Embracing grief

Tragedy hit a year before I was born when my eldest brother died at the age of 7 due to an accident and that has left its mark on my family. He was buried in a little graveyard in a convent just outside Jerusalem and every year while we lived there we’d visit his grave on his birthday and the anniversary of his death. My dad would read a psalm and say a prayer. The grave was close to where we lived and sometimes I’d go there on my own to take a look

2008i IMG_1310

My parents & niece at my brother’s grave in 2008. We had all painted little stones to adorn it.

I always wondered what it would be like having him as an older brother. Other than those commemorations we didn’t speak of him much in the family, it was just too painful a topic to broach with my parents. Over the years occasional anecdotes were told by my mother, who was always more of a talker than my dad, but most things I knew about my brother I learned from my older sister. She had only been 17 months younger than him and had seen the accident happen. What she remembered was from a child’s perspective but I gobbled up every morsel she gave me. My eldest brother was always commemorated but did not really live on in tales, except for the occasional accidental anecdote. Commemorations of my brother always make me cry, but it’s more about the grief I feel for those who have known him, mixed in with some regret that I never knew him myself.

I have never lost any people very close to me. I’ve been to funerals, I’ve cried and regretted people passing, but none of them were really very close. Even my grandparents weren’t very close to me. My mother’s father died before she even got married, my mother’s mom never cared very much for her grandchildren, so the loss was never extremely personal to me, save for the grief it caused my mom and especially my aunt who had been closer to her. My father’s father died when I was 4, I barely remember him. I did grieve for my father’s mother when she died, as she had been a sweet woman, but even she was not close enough to me, due to us having lived abroad so much. I’ve never lost anyone very close to me until my dad died last year. We knew he was frail and that it would happen but we preferred to ban those thoughts. My dad had Parkinson’s disease and was living in a nursing home for the last 3 years of his life. Even though we knew he’d never come home again, his death still hit me hard. It still hits me hard now when I thought that by now I’d surely be feeling better about it. I think that only now do I truly understand the nature of grief and I have this inkling that this gut wrenching feeling will never leave. It may become less frequent but on occasion it will always rear it’s head. Only now am I really beginning to comprehend what my parents and my sister must feel when they think of my eldest brother dying.

People talk of embracing grief and I try to do that but what is it exactly? Allowing yourself to cry? I do that. Allowing yourself to cry with others who knew him? I don’t do that. I find that in my family we don’t talk about it, we just commemorate and sometimes an occasional anecdote will come up. I thought I’d break that cycle the other day when I asked my mom how she was holding up. I mean, if it’s hard for me, it must be even worse for her, losing her soulmate. She won’t talk about it. She does say it’s hard and that she misses him, but she shields herself and doesn’t want to dig deeper. It’s how she has survived and coped all these years after losing my brother, it’s how she continues now after losing my dad. Keep a stiff exterior and only cry at commemorations but please, let’s not hang around his grave too long. She pushes the pain away and I find I don’t want to do that. I’m an easy cryer anyhow… Yet I do find I mostly cry on my own! Just like my mother does, I imagine, and I don’t really share much of my grief with anyone. My husband is the only one who hears some of it but I don’t want to get him down (even though he insists he is there for me should I need to let things out). My kids see little of my grief, I don’t see the point of bringing them down either. I now see that is what my mom is doing as well – hiding it away from everyone to not upset others. I am like my mom in that respect, I find. Maybe a little less rigid about it, but yes, a lot like her in that I don’t want to show anyone how tough this really is on me. Turns out, I don’t think I know how to do it differently from my parents after all…

Today I was reading a piece by Alistair Appleton, who I know from a few BBC shows he used to do (Cash in the Attic and Escape to the Country).

