Death, Loss, Grieving. Those aren’t things we set out to teach our children how to deal with, like we do with things like sharing, saving money (HA what even is that?), or the “facts of life”. Death unfortunately cannot be on the list of lessons.Technically it can, but it doesn’t have the same effect as living and processing through it in real time. We can prepare our children for heartbreak and loss, but it’s like preparing for a bee sting or a tattoo. It hurts, and it’s hard to describe to someone that hasn’t had one, you have to just feel it, and learn to exist within it.
The first death I experienced was Grandma Hattie, my step dad’s paternal grandmother. We would go to Grandma Hattie’s house after school in the early 80s. Hattie had an old house that was full of treasures and she would chain smoke and watch wheel of fortune while we played. She was brassy, kind and cursed like a truck driver, so of course, I adored her. She had apple trees in her backyard and made a mean apple pie. Hattie would skillfully balance her precariously long cigarette ash as she baked. I often found myself trying to catch it in fear it would fall on things, but it never did. At one sitting I am pretty sure I tasted a chalky morsel that very well could have been a trace of cigarette ash in that delicious pie. We would play and climb the trees and pick apples for her to bake with. Then one day she was just gone.
Our family all joined together in helping pack up her house. “Take a box, and start to fill it. You start in her bedroom.” My young love of scary movies and horror made the entire activity fascinating to me. I found myself thinking morbid things like, Did she die on this bed? What was the last thing she touched? Maybe it was a poison apple like in Snow White!? Then as I was near her sitting chair by the window, I felt a VERY warm spot in the air. I looked down thinking I was standing over a heating vent. No vent. The window was even open next to me, maybe I stepped into a sun ray? Nope it was cloudy. I was pretty convinced Hattie was still lingering that day, and that I had had a brief moment that she was with me.
Through my life, the rest of the loss and deaths I experienced were distant. Third cousins, great aunts, distant relatives. I would watch the adults in my family grieve and found their processes odd and perplexing. Depending on the cause of death, the grieving process that I grew up with usually had one of the following characteristics:
1) Someone is diagnosed with a terminal illness, and not only were family and friends uninformed of the illness, but when the person dies, no one is told. Informing family is on a need to know basis and usually months (sometimes years) after the death.
2) Someone dies unexpectedly or tragically. They wear dark glasses, all black everything, wail often and become the eternal martyr. Then use said death to manipulate those in their lives that are alive, to be at their beck and call and guilt them into things as often as possible.
As I grew up and moved out of the house, I wasn’t clear about what my process would be. I knew I didn’t connect with how my family did things. Not that it was “wrong” but it didnt seem to give me comfort. There had to be a more productive happy medium. But again, you don’t know truly, until you experience it. Like those friends that give you parenting advice who don’t have kids. NOPE, BYE. You call me when you do, then we can talk.
We like to think we have raised Madison to be a deep spiritual being, when it comes to life, death and whatever comes after this life. I never worried about how she would or wouldn’t handle death when it did hit her close to home. I was raised with family members who would routinely ask me when I was young “What are you going to do when I die?” and it used to terrify me. There was never a right answer to that question. It seems to be an Italian thing that I am certain is part of my anxiety issues to this day. Madison has had a few friends lose people close to them, and while I don’t think she truly understood the loss of the person, what DID affect her was watching her friends grieve. She immediately turned into a caretaker and the eternal shoulder and hand to hold. She was assertive to needs and always worried about saying the wrong thing. She grieved for the living is what I realized. She hated seeing people she cared about in pain. It’s hard to watch those left behind, suffer and process a loss. As a friend, family member, loved one – we search and search for how we can help. It’s our natural human response to want to do anything we can because the alternative is so hard to talk about and feels so bad. We want to do good and help, not only to assist the person that has lost, but to make ourselves feel better. Usually this comes in the form of a casserole, or someone to mow your lawn or even a free babysitter, regardless, we try to do our part, to offer solace where it is needed.
