Good Grief, it’s Complicated! (On the nature of grief and sorrow.)

Human experience often brings such a complexity of emotions. Not since I was a small child have I felt anything unalloyed, not joy or anger or sorrow. For as long as I can remember, and more especially of late, I have experienced little else but the overwhelm of emotions that gather in crowds of mixed company.” ~ Fearless

My father was never what I would call healthy. Strong, yes, but not healthy. There was never a time I can remember when he was not in pain of one kind or another.

It was in 2003 when his health took a serious turn for the worst. He was diagnosed with esophageal cancer which bears a survival rate of something like 12-16%. I was asked to come home then. Not by him, of course. He was too independent for that, and my stepmother, at that time, was well enough to care for him. It was my sister who wanted me near. She was an hour from him in good traffic, and though she was in a position to take some time off of work to help him, she needed the emotional support. She was particularly close to my father, and this was a trying time. It was impossible, however, for me to get away. I had just had a baby, and so my ability to travel was somewhat limited. Lisa faithfully did what she could to care for my dad in those difficult days, driving him to his appointments and sitting nearby on his worst days. And they did get bad. My father pulled through it, though perhaps just barely. The ordeal proved a trial for my sister, and I think she bore a lot of resentment toward me for having to go through it alone.

In 2009, his health suffered another set back when his heart began to fail. He woke up one morning and just felt that he was seriously unwell without really knowing why. He waited for my stepmom to wake, and then he had her take him to the hospital where he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. They put him on diuretics and made plans to have a pacemaker inserted.

And then came the heart attacks. Only that’s not what they were in actuality. His pacemaker was equipped with a defibrillator, and, for some reason, whether it was because it was set to respond too readily to the slightest irregularity or if there was some other cause (working with his arms raised or around electrical impulses) it went off on him two or three times. Each time he thought it was the end. And my sister did, too.

And so it was that on Christmas eve of 2009, my sister called me (drunk) to tell me I needed to come home or it would be too late, that my dad was going to die and if I didn’t come home, I would not have the chance to say goodbye.

But I didn’t go home. My husband had just taken a new job in another state, and I was alone on the other side of the country with three children and a house to prepare to put up for sale. I couldn’t leave. I had to take my chances that the end was not so nigh as she feared it to be.

Just a couple of months later, I got a phone call. “Are you sitting down?”

“Yes.” I had been sitting on the floor, actually, working out how to rewrite the book I was getting ready to publish (my first). There were papers spread all around me, pens and highlighters …

She bore me the grim news. But I was sure I hadn’t heard it right. I stood. “Will you repeat that? I don’t think I heard you.”

“Jeff died.”

It was a blow I was unprepared for. You know from the time you are old enough to conceive of such things that you will eventually lose your parents. To lose a sibling, though, … That is not supposed to happen. Not so young. He was 46, the age I am now as I write this.

Jeff had recently gotten out of rehab. He had been told, and quite plainly (from what we later read from his journals) that if he drank again, it would kill him. He came home to live with his mother, and on that particular day he was tinkering with one of his cars. Perhaps he stood up too quickly, perhaps he’d simply had too much to drink. I don’t know, but whatever the case, he collapsed in the driveway. He managed to raise himself again and went inside where he asked his mother to call 911, and then he laid down on the sofa. By the time the ambulance arrived, he was gone.

For a while I was angry. I didn’t really process the loss right away. I had to be strong. I had children to care for, and who was there to care for me? No one. Women are caregivers, not carereceivers. There is a red line under the word as I write this. It’s not misspelled; the word doesn’t exist.

Lisa was territorial about her relationships. After Jeff’s death, he became her brother more than mine. I bottled up my emotions and refused to process them. I had a book to rewrite. I had a house to finish and to pack up. I had kids to take care of.

And then one evening, we were watching a movie, and at the very end was a trailer for another movie. The track that scored it was Keane’s Somewhere Only We Know. I don’t know why that song. It was just that it hit me by surprise, and yes, I love Keane, but there was no special meaning to the song that would assign it to my brother’s memory. It just played, and I fell apart. I sobbed loudly, covering my face with my shirt out of shame. My husband was with us that weekend, and, characteristic to him, he quietly left the room, unable to tolerate that kind of emotional display. The boys stared at me in concern and surprise. My eldest came and sat with me and held me close, and let me spend the emotion I’d been holding in.

