We all have a story of feeling alone, wondering if anyone understands what we’re going through. Maybe it’s in your running life, maybe it’s about how you look, maybe experiences you’ve had. While this might not be a Christmas-friendly topic, it’s my story of loneliness that feels fresh and worthy of sharing today.
I was pregnant with my son in 2005 and in the throws of pre-baby bliss when people in my family started dying. The causes were all different, each as unique as the people themselves. Sadly we searched for answers and quipped that God needed to open up some space in our family for Colin’s birth.
The first call was from my brother. He breathlessly spoke into the phone words I never imagined in my nightmares he’d say: Liam was dead. Fell asleep at preschool and never woke up, a toddler version of SIDS. Just sixty children in the U.S. had inexplicably died this way leaving no closure, as if that’s possible for a parent to attain. Pregnant at 8 months I was unable to attend Liams memorial in Utah.
Then my brother-in-law, Steve, died just days later. An accident. He was in his 40s.
We moved to the Central Coast of California and the calls kept coming. My aunt, whose death was a shock and a cautionary tale. Caretakers often do not outlive their spouses. Simply put, what killed her was her lifestyle of ignoring her needs for the sake of her husband’s.
Soon thereafter my mother-in-law called. Something was wrong and she needed to speak in person. We sat on our porch and she told us the unbearable, unimaginable news. Andrei, my brother-in-law, was dead at 36.
Then Sam’s second son died at birth.
Another aunt. We started losing track, stopped even telling our friends. I stopped wanting to answer the phone. Our therapist asked for a Family Death Tree so she could keep them all straight. Then God added a little twist to the mix: my childhood home burned down, leaving my parents so shocked, so vulnerable. My dad barely made it out alive that night.
What surprised me about the experience of the family deaths wasn’t the intensity of my sadness nor the pain and anxiety about them. I half expected that free-fall, like riding a ferris wheel and reaching the top – OK, we’re on our way down now. What really hit me was the sense of being alone. No one in my friendship circles asked me about my experience, and no one in my community seemed to be interested. It was like I had a virus. If you talk to Caity about her grief you’ll get the Death Virus! If she brings it up, just remark at how wonderful the weather’s been lately. The deaths were always one step disconnected from me… not my brother, but Stefan’s brother. Not my sons, but my brother’s sons. Not my sisters, but my mom’s. I was supposed to be the support, not the one mourning.
My family also doesn’t talk about dead family members. To this day we have no annual rituals, no conversation about them. I bring them up and family hesitates to make eye contact. They sigh and tear up. But no one offers memories about them, no one indulges in memorializing them with me. People don’t offer any encouragement or response. It’s like they want to forget.
The deaths just trickle in now after the storms of 2005-2008. But I haven’t gotten over the pain, and I question whether others have. These family members were incredible so why would I want to give them up completely, lost to the past? I want to indulge in who they were to me and talk about them once in a while. I sent a card to a friend recently who’s experienced death. I wrote, “People who say ‘time heals’ are full of shit.” These dead people are still alive to me, not fading away. The memories are solid and my love for them is solid. Besides, when I’m dead I want to be celebrated just like I want to celebrate Liam and Andrei and Aiden and everyone else.
I have a friend and talk show host coach named Dave Congalton who wrote a book about five family members who died in one day in a fire: Three Cats, Two Dogs: One Journey Through Multiple Pet Loss. His book not only describes the process he went through losing his family but it enabled him to soak in the memories of who they were to him, share his pain and mourn their deaths. When Dave first told me about the fire I was taken aback. My own husband won’t talk about all the family, including his brother, who died. And this man is sharing the pain of his experience. I immediately felt a kinship with Dave.
In my next post, I’ll compare family death to having plantar fasciitis. Yes, it takes some stretch of the imagination, and it might offend people who have lost family members. But death and injury can both be very lonely times. Lonely times indeed.