Personalizing the Message
Common to both genders were people’s attempts to be comforting while maintaining emotional distance. “If there’s anything I can do . . .” people wrote, and “I don’t know what to say.” Often they avoided the problem altogether by sending a sympathy card with a preprinted message. I did (and still do, having kept them all) give thanks for every card and letter. It takes time and thought to choose a card and even more effort to sit down and write a note.
But reading If-there’s-anything-I-can-do in New England when the sender was in California or Florida, I’d yell something like, “Yes. Of course there is! Please put my world back together again by remote control!” Reading I-don’t-know-what-to-say over and over, I’d think, “Neither do I and your saying so, too, isn’t helping me figure it out.”
What I liked best was opening an envelope to find a story about my brother or sister. I learned that Tony’s poetry and Frisbee skills were admired by his classmates and that I wasn’t the only one who remembered how his loafer heels were worn down from hours of hitting the piano pedals with his jazz band. His friend, Steve, wrote a recollection of the afternoon he and Tony took me swimming and then for ice cream—a whole gallon shared between the three of us when I was already chilly from the cold lake water and my lips turned truly blue.
Stories about my sister told me that she had a gift for shared laughter, for unexpected kindnesses, and for making even casual acquaintances feel special. “Whatever we did—taking a walk or going to the movies—it was like being in a different world when I was with her,” wrote one friend. Another recalled Sylvia’s “clipping bureau” of news articles gleaned from the many papers and magazines she read. “When I was working overseas,” he wrote, “she’d send me wonderful packets with odd bits of information from home that she knew I’d love.”
Tolerating the Discomfort
In some parts of the world, the stoic self-control so prized where I grew up is interpreted as uncaring—perhaps even disrespectful to the dead. Carrying on by those who are grieving is expected. My friend Beth, an African-American woman who grew up in Louisiana, tells me she goes to funerals with at least three handkerchiefs in her purse and expects to come home having used them all. But in New England, such emotionalism is likely to dismay those who witness it.
When I returned to nursing school after my sister’s funeral, I went about the business of studying, eating, doing laundry and tidying my room. Then came a psychology class in which the teacher presented case studies about family interrelationships and how they change with the displacement of death. Sitting in the middle of the back row of a packed room, I began to cry—no sobs, just quiet tears which I was powerless to stop and which nearby friends tried to tend with Kleenex and pats. The lecturer looked concerned. After class, I was called to her office.
“I noticed you crying,” she said. “Are you okay?”
I explained, and when the tears began again, more wrackingly this time, she responded, “Oh. I’m sorry. I’m glad it wasn’t something I said.” She ushered me out.
For that professor, tolerating the discomfort of witnessing my grief could have included an invitation for me to talk a little. Better yet, she might have sat for a few minutes just letting me cry. Especially for someone raised to avoid it, grieving can be lonely, even frightening. There’s no guaranteed end. A person can think, ‘What if I never stop crying? Never regain control?’ The presence of other accepting beings at a tearful time can be consoling.
A medical colleague, a crisp-white-lab-coat kind of guy, explains why it’s so hard to be that accepting presence: “First, we’re a fix-it society: if something hurts, we’re programmed to try to make it better right away. Think of all the ads about treating things that don’t even need to be treated! Second, grief expressed out loud in a formal setting, where the expected behavior is to be quiet, is like acted-out anger. Someone cries or yells and people feel threatened. They respond with containment stuff like, “It’s okay. Don’t cry,” or “It’s okay to be a little bit angry.” What that means is they’re scared! They’re scared the emotionalism will escalate and spill onto them in some physical way. And also, stuffed-down feelings of their own might pop out and have to be dealt with.” He concludes, “Everyone ought to be educated about death and dying. It’s about the only thing that’s guaranteed to happen to us all.”
My great-aunt Kay had gotten an intense “education” about death during World War I, when her fiancé was killed. In her wisdom, she was one of the people most helpful to my family when Tony died. She was not threatened by the power of grief. It couldn’t disturb her equilibrium because she had resolved the sadness of her own loss. I remember her sitting with my mother for hours at a time, often in silence. Other visitors would chatter or offer tea. Aunt Kay could look at the woman who had lost a first-born child and keep her company in her suffering space.
During the most intense part of his suffering, my brother-in-law did not want company. For eleven months after Sylvia died, he went nowhere except to work, then walked home, had supper alone, and read, or wrote poetry. Well-meaning friends left messages, “Come for dinner. You need to get out” and “Let’s take in a movie, you shouldn’t sit home alone.” “No thanks,” he always said. “Right now I need to stay home and be by myself.” Finally he found he had no more poetry in him and the thought of seeing friends felt pleasing rather than burdensome.
A year after my brother died, I returned from a ski trip to learn that the family dog had been killed. I sobbed so hard I became ill. “You didn’t cry this much when Tony died,” someone remarked. Right. I couldn’t then, but so much later and over this different matter, pent-up tears gushed. Notice the timing here: hard grieving a whole year later.
Back in my third grade classroom after two days in bed, I explained, “I’ve been sick with grief,” a phrase borrowed from the babysitter. My teacher responded, “You can’t be a strong person if you use something that happened a long time ago as an excuse for not coming to school.”
True, but irrelevant. I imagine she thought I was “over it,” not knowing she was speaking to a child who had almost fainted when told of her brother’s death, then straightened up and asked her parents if it was okay to continue reading or if there was something else she should be doing right then. And that’s what I remember asking over and over in the time that followed: “What should I be doing now?” I told Aunt Kay that I was going to be very good to make up for the bad thing that had happened. Is it any wonder that it took me a year to cry?
At age 22, when I lost my sister, allowing the grief again took time. I returned to nursing school, my patients got conscientious care and my grades were high; it’s just that I didn’t have feelings until the Psychology lecture when I sort of “came to.”
“Everyone thought I was fine,” I wrote in my journal, “I did, too. But now I think I’ve been suspended in some kind of ice bath since Sylvia’s death, and then today I unfroze and made a disturbance by losing it in class. Does anyone other than [friends] Barbara, Betsy and Candy even remember that I had a sister who died?”
Every year, on the anniversary of my brother’s death, Aunt Kay sent a note and flowers. One year, I remember she sent a bouquet of his birth-month flower. Another time it was pansies with a card reading, “Pansies for remembrance, and each petal brings you my love.”
From the death of her soldier fiancé on the day before he was due to come home, my great-aunt had learned how the loss of a loved one, especially unexpectedly, is lasting. The I-remember tokens she sent my parents were an ongoing solace. Aunt Kay died before we lost my sister, and after that no one outside the family marked the days my mother and father lost a son and then a daughter.
Friends sometimes tell my mother about a child or grandchild’s near-death mishap and do not think to acknowledge that her experiences were total, not near-misses. “Do they think I don’t still feel the loss of my children just because it all happened long ago?” she wonders.
It’s been thirty-five years since the death of my sister and forty-nine years since my brother died, and I’m grateful every time someone says, “It must be hard to have lost two siblings.” I don’t mean that I’m in grief all the time. I laugh and live and love, but the missing-them feeling is part of me for always. It’s warming when people remember what happened and say so.
Personalizing the Message