Loss of a Parent

April 29 – May 2, 2021

(This weekend will be conducted by Zoom.)

The loss of a parent is an almost universal experience.

This weekend we will explore how one absorbs and mourns the loss of our first love, that all-important primal relationship, whether through death or abandonment. How do we mourn a parent, someone who is essential to our sense of self and our identity? And, more broadly, how do we navigate such a loss when the nature of death is incomprehensible and the fact of abandonment inconceivable?

Mourning is a journey and its landscape differs whether one is a child, an adolescent or an adult. How can children, in particular, de-attach from a parent who is an extension of the self, indispensable to every aspect of their daily life and care? The capacity to tolerate loss and sustain the inconsolable pain of a loved one’s absence emerges slowly over the course of development, as children begin to make sense of the world and their experiences in it. When that relationship was a difficult one, children—like adults—struggle with how to grieve.

Adults, too, may feel a significant piece of their identity is irrevocably changed when a parent dies or leaves. Some grieve what they have lost, others mourn what they never had whether due to absence, neglect or abuse. Being left with unresolved feelings towards the parent complicates the ability to mourn. Time is needed to provide us with the necessary distance to absorb the loss in small, manageable doses, thus allowing us to move between moments of excruciating pain and ordinary living.

In the end how can we arrive at a place where a parent is remembered with love—or at least understanding—without the daily ache or pain of that absence? We will explore these questions with our four writers and therapists.

Coordinator: Kerry Malawista, Ph.D.


SALMAN AKHTAR is a professor of psychiatry at Jefferson Medical College and Scholar-in-Residence at the Inter-Act Theater Company in Philadelphia. He lectures widely and is the recipient of the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association’s Best Paper of the Year Award. Dr. Akhtar has written many books on psychiatry and psychoanalysis, including Immigration and Identity, the inspiration for the play Parinday (Birds), recently broadcast on the BBC. He has published six volumes of poetry in English and Urdu.

IRENE SMITH LANDSMAN is a psychologist who graduated from New Directions in 2010 and has participated in an alumni group since then. She has attended the Kenyon Review Summer Writing Workshop, the Blue Flower Arts Winter Writing Workshop, the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Conference, the Iota Short Prose Workshop and other writing workshops. She was a Spring 2016 mentee in the AWP’s Writer-to-Writer program and her essays have appeared in journals including Prick of the Spindle, The New Directions Journal, Amsterdam Quarterly, Vineleaves Literary journal, District Lines, Wisconsin Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, and Stonecoast Review. She writes creative nonfiction under her maiden name, Irene Hoge Smith, and is completing a memoir about her lost-and-found mother, the late Southern California poet francEyE, who was Charles Bukowski’s mistress and muse in the early 1960s.

SUSAN SHREVE is the author of 15 novels, a memoir, 5 anthologies and 30 books for children. Her most recent novel, More News Tomorrow, published in 2019 by Norton Press, is a thrilling and richly drawn family drama about a daughter’s quest to understand her mother’s mysterious death. She founded the MFA in Creative Writing program at George Mason University in 1980 and has taught there ever since. She has been a visiting professor at Columbia School of the Arts, Princeton University, and Goucher College. She has received a Guggenheim Award for Fiction, a National Endowment grant for Fiction, the Jenny Moore Chair in Creative Writing at George Washington University, the Grub Street Prize for non-fiction, the Poets and Writers’ Service award, and the Sidwell Friends School Outstanding Alumni Award. She is the co-founder and the former chairman of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. She lives in Washington, DC.

JANNA MALAMUD SMITH is a writer, a psychotherapist, and an award-winning teacher. She treated, taught and supervised for over 35 years in the Cambridge Hospital Department of Psychiatry, in Cambridge MA. She has lectured widely, and has published nationally and internationally – including in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, and The American Scholar. She is the author of four books. The first two, Private Matters. (1997) and A Potent Spell. (2003) were chosen as “Notable Books” by The New York Times Sunday Book Review. Her third, “My Father is a book.” (2006) was selected as a Washington Post Best Book of the Year, and a New York Times Editor’s Choice. Two of her essays appear in Best American Essays. Her most recent book is An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsmen Make their way to Mastery (2013). She writes regularly for Cognoscenti, a website for WBUR a Boston NPR station, and is currently trying finally to finish a book about fishing and fishermen on an island off the coast of Maine.