The Grief Diary: Cause of Death

Exploring the Aftermath of Love and Loss. This is the fifth in this series

The end of life comes in many ways, some expected, some totally unexpected. I have witnessed both. I wonder which is best, and for who, and why, as if an answer exists.

Sudden Death

In my family, an early death is not uncommon, especially on my father’s side. Many of his 11 siblings passed before I came along: brother Victor at just 25; sister Helen at 27; brother Chester at 34, sister Gladys at 39. My dad died at 45. Others lived only into their 60’s. I’m told they contracted rheumatic fever during an outbreak in Boston in the 1930’s, which resulted in rheumatic heart disease, leaving them all vulnerable to valvular disease, heart failure, heart attacks, and cardiac arrest.

Most of these deaths were unexpected, in spite of our knowing the decedent had a heart condition. But they were not senseless. “They had heart trouble. What a shame.” Sad but not surprising: In their day, most people did not survive a heart attack. Cardiac care is much improved since then. People live a lot longer with “heart trouble.”

When my brother Vic died following an inexplicable motorcycle accident last summer, my brother Kenn asked, “Didn’t we already go through this with Daddy?” He went into cardiac arrest following a heart attack. Vic’s was a sudden death too, on the Fourth of July, a beautiful summer day, perfect. He had recently made some major life changes to fulfill a dream and was as happy as I’d ever seen him. We’d hosted a barbecue at my house that day with my husband’s family, the first time we’d gathered in many months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We stayed outdoors the whole time, enjoying the holiday, oblivious as we celebrated that our lives had taken a tragic turn due to an accident on a winding Vermont highway almost 300 miles away.

The call came: Vic and Deanna were in a motorcycle accident. They passed away. “Are you kidding?” was my first reaction to the friend who relayed this news, a reflex response. Of course he wasn’t. Why would anyone kid about something so serious? But it was unbelievable. And senseless. Vic didn’t have a motorcycle at the time (he was riding a friend’s). A bike ride wasn’t part of that weekend’s plans. Why was he even on a motorcycle? His partner Deanna was on the back of the bike. I’m told it was her first motorcycle ride. Why didn’t she stay behind? These thoughts tormented me for days and still do. We have so many unanswered questions. And like my father’s death, it was sudden, and the suddenness made it so much worse. Vic was just 57.

Protracted Death

Conversely, in 2017 we lost another family member after he endured a vicious cancer that took him in less than two years. He had surgeries, chemo, radiation, everything, and yet succumbed. As the weeks ticked on and the outcome looked bleak we prepared ourselves for the phone call, but at the same time prayed and hoped for a miracle. Where life exists, so does hope. But we knew days before his death there would be no miracle, and I was at work when I got the call. I expected it, but still felt as though the floor dropped out from under me.

And I wonder: Is it better to know ahead of time, to prepare yourself for loss, or is it better to be blissfully unaware of impending doom and get the news like a gut punch, jolting you out of your world? And who benefits either way: you or the decedent?

I’ve heard people say it’s best to simply die in your sleep, in an instant, no warning. That might be better for the decedent but for those left to mourn it’s horrible. There’s no closure, too much unsaid and undone.

In my nursing career I witnessed hundreds of people suffer a slow, painful death, hanging on to the last possible moment, until nothing remained of them. Believe me: the will to live is the strongest force in life. People can endure tremendous physical challenges. But this leads to anticipatory grief, which can last months if not years, and places a tremendous strain on all involved. The upside is time to plan for the end, to sort things out, to make amends, to say goodbye, to say “I love you” one last time. Is this better?

Is anything “better” about any of this?

An Invitation

Please take this journey with me. We can communicate with one another in the comments, perhaps find healing together. Subscribe to this blog to receive email notifications of new posts. Thank you.

Birthdays Keep Coming Even When They’re No Longer Here

Exploring the Aftermath of Love and Loss. This is the fourth in this series.

