Monday, October 31, 2005


It's amazing how a number of well-intentioned, very loving and supportive people can take a situation in which you feel devastated and alone and make you feel even more miserable and heartbroken than you ever could have imagined.

Note to my friends: If I die an untimely death as a result of a freak accident, grieve. Be sorry. Be sad (for a while, anyway), and do what you need to start the healing process. Love my family. Support my family. Go to see my family to offer your condolences. And then go home, or at least go away.

My husband's aunt died last Wednesday night when a shotgun her husband was carrying into the house accidentally (as of 12/15/05, the investigation is still open) discharged. She was pronounced dead on the scene, and her husband and children both said that she died praying. She was the youngest of 4 children, an incredibly forgiving and dedicated wife, and the 40-year old mother of two teenage girls still living at home.

We left our home to go be with my husband's family in Alabama the next day, and spent the weekend with the extended family in Chelsea. At times, it was almost like any other visit-- children laughing and playing together, making fun of my sister-in-law and her new boyfriend, and laughing with family over funny stories and silly mishaps. And then we'd remember what it was that brought everyone together, and there'd be tears, and some anger, and some heartache. There would be the occasional call or brief visit from old friends, co-workers, or distant family, but for the most part, it was family, together, sharing in the experience of loving someone you'll never again get to hold, hug, or pick on. It was parents remembering the child whose pigtails they fixed, whose pajamas they buttoned, and whose tiny forehead they kissed while praying for a long life full of joy for that child. It was sisters and brothers remembering first dates, teaching Sunday School to baby dolls, and late-night conversations. It was those of us who married into the family holding the hands of our beloved partners, and wishing we could make it all better but knowing that we can't. It was real love, real family, and real heartache, and it was what a grieving family is supposed to look like.

The entire weekend, we saw the husband and daughters of my husband's aunt only once. That was about all we could manage, between how stressful it was to go where they were staying, and how busy they were being kept by their church. The husband is the minister of a large church, and like many ministers of large churches who haven't learned to be assertive AND loving at the same time, he was swept up in the raging current of a church loving its minister within an inch of his life. Having worked in a large church for two years myself, I've seen it happen. A minister feels so appreciative and overwhelmed by the good intentions of church members and friends who want to do with, for, about, and around the minister, that he runs the risk of losing family, vision, and self. Before long, the pattern continues and grows, and the minister's life is overrun by people who "know what's best for him," or "know him better than anyone else," or "know that I'm one of the only true friends he has in this church." It's all hogwash, really, as ministers ALWAYS have a part of themselves that they keep separate from people in the church. It isn't that they're less genuine or dishonest or immoral; it's just that in order to maintain a family, a marriage, and some semblance of sanity, there have to be some boundaries.

When we arrived Friday afternoon to visit with the husband and girls, there were over 75 people at the home where they were staying. As it turns out, there were about that many people (or more) at the home from early in the morning until late into the night every single day since the death, and continued to be that many there over the weekend. Instead of coming to pay their respects and then going home to give the grieving family space, people were staying at the home all day, eating all three meals there, sitting in corners all over the house visiting and talking and laughing. Various family members, as they arrived, were greeted by church members in very unusual ways, including the offer of prescription tranquilizers at one time, and the announcement that "we're really going to have a good time tonight" at another.

And hiding in one of the bedrooms where he could visit peacefully and quietly was the husband. Mostly alone in his grief, with the few family members who could make it through the circus to get in to see him and the girls, looking like someone held captive. And the two girls-- who needed more than anything to be with family, to be allowed to cry, to be given the space to come to terms with the reality of the situation-- had been thrust into a 5 day long youth group social, unable to find the solitude to process the feelings rushing through them. You could see it in their eyes-- that they were swept up into the drama and without a moment of peace. Watching them try to navigate their emotions and surroundings in the middle of a never-ending church social, I was even more appreciative of the way those of us not involved in that particular church were allowed to grieve-- not alone, but not smothered; not overwhelmingly morbid, but without feeling the need to be chirpy and churchy; not around people who knew our loved one only as a devoted minister's wife, but around those who knew her as that PLUS so much more. The husband and girls deserved that. Their mother would want them to have that. Coming from such a close-knit family herself, she would want them to be surrounded by a small but loving group of family members to cry together, laugh together, and remember how much she loved all of them.

I hope I live a long life. I hope that by time I die, I'm so old and happy that everyone breathes a sigh of relief that my old carcass is no longer taking up space, air, and good casseroles at family gatherings. I hope my kids are grown and married, and that lots of little grandkids will run around, giggling awkwardly, at my funeral, and I hope that nobody shushes them when they loudly squawk that grandma's body looks freaky with that overly pink makeup on. I probably will look freaky, even if it's only the kids who'll have the honesty to say it.

But if, by some chance, that's not the case, and I die the kind of tragic death nobody expects or wants to believe, please give my family the space to grieve. Let my parents, siblings, kids, and their families come together, laugh about what a bossy weirdo I was, smile when they talk about how much I loved my husband and children, and cry when they remember the little girl who had such big dreams. To my friends: tell my family how much you loved me and how much you support them, and then find somewhere especially for my friends where you can be to comfort each other. Giving family the space they deserve to grieve together honors the one who has moved on and shows your integrity.

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