A DEATH IN THE FAMILY

The month before my grandfather died, I came home from college for some family function. I don’t remember what it was. It may well have been his birthday. I remember it was a special occasion, and a happy one. It was held at a farm, I don’t know whose.

I remember a sunny, beautiful day, an old and unfamiliar farmhouse, a crowd of people, many relatives, many others who were strangers to me.

My grandfather, as usual, was apart from all the others, more emotionally than physically. I always see him this way in my mind: Silent, sitting quietly, apart, gazing on the activity around him, but not of it. Somewhat interested, but not especially so. (He’d suffered a stroke many years before.)

If you sat by him long enough, he would gasp a sudden remark, gruffly, but with polite interest. How was school? What was my major? After hearing a response, he would settle back into himself until moved by convention to make another comment.

It wasn’t until many years later, after he died, that I finally learned the real reason for this sadness and apart-ness I always felt in him. I always thought he was an especially wise and profound man, lost in his deep thoughts, until overwhelmed by the chatter and chirping of the rest of us, he would rouse himself to be a good sport, and join in. Until more weighty matters pulled him back into his rich inner world.

I always thought that if I could say the right words, ask the right questions, he would suddenly open up and include me into that head world of….what?

Now I know he was an ill man, not just physically, but emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. He was diagnosed as manic-depressive, and the source of much pain and anguish in his family.

Time, and distance, old age, had softened many rough and bitter edges, but the sadness and solitude I sensed was a bitter one, not bitter-sweet. (Years later, my mother said she believed she was his “favorite”, and was always good to her. Not so much with my grandmother or the other four aunts and uncles.)

That day, though, he was simply my grandfather. I was feeling grown-up and socially “apt”. I remember chatting with him often, trying for and getting little smiles and a chuckle or two from him.

I remember a beautiful day, a cake, a crowd of people (some familiar and some strange.) I remember feeling part of a celebration, and part of a family.

Less than a month later, he was dead.

The call came from my mother, with the news. She told me the date of the funeral, and expected me home again.

I was a sophomore or junior at the University of Michigan, almost 3 hours away. (After they raised the speed limit, it became 2.5 hours.) I didn’t have a car. I usually snagged a ride from friends at college to travel home for holidays and break. No public transportation, of course. So getting home on my own was hard.

It was also my very first funeral, and I dreaded it.

I wasn’t very grown-up, emotionally. I think I was so self-centered that my thought was for my loss of my grandfather, rather than thinking of my mother’s loss of her father. I wasn’t grown-up enough to realize how much it would mean to my mother and to my beloved grandmother to be at the funeral.

I just wanted to remember him as I had seen him just a few weeks before: Sad, apart, yet more bouyant than usual. It seemed important to remember him that way, to remember happier times. I was afraid to see him dead, to realize I would never know what noble ideas he had, what secret thoughts he pondered. I was afraid to see my grandmother cry.

Somehow, I made it home. I remember very little except my mother’s anger.

For years, I could not remember what I did to bring this on me, I only remember I had done something thoughtless, something terribly wrong.

I remember how still my grandpa was in the coffin, like clay or soft stone.

My mother was angry, so angry she didn’t speak to me the rest of my time home. She yelled about what I’d done that had angered her, then her silence was like a stone.

Both of them seemed as far away from me as a star, cold remote, silent.

After the service, we went back to my grandma’s house. My Aunt Lou, my mother’s youngest sister, sat down on the sofa next to me. I loved my Aunt Lou. She was always kind to me. To everyone, in fact.

We talked about little things, nothing important. As we talked, she sat with her arm around my shoulder. She began to stroke my hair gently, pushing it back behind my ears, over and over. It felt wonderful. I was so miserable I thought my heart would break.

She asked if I liked my hair being stroked, and I whispered, “Yes.” “None of my girls do,” she murmured. “They tell me it bugs them. Grandma Paxton used to hold us when we were little girls and stroke our hair behind our ears. We loved it so much. I always thought I would do it for my girls, but they don’t like it.”

I remembered that when I was little, my mother stroked my hair like that. But not for years now. I wished she would do it then.