A birthday is just a date on the calendar, but every date is someone’s birthday somewhere. When that someone is no longer with us their absence can turn the day into one of sadness. Remembering our loved one, the life they lived, the happiness they brought, and the love they shared, can make all the difference.

Today is my father’s birthday. He would have been 90 years old. Celebrating his birthday is bittersweet because any thought of him evokes sadness and grief, but on the other side there’s joy in remembering the life and love we shared.

I unexpectedly lost him at the tender age of 15 when he succumbed to a heart attack one lazy Sunday morning at home, and life was never the same. As a teen, I was aware of heart attacks and knew they were bad, but I had no idea of the extensive damage they caused, not only to the one who’s heart was attacked but to the devastated family left behind. It’s been a lifelong lesson in loss that started too early.

Our Shared Birthdays

Dad and I celebrated our birthdays together because mine is on the 17th. He called me his “birthday present.” We were born 30 years apart and are the only members of my nuclear family born in winter. Everyone else has a summer birthday, three of them just two weeks apart. Lots of parties in July! But in the dead of winter only he and I shared the joys of birthday cake and presents together and it was very special. I think of him today and reminisce on what a gift he was not only to me but to everyone who had the privilege to know him.

Ted “Bunky” Kasica was a good man. It’s been 44 years since he passed and I don’t think anyone who loved him ever got over it. In honor of his birthday I’d like to tell you about him.

A Military Man

Dad was the 11th of twelve children born to Polish immigrants in South Boston. His own father unexpectedly died when he was just three years old. He never finished high school but enlisted in the United States Army, where he served as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division. In spite of his humble roots, his early life was one grand adventure. The Army took him out of South Boston and stationed him in Germany and Austria. His love for that life is clearly documented in the few photographs I have of him as a young soldier: Parachuting out of airplanes, skiing in Austria, and competing as an amateur lightweight boxer. We have more photos of my father from this stage of his life than what came after. Back in the ’60’s and ‘70’s people didn’t always have a camera at hand and we were too busy experiencing life to document it. I still haven’t figured out if that’s good or bad, but I wish we had more photos of him.

Once home from the Army he soon met my mother and fell in love, married, and settled down at the age of 28 to a quiet life as a cabinetmaker, with four children, a mortgage, and heart trouble. I never knew exactly what the problem was but he was on Digoxin and saw a cardiologist so it most likely wasn’t good. His family suffered rheumatic fever when he was a child and most were left with heart damage, so maybe that was it. When I developed Wolf Parkinson White syndrome in my 40’s my electrophysiologist surmised that’s probably what killed my dad. We will never know, and there’s no use wasting time wondering about it.

A Family Man

Daddy
Some of the few pictures we have of my Dad: in the Army, as a young man out on the town, with his brood of four, and holding the biggest catch of his life.

My father was a man who loved his family, his children, and spent all of his time with us. He was an avid fisherman and loved boats. His skill as a cabinetmaker allowed him to refurbish a couple of old wrecks and we spent many evenings and weekends skimming a pond, bass fishing. Other nights we swam in his favorite fishing holes while he fished from shore, casting for catfish. Winter presented no obstacles, because he loved to ice fish, and I recall many afternoons out on the ice practicing my skating in the bitter cold while he dangled for a catch.

My mother worked nights and Dad watched over us. We played games, swam in the city pool, worked in his wood shop, tended to his garden, and listened to Red Sox and Bruins games, or the classical music he loved: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart. I grew up in a musical house. The last gift he gave me was an acoustic guitar, and he took me for lessons every Thursday night. It was precious time alone with him, sharing something we both loved. Foolishly, I gave up on the guitar shortly after he passed. I’ve regretted it ever since.

A Working Man

My dad went to work every day, six days a week, to a job he didn’t always want to go to, but he shouldered his responsibilities like a man and made sure a paycheck came home with him every Friday night. He was a daily presence in his children’s lives, doling out love and fun generously, and discipline reluctantly. He shared what he loved with us, and taught us an appreciation for many precious things: Nature, music, family. He gave of himself, his time, and his talents. Toys and trinkets would never make up for his loss.