“When one person is missing the whole world seems empty.” – Pat Schweibert
June of 2007, my entire experience with death changed. The air was taken from me like cabin pressure from an airplane. A fog rolled into my surroundings so thick that I couldn’t see past the end of my nose. Like when you were a child, learning to tread water. That stage where you are SORT of doing it, but your chin keeps dipping under the surface and a little water gets in your mouth. Your toes can’t touch the bottom, that tiny bit of water that you ingested seems like gallons and you start to panic, sure that you will perish. That is what grief felt like to me. My eternally prepared, calm and organized self was knocked off my center, and I started to loose my footing, slowly drowning in shock and sorrow.
James Vincent DuRuz, my 26 year old brother, after a seemingly Pollock-style psychotic break (paint and all) had jumped out of the 9th floor window of his work, at the Americorp offices in Atlanta, GA – and died immediately. Most ironically, Ryan, Maddi and I were on our spiritual pilgrimage as Bahais, to Haifa, Israel, where the World Center for that faith is. We were on our first day of what was to be special journey for the spirit, a milestone for our religious path. As you can imagine it was a LONG journey. We had just arrived late the night before, woke up groggy and adjusting to the huge time difference. Ryan was showering. I wasn’t able to receive calls but told family, if they needed anything to text me, as it was cheaper. Madison was sitting with me, and we were enjoying the view out the window. Then I got a text from my cousin Sergio that said “Mariangela, you need to call home, now.” I was confused. Why was Sergio texting me? I texted my sister “I just got a strange text from Serg – saying I need to call home, wtf is going on??” No response so I call her. All I remember is her saying “We didn’t want to ruin your trip, we were going to let you have a few days vacation first. Its Jimmy. He is gone.” The rest is just bits and pieces, me asking things like “What do you mean GONE?” and asking random things that now I realize weren’t important. My mind was swimming. Our trip was just 9 days. They convinced me to stay, said they had to wait on an autopsy and such anyways so there was time. They would schedule the memorial a few days after my return.
“I am the servant of the power behind the Nothing. I was sent to kill the only one who could have stopped the Nothing. I lost him in the Swamps of Sadness.” – The Neverending Story
I was sitting on that hotel bed, suffocating from the fog that resembled The Nothing from the Neverending Story. The noises in the room were separated like a mutant hearing for the first time as a superhuman: I could hear the water in the shower. Each drop was deafening and so loud. I could hear Ryan sneeze, but it was in slow motion. I heard the Israeli weather person on tv speaking in Hebrew, I assumed about how hot it would be that day. I watched a bird dive into a tree near the window. I felt a tugging at my arm and heard a voice far away. It sounded soothing, and familiar. My eyes darted through The Nothing to find the voice. I tried to find my footing, just staring at the mosaic hotel carpet, shuffling my feet, forgetting how to use them. I lifted my chin from the edge of the water that I was drowning in and caught my breathe, looked to my right and the soothing voice was that of my then 10 year old daughter. “Mom. What happened to Uncle Jimmy? Mom. Are you okay? Mom here have some water. It’s going to be okay. Mom, he was having a hard time lately right? Do they think it was drugs? Mom. It’s okay. It’s okay Momma.” I felt her hand on my back, rubbing in slow, repetitious circles. Then I heard the water stop in the shower. I saw Ryan’s face and he was my center. I regained cabin pressure and began to breathe again. For 9 days I walked through the foreign land, within The Nothing as my protective cloud, putting food into my face when I had to, walking with no direction and holding on to my family like a stray puppy. I had no connection to my grieving family back home. All I had was a memorial website that people were posting on and Instant Messenger.
I don’t even remember the flight home. I did not register or store anything, it was all consumed by The Nothing. My next memory isn’t till the day of my brothers memorial. I hadn’t seen anyone. My dad and sister had asked me to help organize the main sections of the memorial. They wanted me to speak for the family. They handled the food and getting the word out. I told Ryan, I wasn’t sure if I could do it. How on EARTH was I supposed to speak in front of hundreds of people!? What could I say to properly represent my family and my brother? How could I look at my sister and my dad without losing my shit. I will never forget what he said “Your family clearly needs you to be the strong one. Hold it together. Be the glue they need. Save your tears and when we get home, you can let go and I will be here for every single tear.”