I later told my sister about this, but she took exception to the idea that I had some “secret place” I shared with my brother. I assured her it wasn’t the lyrics of the song that did it for me. I think it was just the band itself, and the way the song had come on so unexpectedly. My brother and I listened to much of the same music, and it felt like a hello from him. It still does, but I can’t tell you how or why (except that I really do believe in such things, and there doesn’t need to be a reason beyond feeling that it is so). She later criticized the way I had grieved for him, before and after that time. It was none of her business, really. But maybe that was her way of taking out on me the anger she felt at those in our extended family who had told her it wasn’t really so bad … he wasn’t our real brother, after all. But he was. He was my father’s son, and I loved him.

My grief for my brother was relatively simple. For a time I was angry that he chose to drink and therefore to die. I was disappointed in him. He had done such a bad job processing his compound disappointments. In many ways he was like my father, though, an addict, yes, but also a tortured boy growing up into a tortured man. He had something my father didn’t, though: the love of a devoted and adoring mother. I think my father would have had that, too, but he was orphaned at the age of four. His parents, the ones that had given him life, had loved him. I know that. The ones who adopted him, well … they tried, I suppose, but it was the 40’s and 50’s, and a man needed to be toughened up not coddled. And boy did those boys learn to be tough!

Once the anger subsided, there was only love. Jeff was nine years older than me. We had different mothers. We never lived in the same house, and I was lucky if I saw him twice a year. But I had no bad memories of him. He was never unkind to me. He never called me names or bullied me. He was always loving, nurturing, and very, very funny. My regrets are these: I didn’t try hard enough to stay close to him as an adult, I didn’t give him the time I should have, and I was never the confidant I might have been to him. Could I have saved his life? Probably not. But I certainly could have done more. But that is the true nature of grief. Grief is the love that remains, when those we have loved have moved on. And too often, love is regret.

In 2015, my father was diagnosed with stomach cancer. I was at last in a position to help out. My marriage was ending, I was in the middle of an infatuation that was moving toward an affair if I didn’t do something drastic, and my father was dying. There was only one thing I could do. I could go home to Washington. My stepmother had been diagnosed with dementia a few years before, and she was in no position to care for him. Not then. I could go. I wanted to go. And my father wanted me there as well, another indication of how serious the matter truly was.

I won’t go into detail here about what that was like to be in Washington where I grew up and to care for him and for my stepmother as well, as that story will require several blog posts on its own. I was there for seven months. During that time, I got divorced, I ended and rekindled and ended again my relationship with my long-distance paramour–and learned things in the interim about myself and about him and my relationship habits that I have spent the last nearly seven years trying to resolve and amend. And I watched my father grow very, very ill and then, miraculously, recover. During that time I got to repair years of resentment and misunderstanding between my father and myself, and I got to spend some much needed time with my cousin and with my sister. But again, it was complicated.

Lisa resented my being there. She felt I had encroached on her territory. Everything I did was open to criticism, from what I did in my spare time to where I went and who I spent time with. I was still trying to write. It was and still is my best outlet and the thing that brings me the most peace. But I was also trying to learn about my self at that time. I was doing a lot of what my stepmom called “studying” reading every relationship book I could find, every “fix yourself” program I knew of. I was hurting and I wanted it to stop and, most of all, I never wanted to feel like that again.

After an aggressive round of chemotherapy and surgery that removed 85% of his stomach, my father recovered. We had two years of remission before the cancer came back. This time it was terminal. My father said goodbye to me over the phone. I remember sitting on the edge of the bathtub, locked in my one and only bathroom, and trying not to cry until I got off the phone. He had days not weeks. He was about to be put on palliative care–morphine–and would not be lucid again. This was it. He didn’t want me to come. He didn’t want a fuss. But he loved me, and he was sorry, and he just wanted to say so before he left this earth for good.