A Great Man

We thought we’d have him forever. His death was a shock. But he left us with something not everyone gets, no matter how long they have their father: The blueprint for how to be a a good person, a great man.

On this day I carry him in my thoughts and heart, sharing my memories with the world because you didn’t have to know him to know he was special, and although he is no longer with us I celebrate his birthday.

Happy Birthday in Heaven, Dad!

About This Series

This is a new series for this blog. The last few months – no, the last few years – have been difficult for me. There’s been a lot of loss and change, most of it unexpected, some of it for good reasons. I’m generally an optimistic person but even I have my breaking point. I’ve run into it a few times lately. This has left my mind churning and I find myself with so much to say, so much to work out. Writing has always been a means to my seeking clarity, so I decided to use my blog to figure things out. Welcome to The Grief Diary. Please take this journey with me. We can communicate with one another in the comments, perhaps find healing together. Subscribe to this blog to receive email notifications of new posts. Thank you.

The Grief Diary: Busyness Beats Sadness

Exploring the Aftermath of Love and Loss. This is the third in this series.

In the immediate days following a death there are a myriad of details to attend to, especially when you’re the executor or administrator of the decedent’s estate. First, you must make arrangements for the funeral or memorial service. You go through the motions numb, on autopilot, pushing your grief aside to choose a funeral director, set the date and location, book the church or religious leader, purchase a casket or urn, arrange for music, speakers, readings, and flowers, pick out the last outfit your loved one will ever wear, decide who to invite to the service, write an obituary, write a eulogy, and do whatever else is needed to memorialize your lost one in a dignified, respectable, loving way.

I’ve arranged three funerals since January, 2018. In each case, I wanted to ensure my loved ones were honored. This took a lot of time and energy in and amongst the grieving. The upside to all this activity is that it distracts you from acknowledging your loss.

Busyness Beats Sadness

Busyness is a strategy you can employ in the weeks and months following your loss to beat your sadness, at least for awhile. For example, taking on the role of administrator for my brother Vic’s estate required me to manage the details of his funeral, along with the help of my brothers. After the funeral, I spent hours each week unraveling his life, attending to his business: cancelling credit cards and bank accounts, selling his house and other property. An administrator works alone. No one can help you because you are the only one with the authority to speak for the dead. Everything falls on your shoulders.

While all of this was going on, I, of course, grieved, and many times my grief was amplified as I had to confront the reality of his death time and again while explaining it to strangers on the phone, or sending out official documents – like his death certificate – to complete my tasks. But I also had to keep it together to conduct this business, so I dried my tears and carried on.

What I learned, though, is that this busyness doesn’t ease the pain or stem the tide of grief. It just pushes it off until the day all the tasks are done, every little thing is sold, given away, donated, or trashed. The funeral is over. A new family lives in his house. The grave marker is installed. Once the tasks run out there’s no hiding, and the loss hits anew: He is really, truly gone, and I must come to grips with it.

My dad died in 1976. To this day a random memory or thought of him can trigger an overwhelming sadness, tears, and grief. Most of the time when I think of him I see him as still living, as he was at 45 years of age, being my dad. I can handle those memories much better than when I acknowledge the fact that he has died and I have not seen him in more than 40 years. Nor heard his voice. Nor felt his touch. That life goes on for decades without a loved one is astounding. Where is he? I wonder. What would he think of me now, as a grown woman, a mother, a writer? What would we be doing if he was still here? How would my life be different if I hadn’t lost him at 15? Because my life would be different in profound ways, I’m sure.

When Dad died I was young, a sophomore in high school. I soon took on the role of co-parent with my mom, helping to care for my younger brothers while she worked. In the 70’s, not many moms worked outside the home, not in my social circle. I had to skip after school activities, sports, clubs, etc, to beat my brothers home so someone would be waiting for them, to supervise them until Mom came home. I did laundry. I started dinner. Busyness beats sadness. I guess I learned that at a young age.

