I predicted last November that I was entering a dying time much like my family experienced in the late 1980s, where a number of family members (my grandfather, my grandmother, my step-grandfather, my step great grandmother, my cousin, and assorted great aunts) died in a short period of time. My aunt and stepmother had cancer, and I pointed out that the generation above mine was entering that sixties through eighties age group and might be coming to the end of their retirements (which is what the Wall Street Journal’s Complete Guide To Money called death, although much of my extended family, even in that age bracket, are not actually retired yet).
My aunt died at the end of November. Although treatments seemed to put her into remission, my stepmother passed this summer. The best man from my wedding died this spring.
And my sister-in-law has passed away unexpectedly.
She had had what should have been routine surgery last week and might have been discharged too soon. After a weekend of illness, she collapsed on Tuesday morning. My brother performed CPR on her, and although they restarted her heart at the hospital, she was nonresponsive and unlikely to recover. So after her daughter and sister arrived from different parts of the state, my brother decided to discontinue the life-preserving means–she had no brain function–and she passed. I spent most of the week across the state, supporting my brother as he tended to the immediate after.
My manager at work just lost her mother to cancer, and I said it was the hardest thing. Throughout the week, I reassessed what actually was the hardest thing. When my mother was sick and in the ICU, I had the power of deciding if and when to discontinue life support. I thought that was the hardest thing. Then I watched my brother actually have to make the decision, and I thought that was the hardest thing. Then I watched him tell her children that it was time, and that was the hardest thing. Then I watched them tell her nine-year-old grandson that Grandma was in Heaven. So it’s all the hardest thing, one hardest thing after another.
I was not especially close to my sister-in-law, so I was not acutely grieving. At times I felt like an intruder while her family group huddled together, but I think it helped my brother to have someone of his generation there for support. I hope so, anyway. I could only play the role of the wise old (too soon) man who stoically understood grieving and could warn the others of what they would experience. I told them that the grieving would come and go; that my brother made no mistakes and was not negligent leading to his wife’s passing; that to watch someone you love grieve is almost worse than your own grief, as the fear of pain is worse than actual pain; that little things would set them off; that at some point, you will start to go on with life, and might think you’ve forgotten her because you’re no longer actively in pain, and you might feel guilty about it, but don’t; and that the first year will be filled with milestones such as her first birthday without her, the first Christmas without her, and so on, which will make it all real again. I think I helped; but they are only words, but hopefully sympathetic ones. I never know if I’m helping or not.
Like so many things this year, it makes one confront one’s own mortality and reflect on what one has done and what one has left undone. Unfortunately, every marker of mortality this year has not made me act much better.
Eesh, and don’t I feel a little sompy making it all about me.