Family and Death Essay

Loss can be described as many things; the misplacement of tangible items, the ending of a close relationship with a friend, a goal not achieved or the death of a loved one. Through the readings, posts and responses of this course we have seen that individuals each respond to their loss in ways that are unique to them, yet there is a common thread amid it all – everyone grieves and mourns their losses and their lives are forever changed.

While reviewing the losses that I have experience, I at first attempted to define which would be the most significant and there for most deserving of further thought and ultimately inclusion in this lossography.

What I realized was that significant does not always mean huge or all encompassing, that some losses are smaller and maybe only seen as a loss to the person directly experiencing them. Focusing on death, the first recollection I have is that of a beloved pet, Henrietta an orange and black guinea pig.

I am not exactly sure how long we had her or how old I was when she died (although from the room in my memory I would have to guess 9 or 10) I just remember thinking of her as a great pet, she never bit, she did not try to run away, and always seemed to be listening when I talked to her. I remember going into my bedroom and realizing she had not issued her usual welcoming whistle, I walked up to her cage – a large square made of welded together refrigerator shelves with a solid metal bottom that the sides could be lifted out of – and seeing her lying on her side, not moving.

I think I knew immediately that she had died, because I uncharacteristically stepped inside the cage and bent down to pick her up, she was large and I always used to hands, this time she was limp and cold. I do not really remember what I did after that, I am sure I told my mom and we buried her, I also do not remember how my younger siblings reacted, but I do know that in that memory I was not crying. Having grown up spending a great deal of time on my grandparents farm the death of animals was not a new concept, but I think Henrietta’s death stands out to me because it was the first time my pet had died, the first I found dead.

I am sure I missed having her, but we always had so many pets that perhaps the void was filled right away. Oddly the next childhood death that stands out is again of a pet and I think it stands out because at the time I felt relief and then guilt. It was my brother’s white rat. I hated that thing – he should have named it Houdini because it did not matter what kind of cage or how well the lid/doors were secured that nasty little thing could get out and inevitably would find its way to my room and climb up on my bed!

I was not afraid of it – we had had plenty of mice and hamsters and guinea pigs – I just hated the way it would climb up everything and the way it’s scaly tail would scrape across your skin if you gave it a chance. Anyway, I remember Malcolm being very upset and crying when he found it dead, as soon as I knew what was going on I felt relieved I would not have to deal with its escapes anymore, but I still hugged my little brother and tried to make him feel better.

I did feel bad for him and knew he felt like he was losing a friend and as much as I felt bad for him and would have done anything to take away his pain, I just could not feel bad that rat was dead which made me feel a guilty. I knew of course it was not my fault the rat was dead, but I did think my being glad it was dead made me a bad sister. I know now that my feelings were perfectly normal and not those of a bad sister, just those of a thirteen year old who loved her brother but hated his choice of pets.

I know there have been other deaths that have touched my life; pets, a great aunt I barely knew whose funeral was the first open casket I had attended (I do not remember seeing her up close – I think my mother kept us back), a good friend who died in accident at the end of our freshman year in high school, one of my favorite uncles and my grandparents, the loss of a baby 16 weeks into the pregnancy, but the death that has colored my world the most was one that I did not experience, it occurred eight days before I was born when my father was killed in a car crash.

I do not mean to diminish the impact the other losses had, certainly seeing the affect my grandfathers death had on my grandmother shaped some of my ideas not only of grief, she was never the same, she did not laugh as much and the light in her eyes was not as bright, but it also shaped some of my ideals about romantic love. To the day she died – 28 years after my grandfather – my grandmother kept all of her checks and official documents titled “Mrs. Willis Goodrich”, and she never removed her wedding ring.

The death of my Uncle Forest was the first time I associated anger with death, my Aunt seemed so numb at first and then for months she was so angry at him for not taking better care of himself, for continuing to smoke when she asked him repeatedly to try to stop and for not asking for help moving the ice house he was pushing when he had a massive heart attack and died. She told me later that it was not until she not only recognized but believed that he had not been trying to die, that he had not wanted to leave her any more than she wanted him to leave, that she was finally able to forgive him for dying and move on with her life.

My grandmothers death was different from my grandfathers not only because it was not entirely unexpected, she was almost 90 and had advanced Parkinson’s disease, but more in how I reacted to it. As a teenager when my grand father died it almost felt like being an observer, I was to young to be included in any of the decisions, I obviously felt horrible and could see the pain and sadness in my grandma, aunts and uncles but I do not think I really understood how affected they were by everyones pain.

Even knowing my grandmother was no longer in pain and believing she was where she had wanted to be for the last 28 years – back in my grandfathers arms – her dying made me then and still at times makes sad that I can not have tea with her or bake cookies with her or just talk to her. Her passing was also different for me in that this time I was one of the adults and as such as I could see, feel and worry about the pain of my mom, aunts, uncles and cousins but also that of all of the great grandchildren.