Vic has been gone six months now and there are but a few pieces of his life that still need to be unraveled. I will soon run out of busyness. Hopefully the shock of his inexplicable death and my initial grief will have also been settled in the process, when I wasn’t looking. I know I will always feel sadness, be pissed at him for getting on that motorcycle, and mourn him afresh when the last task concludes and my busyness is finally over. But at least the work of concluding his business on earth provided me with safe cover, space, and time to reconcile myself to his loss.

About This Series

This is a new series for this blog. The last few months – no, the last few years – have been difficult for me. There’s been a lot of loss and change, most of it unexpected, some of it for good reasons. I’m generally an optimistic person but even I have my breaking point. I’ve run into it a few times lately. This has left my mind churning and I find myself with so much to say, so much to work out. Writing has always been a means to my seeking clarity, so I decided to use my blog to figure things out. Welcome to The Grief Diary. Please take this journey with me. We can communicate with one another in the comments, perhaps find healing together. Subscribe to this blog to receive email notifications of new posts. Thank you.

The Grief Diary: A New Year’s Resolution for the Brokenhearted

Exploring the Aftermath of Love and Loss. This is the second in this series.

Happy New Year!

Here we are, once more, at the start of a new year. After the disaster of 2020 it couldn’t come soon enough. Putting last year in the rearview mirror is both exhilarating and liberating. We can’t help but be optimistic as we change the calendar, opening up 365 new days brimming with promise, weeks, months, and days yet to be written with the ink of life. Anything can happen, especially good anythings. It’s like being swept up in a gust of fresh air when you’ve been trapped for months in a room with no ventilation.

Many of us start off the new year with a set of resolutions – commitments or ideals to help us get – and keep – on whatever we believe is “the right track.” Some of the more popular are to lose weight, exercise more, save money, get organized, learn a new skill, start a new hobby, and/or spend more time with family and friends. Whew! I’m exhausted already.

These are all admirable goals, but for those of us on the grief journey any one of them can be too much. When you’re just trying to get through the next hour, the next minute, without falling apart, trying to lose weight or go to the gym on a regular schedule is near to impossible. So I’m replacing these popular resolutions with one simple objective that will enable the brokenhearted to nurture, rather than torture, themselves in the new year.

To Thine Own Self Be Kind

“Kindness” tends to be a buzzword these days, usually relating to the concept of being kind to others. What about being kind to ourselves?

I recently discussed this with my pain management specialist. We’d both just read The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy, which is a profound yet simple book about kindness, self-love, friendship, and hope (read it). She and I agreed on the book’s message to not only be kind to others but to ourselves. Quite often, she said, we hold ourselves up to impossible standards, then when we fail to measure up we heap criticism and disapproval upon ourselves until we collapse. Seems we can beat ourselves up much meaner and harder than anyone else could or would. We’d never do this to a friend or acquaintance, she said. Instead, we extend to them tenderness, compassion, and generosity we routinely withhold from ourselves. This is both physically and mentally unhealthy.

Tread easy

We must remember when grieving that we are not at our best, life is not normal, and we may mistakes, neglect our duties, lose our temper, or break down in tears for no good reason at all. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up when these things happen, causing us to fall short of our unrealistic expectations. We need to step back and look at ourselves as we would look at anyone else living in our circumstances, and say, “It’s okay to be sad, or mad, or lazy, or forgetful.” Forgive yourself as you would forgive anyone else. Know in your heart that you are doing your best, that you need time to process and accept the changes that have come upon your life. It is not easy for anyone, and that includes you.

Now that’s good medicine. I’ll take it. How about you?

