Befriend Your Grief (Part 3)
"If all you can do is crawl, start crawling."
My journey into the belly of grief continued to ravage my heart and erode my footing. I shared in my last post that my brother-in-law, Charles J. Faith (Chuck) had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He passed away 10 months after my friend, Kelly. He had been sick for a year. Another loss of someone I loved. He was a young father and beloved husband to my sister. He was 3 years older than me. He was 38.
He was the love and light in my sister's life. He was the love and light in his son's life. He was the life of the party and loved by many. He loved adventure on the road less traveled. He enjoyed life, teasing and pranking people. He loved to laugh with you and sometimes at you. He didn't appear to take life too seriously. He followed wherever his curiosity led him. He loved boating, skiing, motorcycles, and became a pilot of small airplanes. He relished in dismantling mechanical objects of interest to see how they worked and he didn't always put them back together!
He loved skating and playing hockey, the outdoors, camping, fishing, hunting, and running. He loved strong coffee. When my husband and I worked with Chuck, we would try desperately to get to work before him so we could make a pot of coffee that was palatable. Who puts double the amount of coffee to brew one pot? Chuck Faith, of course. I can picture him now, leaning against the counter in the kitchen at work, holding a cup of coffee and laughing his very distinct belly laugh. There was an overtness to his snicker at beating us to the coffee pot. He would stand there with a huge smile on his face, one hand in his pocket, his feet crossed at the ankles, as he swigged a mouthful of his liquid tar with relish...only a few could enjoy. He was also known for loving to drink cheap beer...the cheaper the better. He loved his wife and his son with his entire being and would have done anything for them. When their son refused to sleep as an infant, Chuck with an endless amount of patience, would drive him around at all hours of the night to get him to sleep.
When he was diagnosed with lung cancer it was devastating news to all who loved him. I think of the countless times we "hurried up to wait" for news from the doctors. The news was never great or what we had hoped and prayed to hear. You have a tendency without noticing at how often you hold your breath. All of the sleepless nights where you toss and turn and become consumed with worry. You dare not speak aloud your thoughts and the countless "what ifs" that have taken up residence within your mind. The unbidden guests of grief that slither and undulate their way into you and nestle deeply into your tissues. Often times, these insidious thoughts, without any awareness, caught me unawares. Thoughts are powerful and can be extremely damaging to your own body while you are busy taking care of everyone else. Wake up and be kind and gentle to yourself too, during times of great stress.
When things are out of your control you try to control what you can. What I could control was what my husband, my children and I could offer to them in the form of help throughout the year of his illness and treatments. We lived 45 minutes away, but we brought meals, companionship, childcare and assistance with any mundane tasks that could be performed. We tried to do anything and everything we could to lessen their burdens. We spent a great deal of time in their home that last year and got to know his family quite well. There was a beautiful and strong bond created among us during this time. Grief and loss can forge close relationships while you pass the time sharing stories while folding laundry, matching pairs of socks together or sharing meals.
There was no cure for lung cancer. My sister went to great lengths to do anything and everything she could to help him. They changed their eating habits to a macrobiotic diet. Hopefully, it helped him live a bit longer because the food wasn't using all of his body's energy to digest it. My sister sought out a Qigong healer that was able to ease Chuck's suffering with energy healings and Chinese medicine that worked in concert with the Western medicines. When the breathing was really difficult he was offered chemotherapy for a time, but in the end nothing would cure him. I have learned that there is great healing among the challenges we face in our lives. There can be healing in many ways within even though someone cannot be saved. We all have a time to die and it comes when it comes. "Life is life and death is death." (The Book of Longings, Sue Monk Kidd).
We were grateful to be able to visit and spend so much time with them during the last year of his life. None of us knew how to do this and we tried to figure it out the best we could as we went along. The last few days of his life, we were able to speak with Chuck and let him know that we would be there to help Mary and Jack. Family and friends came to share food, stories, and to say their, "goodbyes." Dying in the comfort of your own home and being surrounded by family and friends is a beautiful gift to give to a loved one, if it is possible. The hospice programs, social workers, nurses and personal care attendants are an amazing addition and source of great support, knowledge and relief to the caregivers.
