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Posts from the ‘Beyond Grief’ Category

Where Were You When…?

On July 27, 1977, my life stood still as I watched my younger sister fall to the ground dead. It was a Wednesday afternoon, and we were in Paradise, California, at the 76 gas station. During the next two or three hours, word spread in our church community. People would later tell me where they were when they heard the news. No one asked where I was: I was living it.

That was forty-five years ago! The memory is still present, but the pain and trauma of what happened that sleepy summer afternoon stand in my mind; the wound of that past experience healed but will never leave.

To this day, those who knew Joyce remember where they were and what was happening. They tell me where they were, but they don’t ask where I was when it all went down. The code of “don’t ask” slammed it all shut. They don’t need to know. To this day, I don’t know what was said about where my mother and I were. We witnessed it all in its horror.

The truth is that our trauma was not for public consumption. My younger brother never got to say goodbye to her. I left with two cousins for school, and he was now home alone having to adjust to being an only child—when that wasn’t the plan. You never plan for something like this, and yet I had thought about it because I knew she could die.

Her death messed things all up. We had to re-group, re-think, and adjust to life with no Joyce. Forty-five years later, the memories of people telling me where they were surface. Today is her death anniversary.

My mother and I talked about it when we were older and had distance from it. Death was riding with us that day and somehow my mother knew it. She thought it was going to be her that would die. We finally talked it out and realized that we were glad we’d finally said the words—late as they were to our journey of loss.

The truth is we all remember the “Where were you when…?”question. Those of us who are old enough know where we were when JFK, MLK, RFK, and others were brutally cut down. We remember the Apollo 11 landing, Challenger, the other shuttles, and now school shootings. We stand as witnesses to personal and societal pain.

We’ve taken to gathering at impromptu memorials to share as a community, and yet there is still stigma around personal trauma.

We’re not quite there yet with personal trauma; it’s like the accident that everyone drives by slowly in hopes of seeing the gory stuff. It’s about people wanting to be voyeurs into pain that they would not want seen themselves.

The catch here is that the “Where were you when…?” question enables us to talk through our own trauma around the incident. So many knew my sister, so many loved her, and no one had expected her to drop dead in a phone booth in Paradise, CA. So, the collective mind was collectively blown. Because of the collective trauma, we process it how we can.

For whatever reason, all of this came up forty-five years after the fact. I now live in The Netherlands, I’m far from family, and so, I’ll put this up instead.

Today I purchased flowers for myself and they turned out to be her favorite color: yellow. I’ll enjoy them for her.

I look at the clock and think about the fact that at this time forty-five years ago, we all had to eat. Some of us went for pizza and some stayed home at my aunt and uncle’s place. I went for pizza. I know, weird. The next day, my parents and my younger brother got into my father’s car and drove home and planned the service and all that went with it. Where was I? I was assigned to clean the house and so, like the dutiful daughter I needed to be, I vacuumed and answered the door for people paying respects. I think I’d rather tell people where I was when JFK was assassinated. Where were you when…?

Yes, I’m Taking a Holiday

I suspect that this will turn into a series of postings, partially because I’m amused at what I’m discovering about the journey out of grief and loss and what my brain seems to be doing with all of it. Let’s get on with it!

The first trip I took after my husband’s death was about a year later. It combined a conference with seeing friends and family. All things considered it went well, and the post-“husband-committed-suicide” conversations weren’t bad. I got home after three weeks and was glad to see my cat, Penelope. She had a blast at her kitty hotel in the country.

Traveling takes brain power, and once home I settled in for a year of hard work, looking at where I was and where I needed to go. I had a wee bit more confidence in the travel department, so when the next adventure rolled around, I dealt with it smoothly. I pulled it off with the help of charitable friends. 2019 produced two trips that I needed to take, and then: shutdown! We all know what happened next.

When I reflect on it now, I was fortunate to not have too many things go wrong. Going back into how my body was feeling when things did go wrong was telling. It was the same crisis response that happened a few times in the second year of post death trauma. It is so true that our bodies really do keep score on what is happening, and mine had.

When our bodies are in crisis, we miss a great deal. We can’t see how we’re reacting in the same way that others around us can observe what is happening to us. We fail to see signs that we’re missing cues. We tend to think that we have everything covered and that we really are just fine: Far from it!

The first year is the year of the first everything: a survival mode year. Then, during the second year, we drop defenses and we get slammed! It is the worst year to live through. It isn’t until the third year that our life texture really alters itself. In 2019 that is where I was. I was putting things together in new ways, able to see and understand how I was being triggered. I was able to understand that one month before Jon’s death anniversary was my younger sister’s death anniversary. It had also been traumatic, and when I connected the dots, things calmed, and I understood the strange depression that had set in and lifted promptly after his death anniversary.

I was thinking and functioning in healthy ways now and thought that all would go well. It would be onward and upward!

Here’s where things get dicey. The pandemic shut my brain down, again. I was doing so well, and then, splat! I slid back into I don’t know where. Our brains respond to stimuli and come to expect it when we begin to move forward. My brain had no way to know that the entire world would stop functioning as it once had. My brain regressed with the isolation. I think all of us regressed. Old traumatic events might have been triggered, new trauma might have been born, and the uncertainty of what the world would look like was an issue. So, my brain took two steps back, and until I really sat down and looked at the situation, I didn’t see it clearly in the way I needed to. I could have traveled last year, but I didn’t. Now, I get it.