My grandfather had been dead for over 25 years when I got a phone call from my mom. (And now it’s 22 years that!) As usual, we chatted, keeping it light. Suddenly, she mentioned my grandfather’s funeral.

We had never talked about what happened. (We never did, about anything.)

She had been talking with a good friend about the funeral, and mentioned that she had been furious with me because I hadn’t worn a dress to the funeral.

I was stunned.

I didn’t even own a dress when I was in college.

“Did I wear jeans?” I asked cautiously, trying to remember what major faux pas I may have made.

“Oh, no!” she said brightly. “You wore a very nice pair of dress slacks.)

I couldn’t think of anything to say. (I did make a mental note that I should always wear a dress to any future funerals.)

I didn’t want to make the silence uncomfortable for my mother, so I said apologetically, “I guess that was kinda rude of me.”

“Oh, no!” she said again, brightly. “My friend said I should have been thrilled that you came at all, because so many kids your age wouldn’t have.”

When my fierce daughter flares up at me, I’m overwhelmed by my anger. Hers flames mine. I think harsh words which frighten me. I force my jaw closed, to hold back the bitter words which bite forever.

My anger is a chasm. We stand on opposite sides, and gaze at each other, remote, apart.

My hands yearn to stroke her hair, and touch her sweet face.

N.B. I wrote this when my daugher was nine. I was lucky. I began to realize my anger came from taking my daughter’s preadolescence angst personally. Once I set that aside, I always tried to meet her where she was. We made peace with each other. Forever, I hope. I’ve learned so much from her, in so many ways.

I am in awe of her.

And yes, that was as close to an apology as I ever got from my mom. She died early in 2018, after living with coginitive decline for about a decade, and my father died six months later.

And another N.B. Thank you (Susan D!) to those who pointed out all my typos! As I was writing this, a few family members were bugging me to let them use my computer, and I went too fast!!  :^)

 

 

GOMEZ SAYS GOODBYE

We have everything we need to know, right here in our hearts.

More musings on the grief writing workshop I teach at Home Healthcare and Community Services here in Keene, NH….

For each week of the class, there’s a central topic for our journaling or free writing exercise. Some topics allow us to talk about who we were, and where we are now after the death of a loved one. Some encourage us to remember them in a different way. Some acknowledge the difficult nature of our relationship with them. Some “point us toward home, so we can go there…” (A quote from DEAN SPANLEY, a remarkable, gentle and sweetly funny movie about death, grieving, and redemption.)

There’s one particularly powerful exercise we do in the writing workshop. It’s so powerful, I’m afraid I’ll give away the punchline. But it’s also so healing, it would be a sin not to share it with a wider audience….

It’s something I structured, sort of aim the sessions toward, so we get there at just the right time. Last week was the proper time.

I ask everyone to imagine the deceased in a place–it could be heaven, it could be nirvana, it could be in an alternate universe, it could even be in our dreams. It’s a place where they are safe, and loved, and happy. A place where they are fully healed, in mind, body and soul. A place where they are at their highest, most evolved self. A place where no matter what their faults or failings were, no matter how much they’ve already suffered or given, or loved, they are the best person we’ve always dreamed they could be.

“Write a letter,” I say to the class. “From them, to you.”

This always draws a lot of confusion and questions. I usually have to repeat it a few times. There are frowns, and pursed lips, and sighs.

Then the writing begins.

And then come the tears.

I am always astonished, when we finally share what we’ve written. It’s as if people have really stepped outside themselves, and delved into the heart of that person. The things we see, and recognize, and understand and finally accept, are incredible.

It’s a letting go of what could have been. It’s accepting what it was, and is. It allows hope to sprout the tiniest, most delicate green leaves.

And it lets the healing begin.

It’s never failed me, this exercise. I wrote about this the first time I did it, with a complicated death that had haunted me for decades.

I did it again last week with my beautiful cat Gomez.

It was a funny night to begin with. Three of us selected animals to write about. It felt a little disrespectful at first–People before animals, right? Except we were also accepting that the loss of a beloved pet can be just as rattling, especially since they are often the very thing that soothes us during other, larger losses.