When I walked into my dad’s kitchen, my Aunt Martha looked at me, dropped what she was doing, started to cry and rushed to me. “We have all been waiting for you..” I didn’t cry. “Whew, okay I didn’t cry, that’s shocking, maybe I can do this!” I told myself. Various Aunties, my grandma, a few friends, came to greet me. Lots of hugs, checking in with each others emotional states. Seeing my sister was hard. I immediately became the strong one, swallowing my emerging sob – I remember looking into her eyes and asking if she was okay. To my niece and nephew, I tried to put on a smile and gave big strong auntie hugs. I then asked about our dad. When I saw him, he was pale and stoic. He looked at me and gave me the grief smile, you know the one, the “I would cry with you right now but I am afraid if I start I wouldn’t be able to stop so let’s just be pleasant and move on” -smile. I took a deep breath. I could do this. I was good at organizing. I was a leader amidst chaos, I could rally. As these thoughts came into my head, my grandmother motioned to me and whispered “Dearheart there is something sensitive that needs attending to downstairs that I need your help with.”
I followed her down to the basement and in the dimly lit room sat the shipping box from the coroner, containing my brothers ashes. I will never forget, on the box it said: To the Family of James Vincent DuRuz. The lump in my throat was the size of Texas. I looked at my grandmother, not able to process what was needed. “I had to do this for your grandpa not too long ago, we need to separate his ashes for your parents, you and your sister, and anyone else you see fit. I even have some containers here for you.”
“I was John Coltraine. I was Miles Davis. I was Bob Marley. I was, I was John Lennon.
And I, I was. And I would have been” – James Vincent DuRuz – Yale Daries
I stood, motionless for what seemed like an eternity. I knew my brother had always been more than his body. His soul, his aura, his being – those are what touched people. I had to be the strong one. I had to get past the physical and do what needed to be done in the moment. I methodically opened the box, careful to not rip the tape. Inside was a plastic bag with his full name and birthdate. As I prepared the containers, Madison suddenly appeared and said “Hi Momma, are you okay? Whatcha doin? Can I help??” I froze. I wasn’t prepared to explain this process to her. I wasn’t ready to break down how I felt she needed to learn this fact of life. It was just too much for me in that moment. So that’s what I told her “I am not prepared to explain this to you right now honey, I’m sorry. Please go back upstairs and see if Grandpa Dev needs anything. I will be back up shortly.” She stood for a moment, head slightly tilted, trying to figure out what was happening. Her brow furrowed and she seemed to plant her feet securely to where she stood, to relay to me that she had no plans on going anywhere.. This is how the convo went:
Maddi: “I am not going anywhere. I can handle it. I want to help, and I am not leaving.”
Me: *mouth dropped open for a long second* “You are an an amazing alien child. Okay, you want to know what I am doing!? The ashes in this box, this is your Uncle Jimmy. He was cremated and now I have to put them in little containers for family so we can each have part of him. This is his physical self.”
Maddi: *blinks a few times, looking at the box and me, and then back to the box*
“I want to help. I saw a few sheets of superhero stickers in one of his boxes down here. Can I put hero stickers on each container? He would like that.”
And just like that – my grandmother, daughter and I – started the process of separating his ashes. At one point Maddi said “It’s so lumpy!” and it was like Jimmy spoke for me, I had NO time to filter what came out of my mouth as I said “Not even FIRE can break Jimmy all the way down – he had SUPERMAN bones…clearly.” and we giggled a bit, as morbid and inappropriate as it was, it was exactly how my brother would have wanted that moment to have be handled.
