It’s been forty years since my eighteen-year-old brother David had the awful duty of informing me that our parents and brother had been killed in a car accident.
Every year on August 22, and unpredictably on other days, I think of Mum and Pop and George. Often on the anniversary of their deaths, I write something about them and post it on Facebook, but that always feels wrong somehow.
When I post on Facebook, I receive a lot of compassion, which I appreciate. But I always feel embarrassed by the outpouring of love and the attention to myself. I feel uncomfortable and yet I don’t want to NOT write about them.
I want to write about them first to honor them. Ted, Audrey and George Grenier mean a lot to me. But I write about them also because I want their short lives to mean something to anyone who reads about them.
So, if you’re reading this, here’s what I’d like. I appreciate your compassion, but more than that, I’d cherish it if you’d respond simply: “I put a member of my family first.”
Anything I say today is going to sound made-up, because it is made-up. There are no words. “Tragedy” is the most puny word for a giant hole in the gut. But I would feel happy to know that because of reading this post, a person gave a moment of thought about how fast we can lose someone we love.
In a car crash instant, your loved one can die. You may have said “I love you” to that person, but maybe not. That person may have died with a hurt between you unreconciled. Maybe you avoided a family gathering where you could have given the person a hug and a smile.
Regret is the cancer of life, it’s been said. I believe it. I write this so you may live with no regrets. I write this so I may live with no regrets. What I ask you to learn is what I must learn . . . again and again.
This is our task: Put a family member first. Say “I love you.” Go to the family gathering. Keep seeking a way to reconcile the hurt. Say “I’m sorry.” Say “I need your help.” Remember the joke we shared. Speak of it. Laugh together. Family members hold each other’s memories. Get them out and share them. They are treasures.
After Mum and Pop and George died, there were four of us left: my brothers Dan and David, my sister Sally, and me. I’ll tell you one thing we didn’t have in 1978: grief counseling or any kind of therapy. No one suggested it, and I don’t think it occurred to any of us.
However, we four were not unarmed for facing what we had to face. Friends have asked me, “How did you get through it?” I’ve answered more than once: “I don’t know; maybe it was how we were raised.”
“How we were raised” made more sense on July 31 when I read a beautiful piece by Clare Ansberry in The Wall Street Journal. Under the headline “After Tragedy, How Survivors Cope,” the article tells how people get on with life after losing multiple family members. What gives them resilience? Recent wisdom backed by science tells us that resilient people share certain traits, among them optimism, altruism, spirituality and acceptance of what can’t be changed. (Ansberry refers to the book Resilience:The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges by Charney and Southwick.)
Reading this article gave me a shocking moment of clarity. Suddenly I had words for an idea I could never express before: Those were the precious gifts Mum and Pop gave us: optimism, altruism, spirituality and (especially, oh yes yes yes) acceptance of what can’t be changed. They’re a bunch of fancy words to describe the down-to-earth-ness of their everyday lives. I could give you many examples, but that's for another post. Little did we realize that our parents were arming us to face the horrible truth that they and our youngest brother would leave us for a new address when they were only 51, 48, and 13 years old. But arm us they did.
At a funeral recently, someone got up and said, “We’ll be with our loved ones much longer than we’ll be without them.”
Forty years feels like a long, long time. I’m counting on it seeming like a “blink” when I leave this place for a new address.
Meanwhile, I need to work on the Ted, Audrey and George Grenier challenge: put a member of my family first.
And now will you kindly respond to this post, simply by writing, “I put a member of my family first.”
Gail Grenier is the author of Young Voices from Wild Milwaukee, Dog Woman, Don't Worry Baby, Dessert First, and Calling All Horses, all available on Amazon.com.