Alistair Appleton

I have always felt drawn to him (he is not only cute but there is a warmth to him), so I follow him on Twitter. He’s a buddhist, gives meditation workshops and apparently recently finished a degree in psychotherapy. He isn’t on Twitter much but today he posted a link to a blog article he wrote about grief called Black Star: death and Bowie. I found myself totally immersed in it, reading it with a lump in the throat. It’s about death and grieving, and confronting that and it hit home. He speaks of his complicated relation with grief, that his mother grieving his grandparents impacted him greatly. In my family, grief was not quite as palpable, except on special days, so I didn’t have much of a relationship with it. Maybe it was good my parents shielded us from most of the grief – maybe it wasn’t.

In any case, David Bowie’s death hit me pretty hard and I have avoided listening to his latest album because of it. I now realize that I have been pushing grief away instead of embracing it, very much like I saw my parents do. This article has made me feel the need to listen to Bowie’s album, watch the two videos he made and deal with it.

Bowie-Blackstar

Maybe listening to the album and watching the videos can be the doorway to finding a better way to grieving for my dad. I don’t want to lock it up like my parents have done and I don’t want to endlessly wallow either. I need to find my own middle ground, maybe this can help me. So, thank you for the wake up call, Alistair Appleton!

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27 thoughts on “Embracing grief

  1. Oh, Esther. ((((Hugs)))). It’s difficult for me to imagine losing a child (my son is 7 years old) or losing my husband, or either of my parents. And if/when I do, I don’t know how I would carry the grief, whether I’d confront it, as you are trying to do, or if I’d try to submerge and carry it privately, as your mom does. I can only say I hope that you will be able to work through it in your own way. I’m so sorry.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It was funny – when my son turned 7 I became afraid. It was this thing hovering over me. My son was born after a bit of a difficult birth and only after that did my mom tell me my eldest brother’s birth had been similar. I became afraid of the similarity when my son turned 7 and I couldn’t wait for him to turn 8 safely, which he thankfully did. He’s 14 now. 🙂
      As for confronting or burying grief – yes, it’s a struggle and I couldn’t really imagine it myself either until this past year… I even struggled with posting this – should I do it or just keep it personal? But I figure, if I want to do it differently from my mom, maybe this post can be a beginning to that and I very boldly hit ‘post’ and then almost instantly started considering taking it down. But I won’t. Let this just be part of the process for me.
      We all have to deal somehow and never mind how you deal, there is no wrong way of grieving and it always hurts no matter how you grieve.
      Thanks for the hugs. 🙂

      Liked by 4 people

  2. Ich glaube jeder der Kinder hat kann verstehen was Deine Eltern durchgemacht haben. Oder nein, ich kann es nur annähernd nachempfinden da ich so einen Verlust nicht erleben musste.
    Zum Glück leben meine Eltern noch aber mein Vater war schon mehrere Male schwer krank und die Angst war furchtbar. Eltern sind der ruhende Pol im Leben und ich stelle mir den Verlust sehr schwer vor.
    Big hug ❤

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    • Danke, Suzy. 🙂
      Ja, ich will mir gar nicht vorstellen, wie es ist ein Kind zu verlieren… die Eltern sind schon schlimm genug. Es gehört zum Leben dazu aber es ist Scheiße…

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  3. Ah, grief! It is pain’s twin sibling.

    Contrary to you, I grew up around death. I’ve been physically present at the transitional moment of several beloved family members, lost many others (to Cancer, mostly), and even witnessed the death of two neighbors – oh, and was the last person to speak to a classmate at Cornell before I saw his body down at the rocks on the creek (suicide, of course – but that is different).

    In 1961, C.S. Lewis published a book called ‘A Grief Observed’, which he wrote after his beloved wife Joy died of cancer. He had written a book about pain before that one, but this was a whole other ballgame. [You may read about it here: http://www.cslewisinstitute.org/CS_Lewis_on_Grief_page1%5D

    I felt adrift after my mother died in 2003 (I had been her caregiver and was in the room with her when she left). It wasn’t that I had no faith, but no amount of previous experience and knowledge could have prepared me for the infinitely gutting feeling that comes from having a loving parent taken away from you. Other ladies here can unfortunately relate to this matter all too well. (I’m sure that only losing a spouse or child is even worse.)

