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.

A death in the family – part one: two funerals and a cupboard

Twenty years ago last month my grandfather died, aged 78. Opa had been ill for some time, and his death was not unexpected. His was the first death in the family for me and I felt it deeply, having spent a large part of my early childhood in my grandparents’ home receiving the softer love and attention often given to the first grandchild.

At the time of his death I was living in Melbourne – in retrospect, quite miserably – and I travelled to Albany in regional WA for the funeral. I was 28 and had embraced Melbourne coolness and a fondness for black clothing, but the fickle nature of style over substance was no preparation for the death of a loved one. Worse still, I’d been in Albany only a few weeks earlier to ‘say goodbye’, thanks to the benefits of being in the travel industry. I remember other family members deliberately going to the beach so I could have some alone time with Opa, but it was awful. He didn’t want to talk, and I didn’t know what to say. And then the moment had passed, and weeks later there I was driving Oma to the cemetary for the funeral service.

Some time after the funeral, obviously once the raw emotions had eased, I remember Oma commenting with bittersweet humour how annoyed she was with Opa that he’d died 16 months short of their 50th wedding anniversary.  She’d really wanted to reach that milestone. Nine years earlier they’d celebrated their 40th anniversary with a lovely dinner attended by family and friends at the Fremantle Sailing Club. It was a very rare event for the two of them to be the centre of attention in such a social setting, but they genuinely seemed to enjoy themselves, as you can see from the toast in their honour:

Another gift to Oma and Opa for their 40th anniversary was a photo album of their family, including individual photos of their four children and respective families, and a group portrait:

I was 19 in this photo, the only adult grandchild and cousin by a long shot (with two more still to come), and about as removed from the realities of family life as any teenager could get. I was madly in love and centred on my own existence. That’s not to say I didn’t have a strong bond with all my aunties and uncles, who had been wonderful role models for me growing up as an only child. And, yes, I had also discovered that young cousins were in fact quite lovely, some of whom were young enough to be my own. I’d even babysat a few times, and visited newborns in hospitals, content to be able to give them back.

Back to 1992, and in the days following Opa’s funeral, or perhaps during a visit later that year once I’d moved back to Perth, I was with Oma and the topic of handing down certain family items came up, as she was beginning to label pieces of furniture and paintings and special pieces. I guess it must have been part of the grieving process and moving on from Opa’s death, and she was carrying out the task sporadically in her own very matter-of-fact and methodical way, as and when it seemed appropriate. I can’t remember how it happened exactly, but I think in a moment of what I thought was emotional maturity I took a deep breath and asked if I could have the cupboard she kept her odds and ends and bits and pieces in.

It was not a stylish, or classic, or beautifully crafted piece of furniture, but I loved the nooks and crannies it exposed when you opened the two doors, and the possibility of my own odds and ends perhaps one day filling the homemade drawers that Opa had added in the early years of their time in Australia. I must have hung about Oma’s knees as a young thing while she rummaged inside it to find whatever was needed to fix or make or sew, because it seemed an extension of her. I knew it would be years off, which has proved correct, but I was comforted when Oma agreed to my request, and marked the inside of the cupboard with my name.

Over the ensuing 20 years, Oma’s cupboard has moved with her from the family home to a smaller unit, then from Albany to Perth to share a unit with Mum, then another move to a house in Boyup Brook with Mum, and, most recently, back to Albany where Oma is now settled in a retirement home alongside Mum in an adjacent unit. This most recent move in 2011 necessitated the handover of the cupboard due to downsizing. And so it came that in September my husband and I did the trailer trip from Perth to Boyup Brook, collected the cupboard, and brought it home where it has sat in the garage waiting for the time and commitment needed to bring it from Oma’s world into mine.

That time arrived recently in the most unforeseen, unhappy and imperfect circumstances. That’s because last month our family experienced the first death since Opa’s 20 years ago. Not my grandmother, not an uncle or auntie or one of my parents, but one of the little smiling faces that I babysat from the photo above. James died from bowel cancer at 34, himself now a loving husband and father of a four-year-old girl, and had 11 months fighting a painful, heart-breaking battle against the disease that he and his wife knew was terminal from the day of his diagnosis but chose not to disclose to anyone.

When you look at a family portrait like the one above, it’s never the little ones that anyone imagines will die first. It has been a devastating time for James’ family, and the grief has spread to us all like ripples on a pond.

Last weekend, which fell between James’ death and his funeral, Oma’s cupboard called me  to make it ready in time for her three daughters’ arrival at our house, in advance of Tuesday’s funeral where they would stand united in love behind their grieving brother.

My husband and Brownie helped me to sand it back (Blondie was sick), and then I painted it before new handles were added to finish its new look. We also bought a new key to fit the original lock and external plate.

     

The outside needed a makeover, without doubt, but I deliberately kept the inside exactly as it was. I wiped down the painted surfaces and the old lino lining the drawers, and left the few remaining pictures and special things of Oma’s that she didn’t remove. I don’t know their history – perhaps one day soon I’ll ask her, or pull them down and see who sent them, or if there’s any writing, but that wasn’t important on the day.

It was such a perfect day for painting, warm and breezy, and during the repetitive strokes I thought a lot about this cupboard, how it came to me, and what it will be for me. I thought about the links these two fine Hos men have and will continue to have through this cupboard – that it came to me through the death of the first, and now sits in my office because of the death of the second. It’s not the way anyone would want to plan such a thing, but who can ever plan such things and know what, and when, is right.

James Cornelis Pieter Hos: 16.11.1977 – 22.01.2012

Jan Cornelis Pieter Hos: 30.10.1913 – 09.01.1992

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