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Grieving by Peeling Onions

Sometimes you have to peel onions–not to make stew, to make sense of what’s just happened.

Last week, my youngest brother died unexpexctedly. It was a massive coronary event and we’ve been assured he didn’t suffer. But he only got half of the “Live long; die fast” mantra to work. He wasn’t even 60 yet.

Shock comes first. Deep sadness quickly after. Then a whole bunch of stuff that you never expected that feels an awful lot like peeling onions. When your family dynamics get adjusted, lots of stuff bubbles up through the new cracks.

I am part of a fiercely loyal family with seven kids. We take care of each other, whether it was running for help when a neighborhood bully was hurting a sibling at the playground or anteing up to cover expenses for someone who truly needed an assist. That doesn’t mean the relationships have all been smooth as gourmet ice cream. That was particularly true of this brother since he had both physical and mental health challenges of significant proportions.

So in addition to the sadness of losing a family member, there are assorted versions of relief, some of which don’t feel very noble.  I am relieved that he won’t have to go into assisted living.  We weren’t even sure we could find a place that would accept someone with as many challenges as he had.  I am relieved that he got “home safe.”  He lived life differently than most and that made him vulnerable to physical attack from someone bigger and afraid of those differences.  But I am also relieved that I don’t have to worry about what he will need next.  That’s the not-so-noble one.  They are all part of peeling the onion.

What I definitely did not expect was the flood of memories that have come that have nothing directly to do with this brother.  He wasn’t even in the band.  But in talking with one of my other brothers, the memory of a band director who died in my junior year of high school returned.  My brother worshipped him and still does.  I thought his death was a miracle.  Much as I didn’t have the words then–and was way too naïve to use my brain to figure it out–I knew the man was grooming me.  Now we call those people sexual predators and they go to jail.  When I was in Catholic high school?  Not gonna happen.  But then he died and I was safe.  Why is my other brother’s death making me experience all that again?

There are other traumas, experienced long ago and buried that are bubbling back up now, too.  I was not ready for that, but I need to let it happen.  Perhaps my outer shell is more easily cracked because of the primary loss.  Perhaps it’s just time.

I want to honor my brother for who he was–and he was a rarity.  He was amazing with his grasp of physics and mathematics.  The web of fantasy he constructed inside our reality was in a class by itself.  He was not a “regular guy” but he was, even with the distortions his mental illness caused, a good person.

He is giving me something in death that I could never had gotten out of conversation with him.  His death has presented the chance to peel another onion–to go deeper into who I am because of what I have already experienced.

I will miss him–do miss him.  And I will keep on peeling onions.  I promise.

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Mary Lloyd is an author and speaker.  For more, see her website.

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