About This Series

This is a new series for this blog. The last few months – no, the last few years – have been difficult for me. There’s been a lot of loss and change, most of it unexpected, some of it for good reasons. I’m generally an optimistic person but even I have my breaking point. I’ve run into it a few times lately. This has left my mind churning and I find myself with so much to say, so much to work out. Writing has always been a means to my seeking clarity, so I decided to use my blog to figure things out. Welcome to The Grief Diary. Please take this journey with me. We can communicate with one another in the comments, perhaps find healing together. Subscribe to this blog to receive email notifications of new posts. Thank you.

The Grief Diary: Exploring the Aftermath of Love and Loss

This is the first in a new series for this blog. The last few months – no, the last few years – have been difficult for me. There’s been a lot of loss and change, most of it unexpected, some of it for good reasons. I’m generally an optimistic person but even I have my breaking point. I’ve run into it a few times lately. This has left my mind churning and I find myself with so much to say, so much to work out. Writing has always been a means to my seeking clarity, so I decided to use my blog to figure things out. Welcome to The Grief Diary.

The Virus

Let’s start with the coronavirus, COVID-19, which impacts everyone everywhere so it’s not necessarily a personal problem in my miniscule part of the world. I have not been sick. No one in my direct orbit has been seriously ill or hospitalized. The biggest impact the virus has had on my life, thus far, is that I’ve been working from home since March 23rd, 2020. It’s doable, but not ideal. I’m a nurse in a college health center, so much of what I’m doing at home is paperwork and administrative stuff. I miss seeing the students, and I miss the daily contact with my colleagues, our conversations, brainstorming, and troubleshooting. I miss the adrenaline rush when there’s a call for a nurse to race to an emergency, accident, sick student, or staff member. I miss walking through the beautiful buildings on our campus. I miss being in a learning environment (which I wrote about here.)

Yeah, there’s a lot to miss, but one thing I’m not missing is a paycheck. I know I’m lucky to have a job where I can work from home. So many others do not. Too many others have lost so much more to this virus: jobs, homes, loved ones. I understand I’m one of the blessed.

I also miss what most people are missing: hanging out with friends and family; going out to dinner, shopping, a concert or a movie; not having to wear a mask everytime I go out. This too shall pass, I tell myself, and each day passes. Hopefully the newly released vaccines will become more widely available and distributed, or people will just get their heads on straight on how to mitigate this virus so life can return to some semblance of “normal.” There’s something optimistic about that, no? So it’s not the virus that has me tied in knots, although it’s not helping.

The Fridge Gallery

Not my fridge but you get the picture. Right after I made this observation I added pictures of the living to my Gallery.

Let’s talk about the fridge gallery. Do you hang pictures on your refrigerator? I do. I have all kinds of pictures – photographs, clippings from magazines and newspapers, cartoons, and inspirational and motivational magnets and mementos – covering the freezer door. The other day I was looking at my fridge gallery and realized that all of the people in the photos were gone. They’d died. This included my parents, my brother, his partner, an aunt, and a cousin. And they are not the only members of my family who have passed away recently. We’ve endured a cycle of death. Last I counted our extended family lost nine members in the last three years.

Grief is a heavy thing. You need to get out from under it sometimes. But it’s hard to climb out when it keeps being heaped upon you. Many of these deaths were preceded by illness, sometimes savage illness, like a vicious cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. Two were the result of a single tragic motorcycle accident on a beautiful summer day. All of them bring additional grief, whether it’s anticipatory as you watch someone you love suffer and slip away, or raw as someone is inexplicably ripped away from you with no warning. I’ve endured both and, trust me, there’s no way to determine which is the easier loss to bear.

The Grief Diary

As I pondered the photos on the fridge I thought of each individual life and my thoughts swirled. I felt an urge to tell their stories, to write about their lives, what made them special, why their memory endures. So I’m starting this Grief Diary to tell their stories, and my own, in an exploration of grief, love, and loss. These posts will endeavor to not only heal my broken heart but to help heal others on the grief journey. I can’t promise regular entries but I will post when inspiration moves me.

An Invitation

Please take this journey with me. We can communicate with one another in the comments, perhaps find healing together. Subscribe to this blog to receive email notifications of new posts. Thank you.