He lingered for almost a week, while my sister and my stepmother sat beside him. But neither of them handled stress or grief well, and they were at each other’s throats. After several days of sleepless nights and missed work, respectively, my stepmom and my sister said their goodbyes and left him. But neither did they want him to die alone. Lisa called and asked me to come, if not for him then for her. I got on a plane and arrived at the University of Washington Medical Center at 10:30 pm. Upon entering his room, I found him wasted and waxen … and old. He was 79, but he looked much older. Or perhaps, for the first time, I finally saw him as the spent man that he was. He had fought so hard, had battled seemingly insurmountable odds so many times. It was hard to accept that this was it.

I took my seat beside his bed and made myself comfortable. The atmosphere of the room was heavy and dark. I said a prayer that he would have the courage and assistance he needed at this time to cross over, and then, because I knew I couldn’t sleep, I sat down to meditate. I never spoke directly to him. I was a little afraid of his knowing I was there. He had asked me not to come, after all. But when the nurse came in and asked me who I was, I told him that I was the daughter, come from Virginia, to take care of everything.

Just a few hours later, he slipped away quietly.

For as villainized as I was for making that decision to leave my family in Virginia to go to Washington and take care of my father, I have never once regretted the time I got to spend with him, the opportunity I had to make peace with him. I loved him, but our relationship was complicated. He wasn’t a very good father, and I often wondered if my brother resented us at all for his leaving him to start a new family with us. Jeff had it far worse, I know. If he did resent it, it never showed. My father had good qualities, too. He could be generous. And he was immensely talented. He was a gunsmith, a woodworker, a cook, a writer, and an artist. He could build anything, and he loved to learn new things.

My father’s death had an immense impact on my relationship with my sister. I spent a lot of time after his death not speaking to her. She felt wronged in so many ways. I got too much of his stuff after he died, I was there but not there, somehow. She liked to say “you never lived with him, so you don’t understand.” Except I had lived with him. I had lived with him for the first 15 years of my life, and I had lived with him for seven months during his illness. She had spent the occasional night there after he married my stepmom, but she had never lived with him, so it made no sense. I feel like maybe it was something she needed to believe. She would also say “we helped him so much” during that time, but she was working. I don’t resent that, it was my turn, but … I was the one who did all the driving, the shopping, the medicating, the cleaning up. It was such a strange narrative she needed to maintain, that she was somehow more important in the scope of his life than even my stepmother was to him. It just wasn’t true, but in her mind it was irrefutable.

In the months just prior to her death, we had not been speaking. I had just had enough of the constant berating, the picking fights, the gaslighting and narcissism. I couldn’t do it anymore. I was learning (and still am) how to establish and maintain healthy boundaries for my own peace of mind, and so I had cut her off. But then, right around her birthday, she had gone in for emergency gallbladder surgery. I called her to see how she was doing. We talked a little, but she made it clear she was not ready to consider us friends again. Just a week before her death, we had begun texting. She was excited to start a new job, a job she would never show up to. It all ended so suddenly, so unexpectedly. We had JUST been talking! She had just been there a moment ago, and then … nothing but silence.


And that is exactly what it feels like. She is there, but silent. Gone but not gone.

And it’s complicated. I’m angry. I’m angry she left so soon. I’m angry that we will never have the opportunity to be what we always should have been to each other–best friends. I’m angry that she lived a life of self-harm and blame and not taking the responsibility for her own problems. I’m angry at the constant criticism and judgment. I’m just angry. So angry. I’m angry that her husband has shut us out of his life, though I don’t blame him. I’m angry that it must now go to trial. There can be no closure, but neither do I want retribution. Her husband has suffered enough for the mistake he made that night which led to her death. There was no intention to do harm behind it, simply a lapse in judgment. Most of all, I just miss her. And I feel so, so alone.

I sometimes wonder if life is just an experience of subtraction. That we are meant to live amongst this crowd of loved ones and strangers, until we have said goodbye to every friend who has gone their own way and to every loved one that passes on before us.

Life is so quiet now. There is no one to tell me what a bad person I am, or how I am a bad friend, or a bad sister, or a bad daughter. I suppose that’s something to be grateful for. But mostly, I’m grateful to have loved, even when it was hard, or complicated, or painful. I have loved, and that is a gift.

Posted in Uncategorized