Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Does Hallmark have a card for that?

This isn’t one of my lighthearted blurbs. If you’re looking for upbeat, I promise to revert back to normal next week… you may just want to skip reading this one.

/grumpy soapbox moment begins

Four years and a bit years ago my little brother went to sleep and never woke up again, he was 35. There was no warning there was anything wrong, his life just ended between one heartbeat and the one that never came. It was devastating, it was tragic, and his surviving family live with all the grief, loss and emotional baggage that such a loss always inflicts on the bereaved. That isn’t what this entry is about.

This entry is about the often odd, occasionally surreal occurrences that have happened in the 52 months since his passing. For starters, we had two funerals for my brother; one here in the town he was born in and where the vast majority of his friends and family reside. Then there was a second one, full and complete in every way, in the small fishing town where my brother lived his adult life. Why? It was because those who couldn’t make the drive to the first one firmly requested a chance to mourn. Most heads of state don’t get two funerals, hell Whitney Houston just passed away and not only was there only one funeral, but her fans were told to stay home and leave the family in peace. But nothing about this particular death is really normal. Not when it comes to the grieving process.

There was an ash scattering ceremony the spring after his passing, held on the deck of his boat off the coast of the fishing town he lived in. You’d think this would be a private moment, but somehow the entire town invited themselves along, making for a flotilla of craft all armed with rifles (I kid you not) for an impromptu 21 gun salute. Oh, and they “liberated” the official pilot boat for the journey too… without permission…but that’s another story.  There was a wake/party the night of the ash scattering hosted by my brother’s neighbours. For those of you keeping count? That’s now 3 ceremonies and 3 wakes/receptions. And then there was the dedication of a plaque in my brother’s memory at a salmon hatchery a few years ago….so we better make that 4.

In the months after it happened, there was a steady stream of emails, well wishes, cards and occasional flowers sent to both my home and my parents, which is pretty standard. What isn’t standard is this: they never stopped coming. To this day I know that when either his birthday or the anniversary of his death approaches, there will be emails, cards and phone calls. I start dreading opening my email and I am careful to screen my calls. I’m always willing to touch base with someone who needs to share their memories of my brother, but I prefer to do it when I have a supply of Kleenex on hand rather than in the middle of my work day. Time is supposed to heal all wounds, but coming on five years later, there’s clearly a lack of healing going on in some quarters. The trouble is that every time the ones not healing reach out with a fresh outpouring of grief, they are dumping salt in the wounds of the ones they are reaching out to.

In the past month alone there has been a request that my parents host what was described as an “overdue” get together for my brother’s friends in my brother’s memory. There have also been card(s) marking what would have been my brother’s 40th birthday coming up next week. All well meant, all heartfelt, but every single one of these kinds of contact tend to make my parents question if they are being selfish or “bad people” because they do not wish to continue grieving in public. Quiet conversations with friends one on one, absolutely. A soft word is always welcome. But after four ceremonies, three receptions and countless public moments, they’ve done more than anyone should have to do when dealing with the loss of a son. 

For anyone who has ever struggled with the loss of someone they were close with but not related to, my condolences and heartfelt sympathy. But if ever you are considering reaching out to the family, be sure you do it in a way that doesn’t do more harm than good. As a rule of thumb, if Hallmark doesn’t make a card for the occasion, the odds are good it isn’t a moment you shouldn’t be trying to mark in the first place.

One of these days I am going to write a book on this entire experience, and I promise it will be funnier than what I’ve written here today. If you got this far? Thanks for reading. I needed to get this off my chest.

/grumpy soapbox moment ends