Each year when February arrives, my mind travels back to 1965, the year my brother was ordained a Catholic priest. In an Irish Catholic family, especially back then, having a priest in the family was (and still is) a great honor. My mom and dad were thrilled and proud as their many siblings, families and friends attended the ceremony and his first Mass the next day.
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Little did we know as our rather large extended family gathered from all over the country that just two weeks later, I would be sitting with my parents and sister at an ICU waiting for a surgeon to tell us whether my brother Jim would survive surgery and melanoma, a cancer discovered just days before his ordination. He was 28 years old. As I sat in that waiting room, I remember thinking how all of us were so happy and excited just a few days before and now we did not know if Jim would live through the surgery let alone survive cancer. Treatment for cancer in 1965 was pretty limited compared to what it is now.
This year when the 50th anniversary of this February event came around I found myself reliving those days and looking hard at the last 50 years of my life. It is rather shocking. Jim not only survived cancer back then but twice more in later years. He is a priest admired, loved and respected by many and has been there for me, Bill, our family and so others in many ways over the years. Our family, friends, and his parishioners will celebrate on June 14 when it is easier for people to travel.
The invitation list to the June celebration will look quite different than that list created in 1965. My parents and all their siblings and in-laws have died. Most of the close friends who attended that event have died as well as my husband Bill (2010). We have also added people to our family as my sister and I married and as she had children, one with a grandchild due this summer and as new friends have become important.
I get a kick out of this photo of Jim with my mom on her 98th birthday...
- Like many families we had many large family celebrations of joy and yes...gatherings focused on loss and sorrow over the years. My parents 40th wedding anniversary in 1975 was a big party that we repeated on mom's 95th birthday. There was my sister's wedding and Bill's and my wedding and the births of grandchildren. The years included too many funerals and too much loss-all a part of this life we live. I, like most of my peers, ask that same question...where did the years go? Wasn't it just yesterday we gathered at Jim's ordination or Bill's funeral?
Sitting in that waiting room in 1965 changed my life forever. I had seldom given death a thought before that day. I was 25 years old and the possibility of losing my brother at age 28 was too real. Previous to that I had lost aunts and uncles, all of whom I loved but who lived out of state and I did not see them often. I did not experience deep grief even as I watched my mother and father grieve their losses. I can't say I knew grief well at all. In time, Jim had survived and death receded to the back of my mind and life again.
It was when my parents and my closest of closest "girlfriends," five of them so far, left this earth, that death really got my attention and I began to know deep grief.
But Bill's death left me all but paralyzed with the deepest, gut-wrenching pain I have ever known. It was/is a life changing and personally transforming loss in ways I could not have anticipated in spite of experiencing so many losses and working with so many bereaved over 40 years of clinical practice.
Just last night (Feb. 15) I was watching Grantchester, a PBS mystery show.
At one point in the show one of the characters says, following a death:
"Grief does strange things to you. It is like one of those dreams where you are falling. And you keep falling and falling and you know you will keep falling for the rest of your life.
Looking back is a great reminder.
We tend to forget in our fast paced society:
...cherish our loved ones each day
...be present to the now for it will be gone before we know it.
...be grateful even in our grief.