Three days before Chuck's death, he told my sister that he was dying. He had been sick for a year. I can't be sure, but I do not think that he had ever allowed these words of dying to cross his lips. I know he and all of us had hoped for a miracle cure and that he could somehow be saved. Although at the same time, we were witnessing the gradual changes in his physicality, strength and capacity to breathe deeply and unencumbered from the incessant coughing. I think that when you are observing the constant struggle and suffering a loved one endures from living with a terminal illness, you can finally come to terms with letting them go. You no longer think of only yourself and how this loss will devastate your life, but you want them to be free from suffering. The grief continues, but you come to terms with letting them be free from this physical existence and they no longer need to tarry.
When Chuck shared with her that he was indeed dying, she asked him to show her a sign that he was ok when he passed. She asked him to show her a red cardinal. Several of us were gathered around his bedside at their home on Lake Minnetonka. As I mentioned earlier, he loved cheap beer. A few of us went to the liquor store and purchased a 12 pack of beer. My sister put a few droplets of beer mixed in with a dose of his prescribed morphine. During these precious remaining hours of his life, we all opened a beer and we toasted in his honor and we celebrated with laughter, tears, and stories of his life.
He may not have been totally conscious, but I know that his soul was fully engaged, aware, and celebrating with us. It was a beautiful sendoff from this life to the next and I hope my family will do the same or something similar for me when my time comes to leave this earth. Life is a celebration. When you are in the middle of this space, the precipice between life and death, I have never felt so alive and present to what is of the utmost importance and sacred in life...love, forgiveness, compassion, connection, gratitude and presence. My best insights into this journey of life have come to me during these most devastating times. Each loss deconstructs you as you are in the hopes of remolding you in a new way to live with more presence, love and awareness.
"You would know the secret of death.
But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?"
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
Chuck died at 4:20 p.m. on January 3, 1996. I had never experienced being with someone at the moment of their death. I remember having a Deja vu feeling that I had experienced this before. When his breathing had changed and started to rattle, I innately knew that his death was near. At the moment of his passing, there was the most unbelievable feeling of complete stillness and utter peace. A feeling of grace that radiated outwards and had encompassed all of us and completely filled the room. The veil between worlds was thinner and I could feel it's embrace and it welcomed Chuck home. It was something so sacred it takes my breath away still when I think of it.
It was also at this time, my sister glanced out the window and on the bird feeder attached to the window was the biggest, reddest, cardinal we had ever seen. That cardinal stayed on the birdfeeder for a half an hour. We were amazed and filled with wonder at this beautiful sign from Chuck. He was ok. Our tears were mixed with laughter as we went around the room hugging one another. Laughing that Chuck was always late and could this cardinal truly be a gift from him? The first time he had ever been on time! It was a magnificent sign that there is something beyond this life.
Laughter and crying ensued and helped us release long held emotions and the ability to shed buckets of tears. Both are incredible coping mechanisms and help assuage the depth of grief we had been processing for the year during his illness. They would assist us again in the grief that was yet to come. Every big occasion in his son’s life, there are too many to write about here, but let’s just say, there was a cardinal in attendance and always singing. Befriend your grief and know that death is not the end. It is a transition.
Kevin Barry O'Brien
Are you familiar with the saying that death comes in threes? It unfortunately did come in 3's in my life at this time from April 1995- August 1996. I had an older brother, named Kevin. Kevin was also 38 years old. He was 3 years older than me. Kevin had a very different existence than Chuck. Kevin suffered from mental illness. I purchased clothes for Kevin to wear to Chuck's funeral. He stayed with us at the time of the funeral, showered, put on his new clothes and attended the funeral. This was the last time I saw him alive. Chuck had a wife and a son and many friends that loved him dearly. He had a great job and they lived in a small house on Lake Minnetonka. Life was good and it held many promises. Kevin was homeless. Both of their lives were cut short. People knew how to show their deep sadness and grief for Chuck, this young beloved father. It was a different experience when my brother Kevin, passed away, 8 months after Chuck.
