The chance to say goodbye
This past weekend I attended the National Gathering of the Bereaved Parents of the USA. The organization also serves bereaved siblings, and I am on its Board of Directors as the Sibling Coordinator, a position I have held since last fall. I am spearheading BP/USA’s effort to increase support for siblings, both at the Gathering once a year as well as at the local chapter level throughout the year.
There were over 150 people in attendance, mostly bereaved parents but some bereaved siblings and grandparents. Their children, grandchildren, and siblings who had died represented every possible way to lose someone. Cancer, car wrecks, long-term illness, homicide, SIDS. Choking, suicide, overdose, cardiac event, blunt force trauma. And more. No loss easier or better than another -- but all unique in their characteristics.
There is a lot to say about this, much more than I can say today. Right now I have one particular aspect of the experience on my mind – the difference among the types of loss as to whether or not people had a chance to express their deepest thoughts and emotions, make sure the person knew how much they were loved, and say goodbye.
Sometimes, if you suspect or know that a person you love is going to die, you may have a moment – or an hour, or a day, or weeks or months – to say what you want to say. Other times, as in my experience with Frank, you have not one moment, not one chance.
I have been wondering for the last few days, what was the last thing I said to my brother? What was the last sentence I wrote to him? The larger question behind these wonderings is: Did he understand how much I cared about him? I hope so, but I don’t really know for sure. I know the last time I spoke to him was ten days before he died. I called him on his birthday, and we had a long and enjoyable conversation. At first I could not remember anything that we talked about. But yesterday I looked back at my e-mails and at Facebook and found the last thing I wrote to him, which was a birthday message on his FB wall. Suddenly I recalled one topic from our phone call. I had mentioned that the socks I was wearing had holes in them and that our mother would be appalled, and he must have been similarly appalled in his congenial and sartorially superior way, and then either he or I must have suggested they be thrown out. After the call, in honor of his birthday, I did just that. Thus the message (HBF = Happy Birthday Frank).
Last night, following all of this contemplation, I had a dream in which he appeared. In the dream, I’m in my kitchen prepping for some sort of dinner. I know it’s my kitchen but it doesn’t look anything like my actual kitchen, it’s spotless and completely white from ceiling to floor. Frank is in the kitchen with me and we are talking as I chop vegetables. It’s clear I’m expecting him to stay for dinner, but he then lets me know that he has to go somewhere. He elaborates – he is leaving, with a sense like moving out of town or taking a new job but seeming even more distant and long-term than that. I ask him when he is leaving and he says right now, this minute. I look at him, surprised and not happy about this. Sensing I can’t do anything about it, though, I move toward him to give him a hug – and he backs away from me through a passageway in between sections of white marble countertop, putting his hands up as if to indicate "NO, don't touch me." I am furious and unbelievably hurt. He has never done this to me before. I don’t want him to go, and I don’t understand. I turn away in anger and pain.
I am always wishing for Frank to visit me in a dream, but I would not call this one a visitation dream. To me it seems like a result of my mind trying to process my circumstances. My brother died unexpectedly and without warning, in the split second it took for a routine road trip to turn into a tragedy. I didn’t get a chance to say one word to him before he was gone. I didn’t get to hug him, look at him, talk to him, be with him. I didn’t want him to go, but because of another man’s actions, he went. And yes, I’m furious and unbelievably hurt. I know that what happened to my family wasn’t deliberate or personal. But it feels that way.
I think I’ll go weed out my sock drawer. I’m sure there are a few more pairs that Frank would have been pleased to see me throw out. It’s something I can do. And I will continue to talk to him as I often do, in my way. But it's a poor substitute for a conversation over a nice glass of pinot noir in my real, messy, green-and-brown-and-black kitchen, face to face.