And so we wrote a letter from our pets, to us.

In my opening sentence, I immediately saw how empathic this exercise really is. I wrote, “Dear kind lady….” Because, of course, Gomez would have no idea what my name was. And being a cat, he probably wouldn’t care.

Here’s the small miracle: All three of us did the same. Realized our pets don’t “know” our names. But they know who we are to them. One writer started her letter with “Dear Mom”, because that’s who her dog would think she was.

Here’s my letter from Gomez:

Dear kind lady,
When I saw you at the shelter with your child, I knew I was going home with you. I saw you go to each cage, check out each cat. I saw you trying to connect with each one.

“I want an older cat,” you said to the shelter person. “I want a cat who really really really needs a home.”

But none of those cats would play with you. They knew I was meant for you. They wouldn’t give you the time of day–they knew it was my turn.

Finally, after coming to me 3 times–and every time I tried to tell you, I tried to show you–“Me! I’m the one! It’s me you want!”….

And finally, though you said I was too beautiful, and too young, you said I was the one.

I charmed everyone, didn’t I? Even Chai. Even Tuck. Even Nick.

I brought you mice, and birds, and I slept on your bed. You gave me a good home.

Yes, there was a bad man, and yes, it hurt. It hurt so much.

But that pain is gone. It is no more.

The only pain I feel now is the pain in your heart, the part of you that blames yourself for what happened.

It’s not your fault, kind lady. It’s not your fault. Be at peace.

My time with you was lovely. You cared for me, and loved me, and kept me safe. You gave me a good home.

Someday there will come another cat, a cat that needs a good home. Open your heart again, your kind and loving heart. Give that cat a home, a hearth, a sofa to sleep on, dogs to tease and torment, food to eat and saucy mice to chase.

Don’t grieve for me, kind lady. I don’t regret a thing.

Everything we need to know, is already in our hearts.

All we have to do is be silent. And listen. Truly listen.

Goodbye sweet boy cat.

WRITING IT OUT #1: Goodbye, Mrs. Koebnik, and Thank You!

This week concluded my very first workshop in grief journaling at Home Health Care and Community Services. I’m a hospice and bereavement volunteer there, and offered to teach their very first workshop.

I think it was a success. I didn’t hurt anyone, and the participants want to do another round of sessions. Yay! But as always, as much as I taught, I learned.

As always, I’m free to share my thoughts and observations, but not those of the folks in the workshop. We respect each other’s privacy: What’s said in group, stays in group. Over the next few days, I’ll share what I’ve learned about writing and grief.

The last exercise was writing a letter from our loved one who has died. It was framed beautifully: No matter how complicated the death or the loved one, we envisioned them being in a ‘higher place’. For some, that place was spiritual. For others, it was simply imagining that person speaking from their best self–past the suffering, past their emotional suffering, past the hardship.

I quoted something my friend Teo said to me years ago. “I like to think that everyone is doing the best they can,” she said one day, when I was complaining about a mutual friend. Such a generous statement, from a generous woman.

I also shared a story another friend told me years ago. Her husband was told he had less than a week to live, and that turned out to be true. His undetected illness had changed him emotionally. His physical discomfort (exhaustion, anxiety) manifested itself in harsh actions and words. The last few years had been hard for both of them.

But those last few precious days, much was healed. He had a chance to say how he really felt about her, and how sorry he was that he had been so difficult. As hard as it was to lose the love of her life, my friend received a precious gift in their last tender hours together.

Imagine them there, I told the group. They are in a place where all is forgiven, where anger and fear and frustration are gone. All that’s left is love, their ‘better self’. What would they say to you?

All of us cried as we wrote. Not a dry eye in the room!

But I was surprised by my reaction. Because my person has been dead for over 30 years. And she was simply a neighbor down the street I had befriended.

So of all the people I’ve lost–friends and family, from suicide to cancer, why did I write a letter from her?

I was doing graduate work in education, one of the happiest periods of my life. I had love, I had a career goal, I was focused and proactive, in control of my destiny. Our neighborhood was beautiful–full of trees and parks, with lovely older homes on Ann Arbor’s Old West Side. There was an ice cream dairy bar down the street, a neighborhood elementary school close by, and a mix of young families, older students, retirees. We all knew each other and socialized often.

