Monday, January 16, 2012

Surviving The Death of a Family Member

     The death of an immediate family member is a intense moment in life. All of us will experience it in our lives. Most often it is the deaths of our parents, possibly a sibling or spouse, and unfortunately on occasion the death of a child.

     I know this is a deeply personal topic for many people, myself included. I get "advice" all the time about not getting too personal on the Internet. "don't tell people too much about yourself" they say or "you never know who will read it" they say. I understand that, I do. This is a personal topic, and I can't write about it in a clinical sense. Quite honestly, it's probably therapeutic for me to write it as well.

     I lost my mother to Leukemia 10 years ago. She fought a courageous and unwinnable fight against her own body for 2 years before succumbing to the disease at 70 years old. I was with her when she died, holding her hand as I had done for most of my life. I was able to tell her I loved her. I was able to tell her I would be OK, and she had done a fine job raising me. It was a blessing to be able to say those things to her before she died.

     I am my mothers only child. My parents divorced before I turned 3. So it was only her and I for my whole life. Aside from two uncomfortable weeks in the summer with my dad, I was with my mom when I was growing up. She raised me. She did it all; fed me, clothed me, disciplined me, housed me, worked full time and cared for her ailing mother as well. Meanwhile my father jaunted off on yet another, seemingly endless, quest for another woman.....which has resulted in 4 failed marriages and 5 half siblings scattered over most of the US. My mom never criticized my father in front of me, she only said "you'll figure him out when you're old enough".

      I remember the day my mother died as clearly as if it were yesterday. It was a Tuesday. She was at my  home, and her breathing sounded really bad, so I drove her to the ER. She never left. Four hours later she was dead. Just like that.

     I was numb. I had absolutely no idea what to do next. The next three days were like a blur. Arrangements were made, condolences were offered, services were held, etc. But then every ones lives went back to normal, except mine. This huge piece of my life was gone. Simply no longer there. Her house was still there, her car as well, all of her physical possessions......just no mom.

     I went through her things and donated her clothes to the needy. Cleaning out her house was very hard. Everything inside was a memory. A memory I wanted to hold on to. A memory of a person who I wanted to hold on to. I quickly realized that the home I had spent my entire childhood in, was no longer was just a house. The person who had made it home was gone. For me that was an important distinction in my grieving process.

     I put all of our (hers and mine) collective stuff into piles. One to be thrown out right away, one to be evaluated in a week, and another to be evaluated later. Each week I went back through the stuff. Over time most of the stuff found it's way into the Throw Away Right Now pile. That was my wife's plan and it worked out really good. She was my support network and helped me through some rough times. She knew I would get frustrated and throw everything away. I'm glad we did it her way because I held on to some really important things that probably would have gotten thrown out.

     In the last week my mom was alive, I promised her I would get a bachelors degree. The strength of that promise, and the strength of the person I gave it to helped motivate me to finish. It was important to her that I get my degree. Two weeks after she died I enrolled at The University of South Carolina. Five years later I graduated from the College of Engineering and Information Technology. No easy feat with a wife, two kids, and a full time job. I remember thinking when I got my degree, that my mama would have been proud.

     While I was in school, I wrote my mom a letter. It was during the second semester of my freshman year. I was sitting in Amoco Hall in the Swearengen Engineering building, and I just started writing. I must have written every day for a week. I don't understand why I wrote it there or why I wrote it then...but I wrote, a lot. I wrote to her all of the things I wished I had said, and apologized for all of the things I wished I hadn't said. That letter was easily the worst formatted, most heartfelt thing I have ever written. It was by far the longest thing I have ever handwritten. When I finished it, I put all 20 something pages into an envelope, and drove 3 hours to put it on my mothers grave. For some reason I felt lots better after I did that. Strange, but helpful.

     I'm not a therapist and I'm not giving advice on how anyone should deal with this kind of thing. But, I learned a few things from it. Maybe they'll help someone else in their time of need.
  • Let those who love you, help you. Lean on your close friends and family.
  • Be sad, cry, grieve. Miss your loved one. They earned it.
  • Live your life the way they would have wanted you to have live.
  • Recognize the positive impact they had on your life and share it with others who are important to you.
  • Don't have 20 pages of things you wished you'd said. Say them today to the ones you love.

      Anyways, you know the drill by now. I'm not an expert and I don't play one on the Internet. I have other topic for the blog, but this one was important to me. I don't know if it was because it has been 10 years since my mother died or because her birthday was Christmas Eve. It was on my mind and weighed heavy on my heart. Thanks for reading.... I owe you one  :)


  1. Thank you, i just lost my brother feb.3rd. Suddenly, motorcycle accident. He was 57, 14 months older than me. This is crushingly painful.

  2. I'm sorry for your loss. It was a great tribute to what was obviously a wonderful mom. My mom got home from the hospital yesterday after a cancer operation. She's 83, but in otherwise great health. She walks over a mile every morning.

    Like your mom, she has been the gentle rock of our family. My dad was what we call a mean drunk. And he was drunk most of the time, so go figure.

    I lost a brother 2 years younger than me about 15 years ago. Still hard for me to talk about.

    Thanks for the tips. I do talk to my mom every day and never forget to tell her I love her.

    I tell people that when a loved one dies, it takes time. After a few months, it's not the first thing you think about when you wake in the morning. Then a little longer, it may be a few days before you consciously get that overwhelming feeling of sadness. But even now, years after my brother's death, certain sights and sounds can bring back the grief almost as strongly as just after the death. He was blind, so when I see someone with a cane or holding onto someone's arm, it triggers a little bit of depression in me. Even now, I find it difficult to talk about.

    Anyway, I do thank you for sharing your article.