Joe shuffled papers like a TV newscaster as people filtered into the Jessie Peterman Library's Community Room. I smiled as they entered, just happy that the temporary crown on one of my front teeth that fell out earlier in the day was still in place. The talk my husband and I were scheduled to give was number five in a six part series, presented by the local library in conjunction with the End of Life Development (EOLD). The EOLD is the brainchild of Rosemary Wyman (who I wrote about HERE) and is under the same CERC non-profit umbrella that sponsors the Museletter, the monthly community newsletter that I and others put out each month.
To a group of about fifteen, from behind a speakers table, I shared my personal experience of losing two of my brothers a month apart. I talked about the magical line-ups before and after their deaths, the hole of grief I found myself in, and the daily field notes I took from the trenches of grief’s frontline, which became my first book, The Jim and Dan Stories.
... Since my brothers’ deaths, life has had a sharper focus. There are things I can see that I couldn’t see before. If I can describe what I see from inside this hole, will it help others when they are down in one? What place is this? How will I survive it? How deep does it go? I want to know. I’ve never been here before. Can I make something constructive out of the powerless feeling of loss? Am I digging my way out, word by word?
The book weaves stories of growing up in a family of nine siblings during the 50’s and 60’s, the stories of my brothers’ deaths, and the experience of coping with grief day to day in the first six months after the losses. I read the book’s introduction and some chosen passages out loud.
... Today I made copies of Dan’s death certificate at our small local library and hoped that no one I knew would come up to say hello and see what I was doing. I didn’t want to explain. I didn’t want them to feel awkward. There’s a lot of paperwork involved with death, and I am often sad. Still, I can manage a smile when I think about Jim and Dan who both had credit card debt. Wouldn’t they love to know that all their debts are forgiven?
Joe spoke from a counselor’s point of view. He touched on some common experiences of the grieving process, but also emphasized that each person has their own way to grieve and has their own timetable. Anger can be one response, so can withdrawal, he said.
“A new parent can get as much as three months off work for a birth of a baby, but we usually only get three days off after the death of a loved one,” Joe said, pointing out that our culture is set up to expect us to get over a death quicker than most of us do.
... Some of the most meaningful interactions I have had lately have been with people I barely know, while some people I thought I knew well have been silent. Some have shared their own intimate stories of losing loved ones; others have given me a knowing touch, a hug or nod. Even the smallest of gestures has meant a great deal to me because a gesture of condolence, however awkward or slight, creates a bridge, a way for relationship to go on. Without it, one feels estranged, unseen, or left behind. As much as sadness is awkward to be around, avoidance is worse.
The death of a loved one can bring profound sadness, but it can also be an opportunity to deepen as a human being. “I’m a better person than I was before losing my brothers,” I told the group. "Grief is an expression of love. It carved me out, making room to hold more compassion for others.”
... In this physical world, we have to mine for treasure. Gold and silver and precious gems are not usually found laying around on the surface of the earth. It’s the same with us; we have to excavate our own treasure, down through the door of our childhood, through the pain of what hurts, into the grief of our losses. Life nudges us to go deeper because to live only on the surface is superficial. There’s so much more.
“When a loved one dies it’s as if a color is missing from the world … If you let yourself go deeply into your sadness, you might realize that you haven’t been seeing any of the colors fully,” Joe said, suggesting that the experience can wake you up in new ways.
I shared how writing was a way to actively grieve and to control my grief. “I wasn’t happy with my day’s writing until I hit and nerve and was bawling,” I said. Remembering my brothers through stories and sharing the intimate details of personal grief was a leap of faith that has rippled out to enrich my life in ways I could not have imagined.
Family bonds were strengthened. The sense of separation I used to feel between myself and others has largely fallen away. The book is being used in a grief and loss class for counseling students at Radford University. Not only was I able to make some meaning out of my brothers’ deaths, the tragedy of their deaths was, at times, transformed into celebration. When a woman from the small town where my siblings and I grew up read the book, it spurred her to plan a reunion and book signing. Two-hundred people who knew Jim and Dan came, the story was covered by the local paper and the Boston Globe, and a video of it aired on the local TV cable channel.
Does it get any easier knowing what to say to others who are grieving after you’ve had a loss of a close family member yourself? What about when someone grieving is having a hard time moving past anger? How do you help someone grieve? What about the complications of grief when one death is followed by another? Those were some of the questions posed during the question and answer session.
Joe and I answered the questions as best as we could, noting that more open dialogue about death, dying, and grief is needed.
I closed the 90 minute talk with the sharing of a humorous reading from the book, a story from my childhood involving a plunger, some pop gun ammunition in the form of a potato, and a clogged toilet in the one bathroom we shared between eleven people.
... Its funny how as you get older, even the bad memories seem good, or how when someone dies, the most ordinary of objects can be traced back to them. So many of my actions have been triggering childhood memories. Most of my conversations either revolve around Jim and Dan or eventually get steered back to them. The space they inhabit in my heart and mind is larger and deeper than when they were alive. It’s as if a part of Jim and Dan lives in me, just as a part of me has left with them? Is that what death does? Funny, isn’t it?
Note: Visit the EOLD website HERE.