When actress Elisa Donovan traveled from Los Angeles to North Carolina to spend time with her father, Jack, newly diagnosed with esophageal cancer, she envisioned this “idyllic, oh, we’ll sit by the bedside and laugh and tell stories reunion.”
The reality couldn’t have been further from that.Read More
Their different personalities only added to the friction in her homecoming.
“I am a very emotive and emotional person. I wanted to talk about life and what a great dad he had been. He was not having any of that,” Donovan, now 50, tells SurvivorNet. “He was resistant to all of it. He also didn’t want to talk about his illness. He was not ready for it. It was a real arresting moment when I went home that first time. He had deteriorated physically so much, so quickly. I had only been there a few months before but he really, really looked ill.”
Her mom, Charlotte, was trapped in her own version of “pretending it wasn’t happening,” recalls Donovan. “She’s like a hummingbird, very flighty: ‘Everything’s great, let’s have some ice cream; let’s just keep busy; I’m going to clean the kitchen, we’ll go outside’ kind of a person. That’s her way of comforting herself but to me it was like, ‘Oh dear God, this is making everything worse.’ I just wanted to be able to connect and she found it too painful to connect.”
Time Can Heal
With time, came perspective as Donovan came to understand that “everyone has their own unique way of dealing and it’s hard when it’s not your own.”
As she had done with previous life crises, including her earlier battle with anorexia, Donovan engaged in a creative outlet to help her make sense of the turmoil surrounding her father’s sickness, death and the long road out of it.
She is now sharing the result of that with her new book Wake Me When You Leave: Love and Encouragement via Dreams from the Other Side, about her journey from darkness to light.
Delving deeper into her writing, Donovan began to realize that her words could be an even greater help to her mother and all people struggling with loss and grief and despair. “I kept coming back around to my mom and wondering how on earth was she able to function if I was having such a hard time. They had been together for almost 50 years. She had come from that generation where you leave your parents house and you get married.”
With her words, Donovan hopes to inspire others to “feel okay” about sharing life’s darker moments and to bring attention to her discovery that death doesn’t necessarily mean the end of your relationships with your loved ones. “We just don’t like to talk about uncomfortable things,” she says. “I felt as though everyone wanted to avoid my grief. It really truly can enhance your life. It isn’t something to be avoided, and it isn’t something to put a bandaid on it and pretend it’s not happening.”
The Reality of Magical Thinking
This is a lesson Donovan and her family could have used during her dad Jack’s last few months. After her initial disappointing visit, she returned to her home in L.A. “desperately just trying to work.” Yes, she needed a job to support herself but also more poignantly in her self described magical thinking, Donovan equated landing another great role with keeping her father alive. “If I could just get on another series, Sabrina had ended, I thought everything would be better, everything will be fine, unconsciously thinking he just won’t die or he’ll be so proud of me it will again be just this idyllic experience. That obviously did not happen.”
Instead, the cancer progressed quickly and chemotherapy did not prevail. “He was only sick for five months. He was diagnosed in July  and he passed on January 1 ,” says Donovan quietly. “Very quickly it had gone to his lymph nodes and that was how he knew he was done. He was a smoker before I was born, many many years he had quit and never gone back to it.”
Before his death at age 71, Donovan returned to be with him but struggled, she fears, to have “that moment” she was hoping for. She did manage, at least, to get her own feelings out. Hospice encouraged this by assuring her that while her dad couldn’t talk, he could still hear her. “I just said everything I wanted to say in life. But it’s not like we had this beautiful moment and he slowly drifted off to sleep,” she recalls. “It’s not that way. It was very brutal and awful. After someone passes, that silence is just, it is like nothing else when you’re in the presence of someone who has just passed away. It feels so final. It feels just so still and so over.”
Healing Through Pain
This silence crystalized another intention of writing her book because as time passed, she came to discover that by allowing herself to experience pain and uncomfortable thoughts, she could heal in a truly unexpected way.
“It’s not over, no matter what your spiritual beliefs,” Donovan came to believe. “You can remedy your relationships after the fact. I feel closer to my dad now then when he was alive which might sound strange, but it’s true. I like to describe it as there’s less interference. There’s a purity of connection. I feel completely attached to my dad but in kind of a non judgmental way.”
In this post death connection to her dad, she feels for the first time fully supported by him. “I feel he understands me and that is huge,” says Donovan. “I spent so much of my younger years, consciously and unconsciously trying to make him proud, to be successful, to get his respect. Now he’s saying: ‘Of course you have all those things from me.’ My dad was 71 when he passed. I’m the youngest so it was very unexpected. It was not at all in the plan and I felt like I hadn’t done anything yet.
It was her initial pursuit of acting that her very “traditional” dad found hard to get behind. In his mind, explains Donovan, it was a “fun little hobby” as opposed to a career path. “My mom would always say ‘He talks to everybody about you’ but he didn’t necessarily say it to me,” says Donovan about his pride for her as her acting path thrived. “I think that’s also typical of that generation.”
Her mom, Charlotte, also seems to have found a path forward. “She has really come into her own; she is very independent now,” says Donovan. “She’s still hilarious and a little crazy. She plays golf several times a week. At 82, however, she has her own health issues: cancer twice herself, colon cancer, two surgeries.”
A Creative Evolution
Their mother/daughter relationship has blossomed since her dad Jack’s death with her mom’s willingness to open up and talk a little more about “uncomfortable things.” A mother herself to nine-year-old daughter Scarlett, Donovan, sees this vulnerability as the key to helping people “heal and to connect in a real way.”
The release of the book is just one more step in Donovan’s creative evolution. She’s on board to direct a movie version of Wake Me When You Leave: Love and Encouragement via Dreams from the Other Side; is working on writing a “supernatural” series and will continue to consider interesting acting opportunities.
“Since my father’s death, the main thing that has shifted in me in terms of my work life is really looking at what I put out into the world and how I want to make people feel,” she says. “For example, when I was a young actor and I was working in these big comedies, kind of silly rich girls’ roles. I was always like ‘I want to play the drug addict, do the real dark drama’. As I’ve gotten older and gone through real trauma and challenges, I think ‘I don’t need to put that out there’. Yes, I just wrote about death but I want to have a reverence for it and respect as opposed to just doing something dark for doing something dark. Those things don’t resonate with me anymore. I don’t want to see them. I don’t feel it’s okay to put them out in the world. That’s my goal as a person, going forward as a creative person.”