“Can you plug me into the world? My character design is ready. Throw me in on medium. I already beat the game on easy.” – James Vincent DuRuz – The Yale Diaries
The memorial was beautiful. I spoke to the people coming to remember him, and did so with a quivering voice and a few heaves but no tears. I breathed through it like a champ giving birth naturally to triplets. I channeled my inner Wanda Maximoff aka The Scarlet Witch. My brother had linked me to her the Christmas before he died. Saying “She is the superhero that your personality and spirit is the most similar to in the Marvel Universe. You are Wanda” and back then I was like “cool, that’s fun” (translation: I don’t speak Mutant). But the day of his memorial, I was searching for strength. I needed guidance on a superhero level. I posted something on Facebook – explaining my new superhero comparison, begging for any details on Wanda that friends may have. Just as I was about to stand in front of hundreds of people to speak about the trauma that had rocked my universe – I got a Facebook notification on my phone. A friend had commented and said “The Scarlet Witch is arguably one of the most powerful heroes in the Marvel Universe. She can alter matter, control the elements of the earth, and mankind’s reality…your brother must have seen you as incredibly powerful to give you Wanda.” And that was power I needed to deliver a speech to family and friends of Jimmy on that difficult day. I tried to look into the eyes of every person as I talked. I made the conscious effort, going from person to person, wanting to give them a piece of me as I spoke. But then got to my cousin Katie, who was sobbing and exuding exactly what I was feeling on the INSIDE, and I couldn’t go on with that. That was my Kryptonite, seeing each pain individually. Again it was about seeing the pain of the those left behind. Even looking back at the photos today, I look at every face, and each has such a different type of sadness and grief. I had no idea there were so many shades of sadness. I cried as I skimmed the pictures, looking at each of them and their level of sorrow.
But then I see my daughter’s face in the photo, she was watching me speak, and even to this day, I am comforted by it. It was like the face of a loved one watching a recital or speech, humming along or mouthing the words, hoping their energy will help you come out victorious and error free. She was my solace. She was my anchor. She was my heartbeat.
“Only after disaster can we be resurrected. It’s only after you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything. Nothing is static, everything is evolving, everything is falling apart.” – Fight Club
This month marks 9 years since we lost my brother. My daughters grieving was brought to my attention 4 years after his death when she was in High School. She wrote and performed her first (and last) spoken word poem. She warned me that it would be hard and emotional; that it was about her Uncle Jimmy. I was shocked and moved by her words. Her grieving process was directly linked to mine, however hers was stifled and sometimes lost along the way, and I had no idea of that fact until I sat there, listening to her vulnerable heartbeat pound between the words of her poem. She tried to not get emotional but it breached like a dam, through every part of her, voice quivering with so much to share. For the first time I saw her process. It was raw, it was emotional and it was something to be proud of. I will end this post with the poem she read that day. I like to tell people we grieve together. In loss we can never get back what is gone, but we can discover new parts of ourselves that are broken open and exposed from the loss. New lessons can grow from the depths of the sadness and cracks in our being, if we just remember to expose them to the air and let them breathe.
The confusion sets in…
No. Jimmy? He was always so…
Or maybe he was as normal as Grandpa wanted him to be, as normal as a comic geek had capacity for.
And as normal as his moving from my house to my aunt’s
Just a mouse moving from hole to hole,
Another message from family saying to come home now to
help with this mess Jimmy made…
hold on, my uncle did not make any mess; he only tried to
make everyone happy,
about what my so-called “loved ones” wanted his life to be.
His schizophrenia pushed his body right out of that window.
Along with his Yale graduate thoughts.
I remember that trip to Connecticut, we saw him graduate.
Everyone wanting to talk to him about the future,
Tell him how proud they were of him,
How anxious about his prospects,
He just sat and talked with us kids.
Himself, a kid at heart.
My mother holds onto my dad tightly,
Tears streaming, overwhelmed with shock.
She makes another phone call, to my aunt,
Confused, uncertain, no idea what to do.
“We just got here, should we come home?”
“Here” was a world away.
Haifa, Israel, day one of a pilgrimage, gardens, musty air, and humidity.
I suppose it was a good thing that our journey was to such a
Nine days of “vacation” ended,
Return to chaos.
All I really felt was compassion for my mom.
I couldn’t release my own emotions. At all.
Memorial service, coroner’s reports, and family feuds, shoved down my mother’s
Throat right as we stepped through the door.
Too much for one person to handle,
Out of respect my emotions remained
Chained up, in the bottom of my throat,
Aching to be noticed.
Helping out with as much as I can,
Doing dishes, sorting photos, and packaging his ashes.
My Grandfather, losing his only son.
He was white, like stone; like a freshly painted wall;
At times incomprehensible.
At the memorial, tears fell, and many embraced.
But again I had to be there
For my family.
I was their rock…
But inside I felt like I had a piece of me missing, whether that
Was a kidney or lung…
It didn’t matter…
All that mattered was not taking things for granted.
Four years and four months
My emotions still remain inside…
By Madison Abeo- age 14