A combination of fear and the realization that I hadn’t taken a real holiday in almost a decade set in. When I verbalized this to a friend, she was concerned: “You need to do something for yourself!” Stepping back, I could see the excuses I’d been making to myself and realized that yes, I needed to plan something that I wanted to do.

With all of this in mind, I thought about what I wanted: a beach, a reading binge, good food, seeing friends, seeing pretty places, and some lovely chats. It might not be your dream holiday and that is just fine. I’m going to create some magic on the beach. Why? Reason has returned and I need to do this.

The Relationship File

In the last decade, I’ve lost my husband, mother, brother, and sister. I’ve jokingly told my younger brother that he’s under orders not to die on me. I’ve also said goodbye to an old faith home and welcomed a new place of faith into my life. All of this comes with grief, loss, mourning what was, and needing to reexamine relationships.

Of those who have exited life, only one was old enough to do so; the other three were all far too young to go. The reality is that they are all gone. The relationships now stand for review in the memory file, and what is done is done. The past faith home also stands in a memory file. Everything is up for discussion and it’s all fair game; nothing is sacred, not even my mother, whom I love deeply.

In looking at all of this, I must turn back the clock to the year 2006, when my husband’s questioning of his faith began. At the time, I wasn’t questioning, but I did want to hear about what he was thinking, feeling, learning, and what was making him angry about it all. The process altered the way we communicated, and it led me to my own path of discovery. It was a good thing, and ultimately, I took from it that relationships can change and that the change can be for the better. We didn’t need to go to antagonism. The concept that we could be different and have a healthy relationship was new to him. We could talk and nothing was off limits. That was where we were when he made his exit. Because examination of things was possible while he was alive, it made it possible to return to the relationship after his death and turn over some of the things that I needed to look at.

Relationships don’t end at death. We carry them forward; they are woven into the tapestry of our ongoing existence. As much as we may wish to erase someone or something from our lives, we can’t. We learn through turning over the rocks to look at it all.

This is also true of my relationship with my mother. I was fortunate that for approximately eighteen years, my mother and I spent every Monday in conversation. We’d giggle, laugh, cry, learn from each other, and talk about things that were deep and serious. Obviously, we spent hours before that time in conversation. When she made her exit, the “I love yous” had been said, and the one question I never asked—the one that I’d like to go back and ask now—I think I know the answer to. Her death came less than six months after Jon’s traumatic death, and I did not go to the memorial. My not attending was a bad choice, and I learned from it. Being there is needful in so many ways.

As I examine my relationship with my mother, I can make peace with what negatives there were. I think the fact that we had that conversation base to draw on has really helped. Pushback was allowed.

Then I look at my sibling relationships. My two older siblings and I didn’t always understand each other. I’m sad about this, and I also know that it wasn’t of my making. I tried. Could I have done more?

In looking at the hard question of putting things right in life, and after they’ve made their exits, I’m challenged by the meaning of our relationship. What is “right?” I love them both. I know that they, each in their own way, loved me. As I take relationships apart, I arrive at the same nasty conclusion that I did in life: They never understood disability the way they needed to understand disability. They were never able to completely understand me. I’ve come to the conclusion that I can be at peace with my end of the relationship and that is the best I can do. This brings up another question for me, and it is one I’ve been musing on for some time.

Why is it that in death, loss, and grief, many people choose to move forward without the work of examining the loss they’ve had in life? The urge to replace someone or something can be strong, and it can also damage us. The more I sit with this question, the more I wonder if it has to do with the fact that our society has radically changed relationships, trauma, and life in general. I’ll explain using WWI and WWII.

Both of my grandfathers were veterans of WWI. They came home on ships. They came home together with war buddies, and in large numbers. On the ships they had time to process the violence and the trauma, and they supported one another. WWII came around, and their sons enlisted and went off to two different fronts: Europe and Japan. They also witnessed violence and trauma, and they came home on ships. They also came home to a hero’s welcome. Their fathers had processed the war and now could mentor their sons. War breeds atrocities, and WWII left the world with several that can never be undone. Old times weren’t any simpler, but they were slower. What’s changed? My grandfather knew the wisdom of allowing his son to prune the rosebushes and tend the garden. He worked through some of the trauma that way.

Leaving the site of battle is a matter of days or hours now. People now come home by boarding a flight that will carry them home. Veterans now come home to a fast-changing society, fast tech, and a culture that is in constant motion. They return traumatized and, in many situations, misunderstood by loved ones and society in general. It alters relationships. This is not to say that my parents’ and grandparents’ generation didn’t suffer from PTSD and other war-related issues. I’m pointing out that their return was slower and allowed for a different type of processing time.

I’m suggesting that maybe we’ve become immune to the damage we’re causing to each other by not slowing things down. In the past seventy-plus years, we’ve moved forward in both healthy and unhealthy ways. This applies to how we treat our relationships.

Are we willing to slow down and take the time to process our lives a wee bit more gently? Parting is hard. No matter how hard we try to avoid it, the past does catch us, and sooner or later what we failed to look at in the near or distant past resurfaces to bite us when we’re not looking!

I reflect back to a night around the dinner table when my father lost it over food. I realize now it was a war memory that he should have sought therapy for, but in those days doing therapy wasn’t common. At the time, it had been about thirty years post war—pruning the roses had not resolved it all. I wonder what would have happened had he looked, talked, and resolved? I wonder how our family would have been changed had he looked. I know how I’m being changed by working slowly and deeply on the past, whether it is peaceful or difficult. I’m moving forward in a healthier manner than had I rushed into my future life. I’m walking into something new, and I hope I’m doing it with grace.