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.

The Grief Diary: Missing The Missing

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

Missing someone is its own painful loss. A passing thought or memory of a loved one no longer here can trigger overwhelming feelings of longing and sadness. When there are a number of lost loved ones a myriad of memories can launch an afternoon of despair, turn a sunny day into a morass of depression, stop you short.

I try not to miss my missing loved ones.

Outside forces sometimes make this impossible.

Pop-up photos in my Facebook Feed

Some Facebook genius probably thinks they’re making my day by showing me random photos in my feed. If it exists in my account I must want to see it, right? Except sometimes these photos are of someone I’ve lost, someone I’m missing, someone I’m mourning, and seeing their beloved face on my screen when I don’t expect to can be a shock, sending my day spinning into emotional chaos.

Pop-up photos on my iPhone

Same thing with my iPhone. Pictures I’m not expecting show up and, depending on my mood, or the day, make me cry, or smile.

I suppose there is a way to control these pop-ups on Facebook and on my iPhone but I don’t have time to figure it out. If you know how please share the trick.

Random Acts of Memory

Occasionally a random glimpse of a piece of a person reminds me of someone I’ve lost:

A man’s freckled arm resting on the frame of his car’s window as we pass each other sparks memories of my father.

An elderly woman’s hooded brown eyes evoke memories of my mother.

The sight of fresh snowfall in the morning awakens thoughts of my brother Vic, who loved taking out his snowmobiles in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

Don’t Be Sad, Don’t Cry”

Many years ago, I sat at the kitchen table with my mom just talking over coffee, as we always did. It was not a serious conversation. We were laughing, reminiscing, planning and plotting what fun thing we’d do next. She suddenly grabbed my hand and said, “Look at me. Listen to what I have to say.” The mood grew serious. She had my undivided attention. “When I die,” she said, grasping my hand, “don’t be sad, don’t cry for me, because I’ll be with Jesus, and I’ve been waiting for that all of my life.”

Mom was a devout Catholic: 12 years of parochial school, daily mass for years. She often said she’d wished she’d been a nun. She was very close to the Lord. Death did not frighten her. She saw it as a necessary route to the afterlife.

At her funeral I shared this story with those who attended. It surprised no one. Everyone knew of her unshakeable faith. And from that day on when I find myself tearing up from missing her or distracted by a sweet memory, I go back to those words, and heed her instructions: “Don’t be sad. Don’t cry.”

Sometimes it works. Most times I’m filled with an emptiness, a sense of loss. Mom died at age 91. My dad died at 45. She lived twice as long as he did, and yet it wasn’t enough. At her funeral my youngest brother said, “Maybe I’m selfish but I want more. I want more time with my mom. I know we had more than most people get, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting even more.”

It’s only human nature to want more time with those we love.

And that’s why we miss them. We miss that lost time. And as time moves on and our loved ones recede into the backstory of our lives, we reflect on their lives and our love, and eventually find joy amid the sadness.

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.

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.