    The book I mentioned helped me tremendously. Yes, studying the Scriptures brought comfort ,but I needed words from someone who could express what I was feeling! My father refused to talk about her for two years after that day. It was awful for me because I couldn’t even say her name or he’d crumble under a façade of machismo. He wasn’t suffering, oh, no. He was angry because how dare she be taken from him when she had been such a good woman! He felt betrayed and abandoned. He was angry at God. Therefore, instead of turning the valve of conversation in order to relieve some of the oppressiveness of bereavement, I had to be quiet and let him rant. He was, after all, 87 at the time, and they’d been in love for 70 years. I had to be compassionate.

    Grief is insidious in its pursuit of attention. You wake up in the morning and – for an instant – you forget the person you love is gone. (It’s horrible.) The clock strikes whatever-o-clock and you think, “I better get dinner ready for _____.” (It deflates you.) The phone rings and someone says, “May I speak to ______, please?” (That one blindsides you in a most shocking way.)

    I know this is going to sound mushy, but – whether it’s family or friends – true love is eternal. You remember the people you love. They are with you. They helped make you who you are today. My great-aunts, grandmother, uncles, aunts, cousins and parents…my best friend from Elementary School; all of them are in my heart one way or another.

    Like every other traumatic experience, the death of a loved one must be dealt with. Yes, that means facing grief head on. Not only by crying, raving, kicking things, talking about it and writing about it. No, the best way to deal with death is to accept the obvious: it is normal. It will happen to all of us. Not every person will die peacefully in their sleep or surrounded by loved ones, but we cannot will it to stop.

    When I was a child, my maternal grandmother said to me: “My daughter, the day I die – if you have a date to go to a party that night – do it.” I was scandalized. “¡Abuela, no! ¿Cómo vas a pedirme que haga eso?” [No, grandma! How are you going to ask me to do that?] I began to cry and she held my hand, then said: “I’ve lead a rich, long, happy life. The best way you can honor it once I die is to be happy. Find your own life. Become the woman I know you can be. Use the intelligence and talents you were given to make this world a better place. Then my life wouldn’t have been in vain, because I left you here.”

    I extend my condolences to you and everyone else here who has lost a loved one. I hope we can all learn to deal with grief and find what joy we can.

    (Sorry I got carried away.)

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you for sharing that, mujertropical, that means a lot!
      Yes, I recognize what you say about grief constantly claiming attention in what may seem like the most insignificant moments… and I know my father wants me to be happy, he always worried about us kids finding our place in the world and being happy. And you are right about learning to accept that loss is normal – everyone hates it, but it is normal. Now if only the thought would be just as easy to accept in the heart as it is in the mind… My condolences to you as well.
      Anyway, glad you got ‘carried away’ and thanks also for the book tip!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. My brother was 22 when he was killed by a drunk driver. My parents lost a child, I lost a brother and a best friend.

    None of us could relate to one another. Grief divided us; each of us certain that the other could only be more burdened by discussing him.

    What I came to understand more than anything was that the only alternative to my immense grief was to never have known him. That, I decided, was more unbearable. My brother was a gift to us. We had the privilege of knowing him for 22 years. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. You mourn a brother you never met, but you know him through your sister. The alternative is that she wouldn’t remember. Hang on to her memories of him. Hang on to your memories of your dad.

    The truth is, my friend, the grief never goes away. The memories you have of the person and the love you feel from them will become more powerful than your sorrow with time, but you are always going to have days when you’ll miss the person so much you can’t breathe. And it’ll be like that for as long as you live. Losing someone you love isn’t something you can get over; it’s something you live with and no one can put a timeline on it. Not even you. In a couple of weeks, my brother will have been dead for 18 years. I still have my days. But, those days grow fewer in number each year and the laughter and joy and love that bubbles up from within me when I think of him grow in number each year. I don’t expect those hard days to disappear completely because I loved him. And I miss him. And that’s okay.