Kevin on the other hand was bipolar and had suffered with mental illness for years. He had suffered greatly in his young life. He had been sexually abused by a local priest. Nothing was ever done about it. The secret pain of shouldering that alone as a child was devastating. I had only known about the abuse many years later. The older he got he started to self medicate with food, pot, drinking and I know he tried angel dust (Phencyclidine, PCP). He had been in and out of the army where he was treated horribly. He was discharged after a canon had been dropped and broken his foot. He had become a Born Again Christian for a time. I can see now that he was looking for ways to cope with his very painful existence.
He was placed in the State Mental Hospital for treatment during my first year of college (1979). He never forgave my parents for committing him to the State Mental Hospital for care. My parents were overwhelmed with his erratic behavior and did not agree with each other on how to care for him. If it would have been up to my mother, she would have kept him at home with them to live. My father on the other hand, saw committing him to the hospital as the only answer. He didn't understand mental health. He came from Ireland and the, "pull yourself up by the bootstraps," mentality he adopted when he came to the United States. It would forever put a rift in their marriage.
Kevin could not seem to find his way in life. The medications that were meant to help him live with bipolar disorder made him feel nothing. He chose to stop taking them. He could not keep a job. He lived in and out of halfway houses and lived and worked for a time at the Union Gospel Mission. He was lost. He was single and now he was homeless. We all had tried to save him throughout the years, but I learned time and again you cannot save anyone.
My phone rang in the middle of the night on August 1, 1996. It was before answering machines and caller ID. By the time I reached the phone to answer it, there was no one there. Later that morning I got a call from my mother that Kevin was found dead on the sidewalk outside of the Union Gospel Mission in downtown St. Paul. Oh my God! What? How could this be happening again? How did he die? Did he suffer? Was he murdered? Your mind goes crazy with disbelief as you try to put the shattered pieces together to make sense of this shocking news.
I just can't seem to get a deep breath in again as the grief, sorrow and all of the unknowns start bulldozing over my heart and mind, again. We didn’t know what was happening. The police did not find any evidence of foul play. We had to wait for an autopsy to be performed to determine the cause of death. I kept thinking what if he was trying to call me that night and I couldn’t get to the phone fast enough. Years later I had hoped that it was a message from Kevin letting me know that he was gone and he was ok on the other side.
So many things race through your mind when someone you love dies. Stories of our childhood came flooding back in droves to remind me of what once was and never will be again. This death and this grief was a whole new dark level of bereavement. I felt hollowed out to the very depth of my being. My heart and soul hurt and ached with the longing for answers. It burned somewhere way down deep inside of me I had yet to touch this level of grief. He was my brother. I had known him my whole life. He was gone. I was once again reminded of the fact that I could not save him. The only solace I found was that maybe now he could find the peace he could not seem to find in this life. My entire family was coming home to celebrate my dad’s birthday and retirement. They were now coming home for yet another funeral within the same year. The entire family was grieving in their own way. Where do you turn when everyone was cracking and breaking under another loss and trying desperately to keep it together?
My brother’s autopsy came back and he had died from natural causes. He died from sleep apnea. Once again I find it interesting at the things that stick in my memory from this time. I was driving around the Lake of the Isles on my way to the funeral home. The song by Eric Clapton, Change the World came on the radio. The lyrics, “baby if I could change the world.” I would change it to, “JB, if I could change the world,"...his nickname was JB. I had tried to change his world, but it was not mine to change. I still tear up every time I hear this song and Kevin has been gone since 1996. When I did get to the funeral home, where Kevin’s body was being kept, they had called my sister more than once, to try to change the time for the family to come and see him. I guess they were not expecting a huge, grieving, family to show up to see him because he was homeless. Never assume you know anything as to why someone is homeless. Everyone has a story of how they got to be homeless. A lesson in honoring all human beings with dignity no matter what their circumstances.
