Death in the family
The following was kindly written for me by my friend, Marianne Dietzel. Marianne lost her eldest child in a car accident in 1996 and has, along with her husband and two sons, been on a long journey of healing. One thing to come out of her grief was Marianne’s discovery that she was called to work in hospices, playing the lyre to ease the crossing of souls through the threshold of death. She and several others founded an organization to help others explore alternatives to the usual antiseptic approach to death and dying favored by our culture. She and her colleagues promote family funerals and caring for the dying at home, where possible. This of course includes children which can be incredibly healing for them as they learn that death is simply a part of life, not to be feared but perhaps even celebrated.
Another part of Marianne’s healing came as she wrote a book about her daughter’s death and the effect on her family. Her book is called Laughing in a Waterfall: A Mother’s Memoir and it is a beautiful testament to the power of love to move beyond the perceived barrier of death.
If you would like to find out more about Marianne’s work and perhaps to purchase her book please visit her website where you can read a chapter from this book.
When my daughter Nina died in a car accident in 1996, my two sons, Kevin and Soren, were fifteen- and four-years-old.
The loss of my eldest child and only daughter was devastating for me. My grief was multi-faceted, for I mourned not only for myself, but for my family as a whole and for my sons and this loss that they would carry with them throughout their lives.
Kevin lost his childhood companion and the only other person who shared the same early family memories. Now he would be the eldest without someone else to forge the way before him, to scheme with, and compare notes with in the same way, with Soren being so much younger.
Soren lost a big sister who loved to cuddle, read, and play with him, and would watch over him as he grew up, almost like a second mother.
How was I to tend to my sons’ grief when I was engulfed in my own process?
It seemed easier with Soren. When he asked questions, my husband, Dennis, and I answered them as simply, directly, and truthfully as we could. We told him stories about Nina’s life. Dennis wrote poems about Nina with him, drew pictures with him, and put them together in a little book. We did things together for Nina while we were playing outside in the snow (see pp. 152-154 in my book). We maintained our daily routines, and gave him time to play alone and with friends to express himself in the mode most appropriate to his age.
With Kevin it was less clear. We included him, and tried to address his needs, in all of the activities surrounding Nina’s wake and funeral, and later in our times of remembering Nina on holidays, anniversaries, and birthdays. We were grateful that his small Waldorf school environment provided him with the peer and community support that is so important to young people. Yet I didn’t know how to approach him emotionally. I hoped that my freely expressing my emotions would allow him to when he needed. It was only later that I learned how difficult it was for him to see his mother crying. His way of processing grief was quite different. After all, he was busy being a teenager.
We did the best we knew how and were emotionally capable of at the time. I have had to be forgiving of myself for omissions or mistakes I might have made.
It was in part with my sons and their life-long loss in mind that I wrote my memoir, Laughing in a Waterfall, three years after Nina died. If I perhaps wasn’t always there for them emotionally, I could at least write about Nina’s life and death, while it was the world I was living in, as a gift for their future.
As it turned out, neither of them read the book until I published it ten years later (thirteen years after Nina’s death). We had been through several pilgrimages to Harlemville, NY, where Nina died, an evolution in our yearly observances of Nina’s death day, a bench dedication and a stained-glass window dedication, and other rituals which gave opportunities to revisit Nina’s accident and the surrounding events. These repeated tellings of the story gave the boys a chance to renew their own perceptions of what happened from the vantage point of different developmental stages as they grew older.
To hear the story from my perspective in the form of a memoir brought further healing around our family’s grief process.
Soren, who read it on a trip to England at age eighteen, told me it brought him to tears several times. Being the same age as Nina was when she died made it real for him. He had no memories of his own of most of the story that happened when he was so young, so it fulfilled my wish to give him his history.
Kevin read it at age 29, when he was married and well on his way in his career. At my book launch party, he shared publicly some of his deepest feelings about moving forward in his life without his sister. Like others of us, he wondered how his life might have been different if Nina had lived. However, he realized that her presence continues to be an influence on his life. Also, through reading my book, he was able to experience how difficult it must have been for us as parents to lose a child, even though at the time he felt overshadowed by our tendency to idealize Nina.
The grief process does not clearly come to an end after a certain amount of time or proceed in a predictable sequence of stages. My family’s experience confirms that there are many layers of grief to uncover, and the process of healing extends over a long arch of time. It is never too late to reach out to someone who has had a loss and talk about it. No matter how much time has passed, looking back and sharing stories is an important part of the process and helps us connect in deeper ways.