Are You Going To Cry?
We All Grieve Differently
As I was walking into the funeral home for my great friend James’ wake, I checked my purse and pockets to make sure I had tissues. My friend Sue asked why I needed them. She said, “Why, are you going to cry?” I had already shed tears for my dear James who passed at 55 after years of fighting chronic stress, depression and cancer. I was sure more tears would come when I saw him laid out in a casket with his young widow and son at his side. I told Sue I was pretty sure I was going to cry. She had more experience with the loss of loved ones including both of her parents at ages 56 for her mom, and 60 for her dad. I was amazed that she didn’t think she would cry at James’ wake. She had grown up with him in his neighborhood where I moved when I was 15. I met him through his best friend, my boyfriend at the time, when I was about 18 years old. Apparently, she had been desensitized after enduring plenty of deaths of loved ones to the point of seeming to have run out of tears.
Sure enough, she didn’t shed a single tear as we attended the wake. I was overcome with sadness when I saw our handsome friend in his casket. He looked so… well, dead. His wife seemed as well as could be expected, but was definitely distraught. My tears flowed quietly, as they usually do. Most of the mourners who were crying did so quietly as well.
I cried when I got the call at 3:00 AM from my cousin who told me my 91 year old aunt died last Sunday morning. Her death was not unexpected. She went in the hospital early in the day with chest pains. Early reports were she had a heart attack and a stroke and was put on morphine and in intensive care. The tears continued through the night and into the morning. They were quiet tears. I decided against calling the rest of my family until daybreak, except for my brother who lives in California and was still awake. I told him what happened and he agreed it was not the right time to call our mom. My mother had seen her sister the night before in the hospital. My sister wasn’t aware that her aunt had gone to the ER. I was charged with breaking the news to them both.
I called my mother first at first light. I had most of the night to think of what I would say. I decided to just come out with it. “Good morning, your sister is dead.” My mother had seen her the night before, and was planning to go check on her in the morning. This news did not fit into her plans. She said, “My sister’s not dead. I’m going over there to check on her in a little while.” I didn’t want to argue, but I had to make her understand what happened. I let her sit in her shock for a few minutes before I said, “No, Mom, Dale called me at 3:00 this morning and told me she had another stroke and passed away.” I couldn’t quite tell how she was reacting. I knew it was a shock. I think she tried to intellectualize the news at first by questioning why the doctors didn’t call her, too. It seemed they had only called her son. I re ran the conversation I had had at 3 AM for her with the chain of phone calls that had occurred. I told her I decided to not call her at 3AM. She gave me a bit of a fight saying I should know she doesn’t sleep anyway. Oh well, Mom. I was getting nervous that she was not going to accept reality. But, my mother is 84 years old and has accepted reality on many, many difficult occasions. She finally got it after a few more minutes of circular discussion. I explained that I had yet to break the news to my sister who had been planning to arrive on July 23rd for Mom’s 84th birthday. Our aunt passed on the morning of July 21st. My sister had her week planned out to revolve around celebrating the birthday as well as visiting old friends and family since she had moved out of state three years ago, and has only been back to visit a couple of times.
She was supposed to attend a Dave Matthews concert with her daughter on the night of the 20th. I figured they had a good time and would sleep a little late the next day. I also expected her to be unhappy about not being called sooner. But, my decision to wait had been made and I was sticking to it.
I didn’t factor in the fact that she was probably not aware that our aunt had gone to the hospital the day before, and the news that she had died would be a great shock despite the fact that she was 91 years old.
She answered her cell phone as on any other Sunday morning. When she asked what was up, I just came out with it: “Aunt Arlyne died”. She was totally caught off guard, and started screaming in denial. “What? No!” I slowly repeated myself. I backtracked a little to the day before for her explaing how she had gone in the hospital. Our mom had told me, but not my sister, apparently. I hadn’t mentioned it, either, pending the outcome. I was sure she was going to go home where she would face having to hire help or moving to a nursing home. My sister continued to scream and sob on the phone. She was driving to the store and had to pull over to the side of the road so I could fill in the details for her. They had skipped the concert the night before.
My lover had spent the night and had been privy to all of these conversations on the calls I had answered in bed. He held me close as I quietly cried at 3 AM. He was aware that my mother had trouble absorbing the news. He heard my sister scream. She actually started to argue with me that our aunt wasn’t supposed to die before she arrived for her upcoming visit. She was going to see her in a few days.
In the week that followed my aunt’s death, I watched different family members and friends respond in ways that ranged from my sister sobbing and screaming at the funeral home, to my mother’s stoic state of despondent shock, to my aunt’s grandaughters crying and looking as if they had bombs dropped on their heads. They were clearly reliving the loss of their mother only 4 years ago at age 56.
I know I shouldn’t judge the way people grieve differently. Our responses are colored by our personalities, personal histories, and the nature of the death we have experienced. I felt mostly at peace with the loss of my aunt at age 91 after spending one day in the hospital. I will miss her terribly, and was sad to see her go. We all thought she would live forever.