When Death Comes for an Extended Visit

Death used to scare the hell out of me. Any wake or funeral that I had ever been to was awkward. I never knew what to say and always found myself fumbling for words. I could see the heartache and pain in people, but I had never known it myself and wanted to keep my distance. All that pain and sorrow I saw, just wanted me to turn it off and hide. It was far easier to pretend death did not exist and that I would never have to figure out how to deal with the agony and suffering.

Then death came for an extended stay…

Maureen passed away in July of 2016. In November of that year, my next oldest brother passed away after a short battle with a rare and very aggressive liver cancer. He was receiving treatments and care while Maureen was going through her final challenging months, and I was still trying to claw my through the grieving of Maureen. It came too fast for both of us. For him, it was much too soon; it was as if cancer never gave him a chance, coming on fast and furious and taking its toll. For me, I was still numb.

I don’t know if my reaction to his death was a result of me being mentally and emotionally overloaded, or me just trying to come to grips with how death fits my life. My heart ached for his wife who was suddenly without the love of her life. High School sweethearts, best friends with years of happy companionship, all suddenly gone. I knew this feeling. I knew how she felt; having your heart torn out and your life turned upside down. That was heavy for me. I didn’t turn it off, but I could immerse myself so much into the emotional turmoil.

Then there were the kids. He was a hero to his kids; a good role model, loving, playful and supportive. I couldn’t fathom the thought of his children having to come to grips with his passing. Witnessing my children over the last three months and the obvious devastation that I would see on their face, knowing there were nights that they lay in bed weeping. It’s a pain no child should ever have to experience, and watching his four children grieve his loss opened up my wounds, not even close to being healed.

I felt guilty at first like I wasn’t properly grieving his loss. Wasn’t I suppose to be sad and upset that he was longer in my life? Maybe it was self-preservation? I had said goodbye to him long before his passing, and on my last visit, I knew that I might never see him again. Still, the day the news came, I sat in my room and cried. Tears came because I would never see him again; tears came because death had invaded my life again, and mostly, tears came because I knew how traumatic and painful this would be for his family, bringing back a flood of agonizing thoughts and feeling for me. My grieving became more about reliving my loss, feeling that same pain in others, and less about no longer having my brother in my life.

Why is there so much death in my life?

In July of 2017, almost exactly one year from the day that Maureen left us, one of her best friends(Kate) passed away as a result of a horrible traffic accident. Kate looked after Maureen tirelessly while she was sick and dealing with the poisoning side effects of chemo. She was a woman with two young children, a loving husband, and an active member of our close-knit town. It was devastating; she left the house in the morning and never returned. Her family would never see her again. The town was rocked by the tragedy, two years in row that a mom was taken away from their families much too soon.

The similarities opened up scars not quite healed for many and created new anguish for many more. It’s so close to home for many, making them look at their own lives and giving them a new appreciation for waking up and seeing your family every morning, realizing it can vanish in a flash. For me, it was reliving the previous July all over again, throwing me back into the throws of my deepest sorrow. What I was feeling was also different though. The sorrow I felt was related to my loss but mostly because I felt the pain of the husband and two children and not wanting anyone to endure the dreadful experience of figuring out how to carry on once your heart had been violently ripped out. I attended the service knowing it would be a challenge. I kept my distance, fading into the background not wanting to get too emotional and draw attention but somehow feeling that my understanding presence was enough to show my support. There were no words needed.

“Fear grows with ignorance.  I know and understand my fear”  Amit Jupi

While Maureen was going through her ordeal with colon cancer, my next younger brother was dealing with prostate cancer. His cancer metastasized and spread to his bones, and he’d been through numerous forms of treatments to keep cancer from spreading, but 2018 was a challenging year for him, and his quality of life was deteriorating. He was constantly in pain and no longer able to live the life he wanted to live and eventually decided that the treatment was worse than the disease. He accepted the consequences of that decision and began preparing for his precious final months.

I would occasionally make the trip to visit, never knowing if it were the last time I’d spend time with him. Things were changing for me, and I was more open about death and accepting the inevitable outcome. The conversations were often powerful and emotional as he wanted to know how I prepared for Maureen’s passing and how we managed in the aftermath. I was comfortable sharing this and knowing the hardship that would ensue, felt it was important that I was as open with him as possible, hoping that maybe it would help them all prepare.

When I last visited him, by the time I left, I knew it was my last visit. He had not been out of the house much, so I took him out to run some errands and grab breakfast at the local diner. He showed me the church where his funeral service was going to be held, and we talked about his end of life plans, discussing ideas for what to leave behind for his wife and children, but mostly we enjoyed the precious moment of two brothers hanging out and talking for maybe the last time.

As I headed back up the road, my thoughts were consumed by the cruelty of yet again, a young family losing a loving parent. Four daughters that will need to come to grips with never seeing their father again and his loving wife that will somehow be expected to pick up the pieces of her shattered life without the support of the person she needs the most. I felt the tears coming as these thoughts and emotions boiled up inside of me, and I was overcome with excruciating sadness. I pulled off the road, put the car in park and sat and sobbed with a pain in my heart, knowing that weighty days lie ahead for him and his family.

No rest for the weary

As I sit here and write this, my father has just finished his first treatment for Lymphoma, and I realize that this cycle is going to repeat itself. As far as I know, it is going to repeat itself for everyone in my life someday, myself included. Death comes to us all, often before we are ready for it and it’s really hard to fill that void for those we love. It can be devastating, and I know this now. I have felt that pain and sorrow and have let it wash over me. There is nothing I can do to alleviate that pain and each person needs to find their way to come to terms with their mourning and how they are going to let it shape their lives. What I can do, though, is offer an understanding hug, a shoulder to cry on(or with), or offer my presence and be with them in spirit. Like most scary things in life, once you get to know them, they are not that scary.

This post was previously published on Loss and Learning and is republished here with permission from the author.

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