I think I drove around Lake of the Isles to prolong the arrival to my final destination at the funeral home. I was afraid to see what Kevin looked like. My mind was conjuring up all kinds of terrifying scenarios. I was sobbing when I saw Kevin's lifeless body on that table under a sheet. I could see the stitching from the autopsy, something I can't seem to pry from my memory. But in all honesty, I have to say, I was shocked at how good Kevin looked. He looked like Moses from the Ten Commandments movie. When Moses descended the mountain and his long hair and beard had turned gray. Kevin's hair was extremely long and had always been dark, but now it was salt and pepper. He was extremely tan so his skin color looked great. He wasn't scary at all. He was my beautiful, tortured soul of a brother and he was gone, but finally at peace. The tears kept streaming down my face and the memories kept flooding in from my childhood memories of Kevin.
Kevin used to put on neighborhood bike races when we were kids. If you won, you got a can of pop. I know that does not seem like much, but when you never got pop, it was a huge deal. I pedaled my skinny arse off to win that cherished can of 7Up on more than one occasion. It seemed only fitting, that when we got to Albert Lea where the funeral would be held at my parent's Catholic Church, we should take Kevin's ashes on a little bike ride through the neighborhood and out to one of our favorite parks. My sister Mary and I did just that. We got on our parent's bikes with Kevin in the front basket and took him for one last biking adventure. It was magical, childlike and very healing in our grieving process. We stopped at Skunk Hill where we used to play as kids and we said a prayer and left some of his ashes there. He loved being outside in nature and now a part of him would always be there, too. I could feel him smiling in my heart.
Mental illness is prevalent in our society and there are not many options for people who suffer from mental illness who are unable to function within the parameters of society. The state hospitals closed many years ago. Unfortunately, many homeless people also have a mental illness. Think about that the next time you see a homeless person on the street who is asking for money. Feel into your heart and see what is there. They are human beings who each have a story to tell.
There is a part of us that dies a physical death and a part of us that does not die. Our souls live on in another realm of existence. Energy can not be destroyed. We are made of energy. Grief has taught me that physical death comes to us all. There is no escaping it. It is the great equalizer. Everything you OWN will someday belong to someone else. But everything you ARE goes with you to the next place. What can you let go off that you no longer need? Grief teaches what is important in life and what is not.
Grief taught me to live my life from a deeper place and I continued to ask myself a number of questions. “Where can I love more? Where can I bring forgiveness into my life by forgiving myself and forgiving others? How can I live from a place with no regrets? How can I serve humanity? What can I heal within my own life? If I were to die tomorrow, I wanted no unfinished business. How can I take care of myself and my family? I began to look at everything as sacred. I slowed down. I learned to appreciate and love my life as it is.
I looked into people’s eyes when we spoke. I learned to listen more. Letting go of the past and not anticipating the future and living in this NOW moment, is where I began to find peace. Be here now. Tomorrow is not promised to anyone. You can truly live a life filled with love, gratitude and forgiveness. If you started to live every day as if it were your last day, how would you live differently? Befriend your grief.
Death is a part of life. It is only a transition to another realm. Trust that you will be welcome with a love so vast and surrounded by angels and loved ones you lost along the way. You are a part of this incredible love that never ends. There is nowhere that this love is not. Embrace your life now. Everything changes all the time. There is nothing to fear. Fear rises up to the vibration of love. Love is the highest vibration of all. Where can you love more? Where can you let go of fear and transform it back into love? Honor life. I honor you. Thank you for taking the time to read about my journey into grief.
In loving memory of
Charles J. Faith August 16, 1957 - January 3, 1996
Kevin Barry O'Brien May 19, 1957 - August 1, 1996