I know that I said the death of my father had the biggest impact on my life but that is only because it is something that has always been part of my life, something I have always known, but it is a different kind of loss than that of someone I actually knew or in the case of the baby I lost, of someone I wanted to know, someone that was to be part of my future. Losing that baby was more painful than anything I have experienced. He was to be our second child, I say he only because that is what I had already pictured in my mind, a blue eyed, dimpled smile, curly haired boy.

But a few days before what would have been our 16 week check up I began spotting. I was at work, as a bank teller, and immediately called my doctor who told me to come to her office right away. At that time we lived in a fairly small town in Montana so I was ushered right into an exam room when I arrived, which really only served to make my feelings of dread worse. I knew it was bad when my doctor looked grim as she searched all over my abdomen for any trace of a heartbeat.

I remember feeling like everything was turning gray. I remember the doctor trying to sound hopeful when she said that not finding a heartbeat yet could be from multiple causes and that we should get an ultrasound. But as she called the hospital next door to the clinic, the look in her eyes did not match her voice. Again being in a small town made things quicker, I had a very short wait, during which I called work to tell my supervisor, who happened to be my best friend, that I would not be back as soon as I thought.

She sounded so concerned I could not help but blurt out “they can’t find a heartbeat”, her voice sounded like it was a thousand miles away down a dark tunnel when she answered “I’ll be right there”. She knew my husband was due to be out of town for several more hours. Somehow I managed to remain calm as the ultrasound started, but the minute Staci walked into the room I started to cry. The poor ultrasound operator got kinda flustered and started searching for tissues.

After several minutes of his moving the wand across my stomach, not speaking and with their eyes glued to the screen, he finally said what I already knew, the baby had died. In the span of an hour, I’d gone from happily planning for a new person to enter my life, to having that life ripped away from me, to having to figure out how I was going to tell my husband and our four year old daughter. I felt like a gaping hole had just ripped open in my chest and all of the air had been sucked from the room.

The cramping started the next day, it was seriously more painful than labor, I felt like my body had betrayed me and that I had failed myself and my husband. I realize now of course that some of that pain was psychological and I do know that nothing I did caused it nor could have prevented it, but during the months between the miscarriage and when I was pregnant again, my heart just ached when I saw a baby. I know that I hugged my daughter a lot more and was reminded just what a gift she really is, when our second daughter was born nearly a year later, I know I hardly put that baby down.

I would not trade her for the world, and it does not escape me that if I had not lost the one I did, I would not have her, but I still think about him and wonder what he would have been like, I believe I will see him again someday, but in the mean time I know that the three children I have with me (our youngest is a boy – no curls no dimples but amazing in his own right) are truly gifts and I cherish my time with them. I also believe my loss has made me better equipped to help and more compassionate towards patients that are in the process of losing a baby.

While I could describe each of the losses I have have written about here in much more detail and with enough emotion and reflection to fill many more pages, it is very hard to describe how I feel about the loss of my father. I think the only people who can truly understand are those that have a similar experience and then it is an understanding that does not require words. As I said previously, his death is something that I have always known, something that has been a part of me.

I do not remember a specific time that my mother told me about him being dead, I do vaguely remember her explaining to my younger sister (well technically my half sister) that I had a different daddy who had died. I know that he died in a car crash in which, fortunately, my mother was not involved. I know that they had been married barely a year and that he was very excited that I was on the way. She remarried when I was about three so I had a step father that filled his role early on, but when their bad marriage ended I think it made me that much more aware of what it really meant that my father was gone.

As I got older I tried to believe that I could not miss what I never had, but when I would see friends with their dads I knew that I was missing out. I had a multiple imaginary reunions with him he had not really died, he had been in a coma, he was in witness protection, he was forced into the french foreign legion (I read a lot as a child), in my mind he was always so sorry he had been away, he missed me terribly and would promised to never leave again. I did not ask my mom questions about my father very often, I could see it made er sad. His being gone was just something I accepted; I had a dad and he had died.

He loved to play the guitar, had a great voice and loved singing in little bars and worked during the day as a mechanic. He had a glass eye from a boyhood accident and drove like a “wild man”. I was fortunate to have a great mother who tried her best to fill his shoes, but I missed him or more accurately the idea of him the most at things like graduation, my wedding, the birth of my children.

Sometimes I still see people with their fathers (sometimes even TV commercials) and I feel that little pang of loss and even some jealousy. I think its the not having the chance to know him that is what I mourn. After he died my mother lost contact with his family, so I have never really known them either. It is like a whole part of myself is a blank space, so much unknown. I know that this loss of him, of family, of a part of myself, is what makes me so determined to make sure my children are very involved with both my and my husbands families.

They have been “dragged” to numerous family events, less so since we have moved to Minnesota and they have gotten older, but even at my grandmother funeral two years ago I knew they would never have that blank space when I heard them “reminiscing” and laughing with cousins they had not physically seen in a couple years and how they talked with their aunts and uncles like it had only been a day or two since they had been together last.

I may not have had a father, but I do have a great extended family. If I have learned anything from the loss in my life, it is that loss is survivable, it can make you stronger, it can make you more understanding and compassionate and it can make you appreciate what you have not lost.

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