Sunday, December 20, 2009

Turkey and Mashed Potatoes

My brother Jimmy died in the summer of 2001, and my brother Danny followed him just a month later. Jim’s birthday, November 22, sometimes fell on Thanksgiving Day, and so Thanksgiving and the days leading up to it remind me and my family of Jim. Below is an excerpt from “The Jim and Dan Stories,” the book I wrote chronicling the grief process in the first 6 months after losing my brothers, titled “Thanksgiving."

The leaves are falling as fast as the words in my head are spilling onto paper. A squirrel scampers by and a sense of urgency fills the air. I must get this all down. Tie this together. I must think harder to recover memories of Danny and Jim that I can lavish in. I have an impatience to do it all now. Death is a real motivating force. It teaches us that we don’t have forever. Understanding our own mortality is an opportunity, urging us to re-set priorities.

After seeing death close up, it’s hard to write shopping lists or want to sweep the floor. I want to keep writing checks to The Salvation Army with Dan’s name on them, keep pasting Jim’s weather pictures into colorful books. I want to meditate on death and be of service to others.

It’s almost Thanksgiving and my family will gather together at my brother Joey’s house in Hanover, Massachusetts. “Jimmy always brought the mashed potatoes,” Joey’s wife Nancy said with tears in her eyes when she and Joey passed through here with Dan's cat Winslow. Jimmy never missed a holiday gathering, a family birthday party, a basketball game his daughter was playing in, or any family event, which I know will make his absence on Thanksgiving even harder for my family to bear.

When Jimmy was visiting me in Virginia this past July, he talked about his machine shop job and even that metal milling machine, the one that would kill him (I should have been taking notes). He also talked light-heartedly about a lone wild turkey that would visit the bird feeder outside the shop where he worked. A wild turkey is a rare thing where Jim lived, and it was probably the first time he saw one. After Jim died, I was at his house looking through some photographs he had taken. I saw a close-up of a turkey at a bird feeder and knew it was the one! I looked up “turkey” in an animal totem book and learned that the turkey represents a give-away, a sacrifice, or a gift, to Native Americans. I couldn’t help but look at the turkey and see an omen in it, or at least a good totem for Jim.

A turkey would be a great totem for Jim for another reason. His birthday was November 22 and would sometimes fall on Thanksgiving, as it will this year. I remember as a girl “Jim’s birthday on Thanksgiving” was the only time I was not interested in cake, not after all the turkey and fixings! I was always confused back then about why his birthday wasn’t always on Thanksgiving.

The words are winding down (for now) as memories of past Thanksgivings drift through my mind. Like a favorite dream I am trying to reconstruct, I superimpose those memories over the harsh reality, which is this: There are empty chairs at the table this year, and never has emptiness been so concrete.

Note: Originally posted on November 25, 2005.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Grief in the Long Term

Even a pen has a lifespan, I think to myself just as mine has run out of ink in the middle of writing a sentence. The pen doesn’t come back the following season like the leaves on the poplar tree outside my bedroom window will come back in the spring… ~ From “The Jim and Dan Stories” ~ by Colleen

During my husband’s study for his master’s degree in counseling, he did an internship with Hospice and helped to facilitate a grief group. Knowing my experience and interest in the grief process, he invited me to be a part of the group. I would have appreciated a support group after I lost my brothers, but it had been 3 years since their deaths, a little late for that sort of thing, I thought. Even so, my husband encouraged me to participate, thinking that I could be of help to others who had more recently lost loved ones, and eventually, I agreed.

Our first meeting – a small group of all women except for my husband – was held at the local library. For introductions, we were directed to go around the room and share with the group a little about ourselves and why we were there. I should have known when I had to hold back the tears while listening to other people’s stories that sharing wasn’t going to be easy, but I was still surprised to discover when it was my turn to speak that, even after 3 years, I couldn’t be counted on to articulate losing my brothers without falling apart.

How is this going to help others, I wondered? What happened to my open book philosophy of taking death and grief out of the closet? I could go to the Radford University class that was using my book as part of their grief and loss curriculum and talk about the book, what it was like losing my brothers, how I got through it. But on this day and with this group, I couldn’t seem to state the facts, form the tragic words, or even use their names without losing it. I felt like an alcoholic admitting a disease that I had thought I was in remission of. Hello, my name is Colleen and I lost 2 brothers. Jim died in a violent machine shop accident. I watched my brother Dan die of liver failure.

Ah, is this what they mean when they say that you can come to accept losing a loved one but that you never really get over it? It was a rude awakening to remember again that Jim and Dan are really gone and then to speak it out loud to others. But I learned a good lesson that day: There comes a point in the grief process when it’s not a good idea to pick at an old wound.

Note: Originally posted on on November 23, 2005