Friday, February 17, 2012

Change Not Loss

23 yrs ago: Grandpa Emil, me, Baby Emil, and Mom

While Lyndsie lost her beloved grandpa today, I have been thinking of mine because it is his birthday. He’s been gone for many years now, about 17, but I remember his passing and the days around it as if they were yesterday.

First there was the phone call to my home in Alberta, where Mom and Dad happened to be visiting us for a few days. Dad might have done some golfing with friends, as it was in the spring, and Mom would have spent many hours on her knees pulling things out of the kids’ closets to send to the dump. She liked to keep busy when she wasn’t playing with the boys or giving them ice cream (and having some herself), and I was grateful to her for the help sloughing out the unused and no longer necessary junk. I was also relieved that I always had a chance to go through the boxes before they left the house in case there was anything I didn’t want to part with.

Mom took the call from family back in our home town, with the news that Grandpa was in the hospital on life support and that they thought they should do what he would have wanted, which was to let him go, and they needed to ask whether she agreed. As the eldest of the four siblings, her opinion carried weight. (As well it should! Do you hear me, my younger brother and sisters?! I should also inherit the family title and estate. I’m the eldest. You guys can go into the clergy, the army, and the navy.)

I remember Mom hanging up the telephone, visibly shocked and upset, and Dad putting his arms around her there in the dining room while she wiped her nose and eyes with a kleenex. I remember him holding her and saying gently, “It had to happen sometime.”

That seemed a heartless thing to say — but now I know it was the most comforting thing he could have said, because somehow the matter-of-factness of it moves you from — Oh my god this is the worst tragedy ever I can’t stand it! — to — This is a natural part of life, don’t freak out.

So instead of feeling like you’re in a horror movie, you shift closer to a sense of acceptance, which is exactly what helps you get through. The situation still hurts, but you can cope, you don’t have to fall apart completely. My dad’s a smart one. Practical as hell.

And 10 years later, when Mom herself was dying and afterward, I often reminded myself of his words because although her death was a tragic loss for those of us who loved her dearly, I couldn’t afford to think of it as a tragedy or I wouldn’t be of any use to anyone else — they’d end up looking after me. (As was almost the case in the first weeks following Mom’s diagnosis of stage 4 terminal cancer; I wept till my eyes swelled shut for a week, didn’t sleep, developed hives on my arms that near to drove me insane with itching, couldn’t manage simple medication and had to have Scott dole it out to me, couldn’t make simple decisions like what to make for supper; it was weird. I thought I was a centred, sensible gal, yet I … fell apart.)

Eventually I looked out from my own pain, and around at all the other people in the world living through the illness and loss of loved ones, and realized this wasn’t only happening to my family and our loved one; that death was part of the human condition, nothing out of the ordinary, although it felt like a disaster.

It helped.

It also helps (helps me -- maybe not you) to think of it as change, not loss.