community Hospital, then trying, but failing to find a system in our society to help her process through grief.

Her self-guided path led her to creation of circles for grieving moms — and the rituals, music, feasts and community support of indigenous cultures, including Native Americans and Mexicans.

“The first thing I did was call my girlfriends together and ask for a ceremony, all 15 of us holding hands in a circle and smudging with cedar,” says Markham.

She was shocked to realize the funeral was in her hands and that she could bring his body home to wash, to comb his hair and use a shroud, not a coffin — then drive him laying on their laps in the car to be buried in the wilds they loved, not necessarily a cemetery.

Litwiller-Simonsen Funeral Home in Ashland handled the details and doesn’t charge for children, says Markham, adding, “They were incredible.”

What she learned from tribal “earth peoples,” says Markham, is that “grief is a very respected position. You are treated as holy people in transition between the two worlds. The god voice is coming through them. You are not broken, and there is nothing you’re supposed to fix. You support them in the container they’re in.”

With her husband, Andrew, a landscape designer, Markham went on with her life, doing lots of inner work, becoming a grief counselor as Life Cycle Center, and raising an older son, Banyan, now 13 and having a daughter, Coral, now 5.

During the making of the film, the subject got very personal for Teague, as her nephew, about to enter college the next day, was killed in a car accident just around the corner from his home.

“Grief is an extremely altered state. You touch other realms,” said Teague. “Hug, sit and cry with me and let me go into my deepest grief. It’s shattering. First comes the ending, then comes the new beginning, but we’re so afraid to honor the ending fully. People are scared. The amount of pain and grief can be debilitating. And we’re afraid that if we don’t keep up with other (non-grieving) people, we will be left behind.”

The film features interviews with authors in the grief field, including Francis Weller, who notes, “Getting my arms around this unwelcome, difficult guest is hard,” and in our grief-phobic society “we are really condemned to this privatized life around grief, so the heart wisely shuts down. ... Grief has never been private until now, in our culture. We’ve forgotten how to be together around grief.”

The film’s Indiegogo blurb says that when Markham’s son died, “so did a part of her. As a shattered and bereaved mother, she courageously willed herself to step vulnerably into her grief walk in order to retrieve her life force and recover her soul. But what she found was also traumatizing: a culture with an aversion to grief that lacked the emotional intelligence to journey with her into the dark world of sorrow.

“‘RE:MEMBER’ is a film with a mission: to bring back healthy ways of honoring and walking through grief in our modern culture. Death and dying, grief and grieving are natural cycles and expressions within the greater wheel of life, yet our culture looks the other way. The purpose of this film is to open up the conversation around death and grief — to RE:MEMBER grief, not only as a burden, but as a sacred journey full of inherent gifts.”

Markham and Teague raised $20,000 for the film on Indiegogo, which is still accepting donations. They will premiere the film Aug. 28 and Sept. 6 at the Varsity Theater in Ashland. It is being submitted to the Ashland Independent Film Festival and 10 other film festivals.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Victoria Markha's grief of losing a child is the subject of the documentary movie “RE:MEMBER.”