    In time, my parents have begun talking about him, but it’s hard for them. I can only be patient and empathetic towards them and try to understand they’re not as ready as I have been to talk.

    The only advice I can give you is to allow yourself to feel it. Cry for your loss; acknowledge it’s yours. Don’t try to force those around you to talk about it. Instead, what I did was start a journal. I wrote what I was feeling in it everyday and I started each entry with “Dear Friend.” And I wrote letters to a “friend” who would lend me a listening ear. It helps. I still do it, even after all this time.

    I wish you the best and I’ll be praying for you and your family. With Hugs and sisterly love,

    Buffy

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for sharing that, Buffy! And what a terrible loss for you as well. ((hugs))
      I agree that trying to make someone talk about it doesn’t help, so I have let that go for my mom, although I do intend to let her know that she can talk if she ever feels the need to. And I think she will. She’s been using me as a sounding board for a long time now, so when she’s ready to speak, she’ll speak. I hope. In the meantime, we can only try and be available for each other as a family.
      About allowing myself to feel it – I think that is the step I am now really trying to take. I realize now that often I have been trying to push it away. I get a feeling, allow it for about 5 minutes, and then tell myself to man up and think of other stuff, trying to push it away. The allowing myself to grieve and to talk about it is a big step right now. I made a great step in talking more with my husband last night, which is a liberating feeling. I intend to keep that up.
      Thanks for your letter writing tip. Not sure that is for me because I want to get out of the isolation of grieving alone. However, I can imagine it being helpful at times. So maybe I will write a letter here or there after all. 🙂
      Thanks also for your warm wishes.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Fascinating epigraph on the cross. Is that common in Christian burials in Jerusalem?

    In terms of giving in — I think I’ve told you that for me, aspects of grief would not be ignored in that they presented like a physical illness — sore heels was the obvious one. I couldn’t walk normally for several weeks. It couldn’t be ignored. But beyond that, for me, it was saying, I don’t have to be strong and I don’t have to be angry at myself if I am not my normal self, if I am sad or brittle or too tired to deal or I occasionally lose my sh**. Or the obverse: even though I am grieving it is okay to be happy about some of the things that are happening in my life. I also felt like I got a lot of “embracing” done in the Christmas break and then summer of 2014, when I went through the house and tossed or gave away so many things, particularly when I got my parents’ bedroom cleared of her stuff (which my dad had not been able to do).

    Right now I’m dealing a lot with my dad telling me that he’s worried that he’s not letting go. I keep citing to him the sort of informal guideline that you need to allow one month for every year of the relationship that’s ended but he’s not having it — someone in his life (not Flower, i think, I think I know who it is) is telling him that there’s a right way to do this and he isn’t doing it. And gosh, stressing over not doing it right is worse than not doing it all, I think!

    So yeah, I want to underline, however you do it is how you do it and listening to extended versions of music that allow you to cry is totally legitimate. I think there are definitely things that “allow” us paths into emotions that we might avoid otherwise, places we might go, or music or poetry — and I also think that sometimes realizing some of the emotion that is centering on (e.g.) the music is displacement of other emotions that can’t be fully articulated is a beneficial or at least useful thing. Whatever you show is up to you but I belong to the crowd that thinks it’s important for children to see their parents dealing openly and honestly with negative emotions (as well as positive ones).

