Mind Matters — Grief Revisited

I sit at a college in Massachusetts, staring out the window at a stand of lodgepole pines. Students, staff, tread the paved walkways cleared of snow. I am here because a young woman athlete named Grace died in a car crash. Some of her rowing crew mates are still in a Florida hospital, hopefully healing from their injuries.

The local Boston papers have reported sudden deaths of other young people in the past few weeks—a young man shot in the city just a year after another family member was killed; another young college student died in a car crash in Costa Rica; another student died in a fight. In all these untimely deaths, there are friends and family left behind who are deeply grieving.

With Grace’s death, however, there seems to be a public mourning. She was a champion at crew; she broke the record for indoor rowing; she was active in so many thing and touched many lives. A lot of people’s various assumptive worlds caved in with her death.

Maybe that’s why I wanted to be on campus to make a difference—because I remember when my assumptive world came tumbling down in 1959 when my cousin died. I was fourteen, he was thirteen. It was Thanksgiving Day and he was riding his bike, delivering newspapers in a chilling rain when a drunk driver in a pickup truck careened into him.

He must have had severe brain damage as he lay in the hospital. Child that I was, I thought certainly a miracle would happen. I remember that the rain had stopped that evening, and the night became clear for stars to shine. We, my mother and I (my father went to work the night shift at the Philadelphia Inquirer), walked to my grandparents’ house. Was she as certain as I was that he would be all right? Probably not. We prayed anyway.

When we came back home and lay in bed, the finality of the news came. Roger had died. I remember sobbing in disbelief. This could not be. He’s younger than I—in that moment, I believe I not only faced his fragile mortality but my own as well. The stability of my assumptive world was shattered. Everything—topsy-turvy.

Sadly, I don’t think any of us really got to grieve or recognize how our worlds were shattered. The funeral was immense—all my high school nuns were there, their black robes befitting the occasion. I said some stupid thing to my aunt about Roger being an angel now. Aunt Margaret was so numb, she may not have heard what I said.

Days later, we were all back in school. His brother, my classmate, carried on as usual. He didn’t talk about Roger—no words, no tears. How terrible for them—his parents and siblings—how awful too for all of us. We were (and are now, even in old age) a band of cousins. We lived close to each other, we played together, ate together, slept over in each other’s houses.

Now that I look back I am only now realizing how much no one really acknowledged our various griefs—our loss of a stable world we could trust!

It would have been so much better if back then there had been someone to talk to who would understand, or some group of grievers to offer support. Instead, Roger’s immediate and extended families both just slogged on, eventually creating a new normal out of the fractured pieces of our former assumptive worlds. How much better it would have been if we had had permission to mourn—to talk about Roger, to cry, to scream, to come to terms with the fragility of life and how our assumptive worlds was shattered, and then to make new meaning out of living.