A death in the family – part two: grief and its relative effects

In my last post I wrote about the death last month of my cousin James from cancer. He was 34 and had been married to the love of his life for nearly 13 years, and a father to a gorgeous four and half year old girl . His wife, daughter, parents and two sisters are bereft at his loss, and words can’t express how sorry I am that they have experienced, and continue to experience, this horrific family event.

But I am experiencing it too, and more so than I can explain, or feel entitled to. Is this what grief is?

There’s something raw inside that keeps weeping, and the tears have been flowing for months now and show no signs of stopping. And I’m not his wife. Or his mother. Or his sister.

I am not worthy.

I’m only his cousin. And – let’s face it – if you were to ask me what his favourite food or movie is, or his wedding anniversary, I wouldn’t have a clue. Before his cancer diagnosis I’d seen him maybe a handful of times as an adult since his wedding 12 years earlier. As mentioned in the earlier post, I was a teenager when he was born, and an adult far removed from family while he was growing up.

But we had become closer in recent years … and now we’ll never know what our familial friendship would have become. Is there a relative effect, where the further away you are from the gene pool, the less grief you’re supposed to feel? Is this what grief is?

Is the guilt I feel for decisions made, or not made, when young cousins weren’t important in my life adding to the sadness for what was and what now never will be? Is this what grief is?

Is it the overriding tragedy of the sorry story that leaves his grieving wife and daughter behind; so many people at the funeral united in their sorrow for them, for his family, for themselves in missing the opportunity to grow old together. That has to be part of it.

I don’t know the rules of grief, and I don’t want to know. I don’t want to read rational explanations of emotional processes right now.

I just know I loved him, and I’ll miss him.

And in his memory, I’m sharing Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam for Benjamin Britten, which I first heard on the soundtrack accompanying Tim Winton’s Dirt Music. In a bittersweet coincidence, not only does Winton incorporate this music to express one of his character’s struggle with terminal cancer, but Pärt wrote it in 1977, the year James was born.

It is as dramatic as it is simple, and incredibly moving.  I particularly like this pared back, intimate and intense performance. The video comments augment some of my own feelings, and I love the one that says “it also contains the mathematical beauty of a math equation,” which seems appropriate for James.


This is what grief is.

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