    Hugs from here.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The cross – no, not typical for Jerusalem. My father had picked that for the grave, it’s a celtic cross. I was told the significance of picking that once long ago, but I can’t remember it anymore.
      Yes, on allowing myself to grieve and not trying to be strong all the time. I don’t want to always cry in isolation anymore or push it away anymore. That’s tough but for me better as I find my current strategy doesn’t give me much.
      I’m so sorry your dad is feeling pressured to grieve in a certain way! I so hope he can get past that. Maybe you can keep on doing what you’re doing in the hopes it will sink in with him…
      As for showing it infront of the kids – that’s a tough call. I want them to see me grieve because my dad really meant something and I don’t want his memory brushed aside. But I also don’t want to burden them with it. A few weeks ago I found my daughter crying in bed thinking of opa and she hadn’t wanted to burden me with it. It shocked me that she would want to hide her grief from me, but I did understand her position as I do the same (I.e. not wanting to burden anyone). So I told her it was OK to cry about opa, that I cried about him too and that if she feels sad about it or needs to talk about it she should really come to me. We held each other for a while and I hope that helped her. But she and my son get upset when they see me upset, so although I do want to show them my grief, I don’t want to constantly upset them. My son is a burier of grief, very much like my mom and me, I guess, and doesn’t want to be confronted with tears at all. Especially for him, I think it will be good to show that grief is painful but can be born. I don’t know, I find it tough to know how much to show. Something my husband and I were discussing last night. He suggested I just be more open about talking about my dad with the kids and him, just share the daily, small thoughts I have of my dad and make it less of a taboo. So, I think I’ll start with that. Grieving means thinking of someone and doesn’t always have to be negative, i.e. result in tears (although it’s OK if that does happen). My husband rocks. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • I was curious about the Hebrew words — it’s a name of G-d. (“The Lord [is] my banner”). Very evocative. Something I haven’t seen on any Jewish tombstones in the US, at any rate.

        I understand your concerns about your son. Your husband sounds like a great guy — and I think if you can normalize speaking about your father that might be helpful. If you don’t speak of him much, then it almost seems like tears are likelier to come because of that. In speaking about your father, you also habituate yourself to your own sadness, making it less painful to experience.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’m not sure how normal those words are for Hebrew graves in Israel. I only know my dad picked that for my brother’s grave. We picked the same words for my dad’s grave.
          And yes, my husband truly is a great guy. A real partner in every single way. Lucky me. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Esther, dank je wel voor dit mooie, heel persoonlijke verhaal. Ik reageer in het Nederlands, dat is in dit geval makkelijker. Mijn ouders zijn jong gestorven, kort na elkaar. De fysieke pijn verdwijnt, zo is mijn ervaring. Maar het gemis blijft en steekt op onverwachte momenten de kop op. Dan staan opeens de tranen in mijn ogen.
    Hopelijk vind je een manier om met jouw verlies om te gaan, gelukkig heb je veel steun in je omgeving.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wat naar dat je beide ouders al jong verloren hebt, gecondoleerd!
      Ik ben inderdaad erg blij met de steun in mijn omgeving. Dank je wel voor je lieve woorden, Emma, en voor het delen van jouw ervaring!

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  7. Well said…

    I was talking about that subject with my companion (can’t say: my husband for we’re not married and don’t want to) because his dad passed away very recently (Dec. 2015, just after Christmas). My companion said he had time to say goodbye to his father when he saw him at the hospital but didn’t realize what happened …..
    I told him that it takes time to “faire son deuil” (to embrace grief).

    Hugs from here, too

    Liked by 1 person

  8. There is no one right way to grieve. Bottling it up might be a survival strategy for some. But I think most people find comfort in some form of catharsis, the ability to express all those emotions freely. Thanks for the picture of the grave in Jerusalem. I found it touching.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Linnet.
      My brother is buried is in the most beautiful spot, in a convent, where he lies between nuns and monks. The convent was right behind our house and my parents were good friends with the nuns living there. Apparently when my brother died the abbess offered my parents a spot for my brother’s grave in the convent, which was really not done as the graveyard was only meant to be for the nuns (and before them monks) living there. When my parents asked whether they were sure and said that they didn’t want the nuns to get in trouble with the mother house in Switzerland, the abbess said, “We only have to ask permission when we are in doubt. And we are not in doubt…” So, my brother is the only child buried in this tiny graveyad that looks like it’s situated in paradise. 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

  9. Lots of love for you Esther!!! {{{Hugs}}}

    Liked by 1 person

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