How we grieve is who we are
Editor’s note: Middle Wisconsin recognizes that this is a time of great loss for so many. We will be running articles pertaining to grief and loss during the pandemic as a way to reflect and connect those who are grieving. Allowing one the space to grieve is important. We encourage readers to share their experience if they are comfortable with doing so.
The first time I ever heard my father cry was when I called him on the phone to talk about the past. While I do not remember exactly the reason I called, the conversation came around to my mother.
My mother was 21 when I was born and my father 27. They lived a very rebellious life, and my father was deeply in love. When my mother took her own life when I was one, my father was hit really hard. Even so many years later, just thinking about that time hurts him. That is why he would typically avoid talking about anything from that period of his life. He would say, “I do not remember anything before 1972.”
I do not remember when I first learned about my mother’s death. I can only say that I was young. I do not believe I understood that she killed herself right away, but I found that out not too much later.
For quite a few years I felt guilty for her death. The reasons she killed herself revolved around my birth. You see, when I was born, doctors told my mother that I was going to be severely disabled. The words my father told me were “deaf”, “dumb” and “blind.” My mother was mentally ill and my parent’s rebellious lifestyle did not help her mental state. This diagnosis really played on her guilt and feelings of inadequacy, according to my reading of the note she left behind. Some time before I read her note, I started to realize that my feeling guilty was not helpful. My birth may have been the catalyst, but it was not the cause of my mother’s death. The cause was the doctors who misdiagnosed me and who treated my mother so badly.
Knowing this did not make me any less sad. I thought about how different our lives would have been if she had been able to live. My father would have been different, my brother and I would be different. I still grieve for the loss even though I do not remember my mother or even know that our lives would have been any better.
My childhood was full of loss. My mother, her entire side of our family excepting her sister, her mother and father. Then later my father’s parents as well. There was no attempt at sugar coating death in my family; dead was dead, or in the case of my mother’s side of the family, may as well have been dead because hardly anyone on that side of the family wanted anything to do with us.
As a family we did not talk much about death but we dealt with it in a matter-of-fact way. It was a part of life that needs to be dealt with. As a family we made plans early, we made plans fairly, but we made these plans quietly with as little fuss as possible.
Growing up in this environment made me better able to deal with grief. Some would say that I still am too stoic, I appear to uncaring. I am not, however I do grieve, and even cry. Just how I was raised was that we get the important things done first, then we deal with grief later.
I recall the day my brother, cousin and I accompanied my mother’s sister on a short trip into the backwoods of the coastal mountains of southern Oregon. We all laughed as we scattered her father’s ashes on the property on which he spent his childhood by throwing them over the barbed wire fence. We were laughing because of the silliness of throwing ashes over a fence because we could not contact the current property owner and were too law abiding to trespass outright. We all missed him but the situation we were in was so novel to us that we could not help but laugh about it. I think he would have appreciated the effort to honor his memory and wishes and forgiven us our self-mocking laughter.
It is important to me to honor the memories of those who have died. To me, the best way to do that is to keep moving forward with your own life while remembering all the good memories they have given you and thanking them for all they have done to help you. An individual may be more than a person shaped by their ancestors, but we build from our experiences and honor them by what we do and how we treat others.
I grieve, quietly, in my own way. Their memories drive me to build something positive from my grief to honor those who came before me. If our family had a motto it might be, “leave the world better than you found it.”