(This is going to be a mess. My brain is all over the place.)
It’s tough losing someone, tougher for a close family member. It’s statistically likely for most of us that we’ll lose a parent before we lose a spouse, child, or sibling. In my limited experience, it’s different when you lose someone after a long illness and steady decline, as opposed to a sudden and unexpected death.
We also really are conditioned to not say “death,” but “passing” or any one of a hundred other euphemisms. Even when aware of it and trying to avoid it, it’s hard.
We lost my father in 2002. It was sudden, a bolt out of the blue. He had made it through some significant, life-threatening health problems for a few years before that, and in many ways those were more stressful to me. Seeing him in ICU after extensive surgery was hard.
Getting the call from my mom, telling me that Dad had died, that was one of those life moments that you remember forever. It goes into the same class as where you were when Kennedy was shot, when Apollo 11 landed, when Challenger exploded, when the planes hit the towers on 9/11. But those moments are shared globally, where a family death is intensely personal. (I also remember other good things just as vividly, such as the births of each of my children, getting the call that I had been accepted at Annapolis, my first solo flight, passing my private pilot check ride… You get the picture.)
With my dad’s death, as well as that of my first wife, the news was sudden. In both cases, to a certain extent I went on “cruise control” for a few days. I focused on being a help to others, particularly my kids and mother. I think that’s more of an “adult thing” than a “guy thing,” but I could be wrong. I guess it depends on the individual.
With my mother, she had also had a couple of serious health issues, but we were somewhat isolated by distance with her in Vermont and us in California. When her stroke happened in July it was apparent within a week or two that her life had changed permanently. This was not going to be something she would “recover” from, but rather something she would have to adjust and compensate to as best as she could. When that adjustment started to problematic, I went back to Vermont for two weeks to see her and to be there for her 80th birthday.
Since then, her decline had been gradual, but steady. Psychologically for us, it became the new normal, with an ending that seemed unavoidable. The only question was one of timing. In my head, I dealt with much of the shock and mourning back in July and August, but that was tempered by the opportunity to see her then.
And it gave me a chance to say good bye. I don’t know if I expected to ever see her again when I left, although I had been thinking of going out between Christmas and New Year’s if she made it that far. Last week it became pretty obvious that she wouldn’t, and on Monday we got word that the priests had been there to give her Last Rites.
My brothers and sister back in Vermont have had to deal with her illness and decline on a whole different level, as well as my sister here in California who has been handling the legal, financial, and medical paperwork. I’ve been helping where possible, but still one step removed.
The funeral’s been set for December 5th, and while I want to be there and feel that I should be there (guilt, oldest child, Guilt, Catholic school, GUILT!), the reality is that it’s not going to happen. At the time I came home in mid-August there was another hot job prospect I was talking to, and we knew then that if I got that job and then Mom passed away while I was just starting the new job, I wouldn’t be able to take four or five days off to go back to Vermont. The exact timing’s changed, but the logic and the situation haven’t. It has nothing to do with my new employers – unless someone there is reading this website, they don’t even know about Mom’s death yet.
It has to do with me and what I need to do to go forward. It’s not that I don’t want to go, it’s not that I’m afraid to go, it’s not that I’m being forbidden to go, it’s not that I’m in denial, or anything else like that. It’s that going would be for someone else’s benefit, and I don’t know who that might be. It’s not for mom, or dad. My brothers and sisters know my position and they agree that I shouldn’t come if I’m not comfortable taking the time off, essentially missing my first week of work at a new job. I’ve got another brother who’s in a similar position, and we all had the same discussions and came to the same conclusions three months ago.
Going back to the funeral wouldn’t be for me, either. I said my goodbyes in August, and I’ll remember my mother as she was in all of those pictures, movies, videos, and how we saw her this summer. She knew we were there and was aware of what we were telling her and why we were there. I don’t have to go to the funeral at all costs in order to have closure. I’ll do my remembering and mourning from here.
Even though it’s been thirteen years since my father died, I still often will think of something that I want to ask him or tell him about. Then I catch myself and remember that it’s not going to happen. The same sometimes happens with a memory related to my first wife, or other close friends that have left us. (Another euphemism!)
Already in the past two days I’ve had the same thing happen with Mom, and it will continue to happen. But that’s okay, it’s supposed to. The world has changed yet again and we’ll cope, adjust, remember, mourn, and move ahead.