Louise Koebnik, 84, lived down the street from me, in the house she was born in.. I knew her for about four years. She was an active and plain-spoken woman. Her husband had died young and left her to raise three children, alone. They all grew up to be well-educated and talented people with loving families of their own.

She worked hard her whole life. Even in her 80’s, she had an incredible vegetable garden, with tomatoes grown in a bath tub in the back yard (to protect their roots from those of the poisonous black walnut tree that grew nearby.) She gathered the nuts from that same tree each fall, laboriously going through all the steps that make them edible, and made walnut cookies with them.

I was one of the few people invited into her home for coffee and chats. She was forthright and said what was on her mind. I adored her.

My favorite memory of her is this: A snowstorm in winter. Big flakes of snow falling. Mrs. Koebnik (no matter how often she asked me to call her Louise, it just seemed more polite to call her Mrs. Koebnik) standing on her sidewalk (she had a corner lot, with two long sidewalks) wearing her old-fashioned big wool coat, a scarf tied around her head, and big clunky boots. Bearing a broom, and sweeping as the snow fell. She refused to ask for help shoveling, and once the snow accumulated too much, she couldn’t dig herself out. But she would sweep as the snowflakes fell, moving up and down her sidewalks, keeping the walk clear until it finally stopped. I still laugh as I think of her, looking like an old babushka, determined and vigilant against the storm.

One day I got a call from Jon, my husband, telling me terrible news: Mrs Koebnik had been raped, beaten and strangled to death.

She was the last victim of a serial killer, a young drifter who had left a trail of death and violence through many states. He was eventually caught and is serving life sentences in prison.

For almost 30 years, her death has haunted me. It seemed horrible that someone could lead such an exemplary life, providing so much, asking for so little, and spend her last hour on this earth in hell. I agonized for her. I feared for myself.

So where do we find peace in this? There is no “bright side”, no lesson to be learned. No solace. For me, her entire life was rewritten by this one terrible act.

Bereavement training helped. I learned about “complicated death”–death by suicide, by murder.

I began to have forgiveness for myself, for finding it so hard to let go.

Small healing thoughts began to form. I began to wonder if Mrs. K had fought back, which gave me some comfort. I realized her death is truly an anomaly.

And the letter ‘she’ wrote to me was wonderful:

Dear Luann,
I’ve been listening to your thoughts, your confusion, your despair and sadness about my death. I was a little miffed at first, I have to admit. It wasn’t YOU who was raped, beaten and strangled–it was ME!!

And it was no picnic either, I can tell you.

But mercifully, it was short. Shorter than childbirth, though with a sadder ending. No baby in my arms at the end, just….gone.

But at least the pain was over and done.

And I know it’s upsetting to think about and it’s hard to hear the story and it’s a terrible thing to think might happen to you.

But Luann, girlie, I want you to know this…..

My life was a good one, and a long one, full of joy and sadness, hardship and love, success and happiness. I worked hard, and I did what I had to do.

And I’d do it all over again, in a heartbeat.

What that kid did to me–well, that wasn’t right, and he’s a sick one, no doubt about it. But he can’t hurt me anymore. And he can’t hurt anybody else, ever.

But if you let this sit and eat way at your heart, then girlie, you are LETTING him hurt YOU.

And that ain’t right.

You must be smarter, and stronger than that. Life is hard enough without borrowing someone else’s troubles.

And life is too wonderful to give over even one more minute to that. Not one more minute.

So you go hug your kids and kiss your husband, and rejoice. Stand in the snow with a broom, if you want to remember me. And make cookies. And eat ’em, too.

Now I’ve got to get going. It was nice hearing from you again. Keep your chin up, kiddo.

Love,
Louise

I was astonished at what I had written. I could hear her voice, I could see the words she’d used. It was her.

I cried. And as I cried, I realized my poem, Burial Song, I actually wrote for her. (I had never realized that before.)

And so this week I have peace in my heart. Not cured. But healed.

And that is the power of writing, and that is the lesson I learned this week.