Some reflections upon grief

About ten days ago, my younger brother died, unexpectedly. He and my wife are my two best friends; as you can imagine, this derailed me. Fortunately, because of my past experience as a hospice volunteer, I have received training in grief counseling, and this has kept me sane and stable.

I have been more introspective than usual these past ten days and have drawn some conclusions that I would like to share. I know that most of us will go through a similar experience, and I would like to help those who face this challenge in the future.

My two major observations have to do with the grieving process itself. Many of you are familiar with Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. First, I learned in my training that this is not a linear process; that is, almost no one goes through these stages in a direct sequence at anything resembling a standard pace. More commonly, people will slide back and forth a bit and, even more commonly, people will tend to get stuck in one of these stages.

This brings me to the next observation. Two or more of these stages can combine into one. For me, bargaining and depression have combined to form guilt. My brother was a much-beloved icon of our community, so much so that the executive director of our largest local theater made the 750-seat facility available for his memorial service, without any request from the family. That pretty much tells you all that you need to know about him. I have been told by, literally, hundreds of people that my brother’s death is a huge loss and that he was the kindest man they had ever known. Consequently, I am dealing with a strong sense of “why him, and not me?”

Obviously, this would be a frightening and unhealthy attitude to have. Fortunately, I know that this feeling is an outgrowth of the grieving process and that the guilt is irrational, and that irrational thoughts are perfectly normal at a time like this. Certainly, the hundreds of people who love my brother are not wishing me to die.

This brings me to my concluding observation. Besides me, my brother’s widow and children have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support. We calculated that inviting all of the people who wanted to talk or sing for my brother’s memorial would lead to a six hour-long service. Personally, I have struggled to avoid aggressively turning well-wishers away, to cite the difficulty all of the offers can pose. For me to do this, though, would be the epitome of selfishness. When loving people offer condolences, they are not only seeking to ease your pain, but are also dealing with their own grief. Regardless of my relationship to my brother, it would be extraordinarily unkind to minimize the grieving of others.

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