It’s so much simpler to grieve for people who died a “normal” death. Not that the loss itself is easy to bear, but people tend not to question the life of the person you are mourning. Everyone feels sympathy towards you when your loved one dies from cancer, or heart problems, or a natural disaster. People say kind things about your family after a child dies from an illness, an elderly grandparent finally ends their time on this earth, or a beloved nephew dies in an auto accident. You are able to just be sad, and miss them, and think about how unfair it all is, how no one could have done anything to save them.
And then there are the other kinds of deaths. The ugly and shameful deaths, the deaths that people whisper about when they think you can’t hear them. The overdoses, the drunk drivers, the suicides, the reckless behaviors, the alcoholics. Somehow, when they happen to people we love, we have to find a way to grieve those deaths, too.
When I was in my early twenties, my aunt Jean died of stomach cancer. She had been sick for a long time, but I don’t think that she or my uncle or cousin ever really accepted that she was dying. Her death left a tangible hole in the family. My uncle and cousin, who had always been drinkers, began to drink more. A lot more. They didn’t really know how to talk about what had happened, so they drank instead. My cousin, Jeff, was just a few years older than I was. He was an accomplished gourmet chef, and had held positions with some of the top restaurants and caterers in town. When his mother died, Jeff lost job after job, and his drinking spiraled out of control.
My family knew that Jeff’s drinking was a problem, but what do you say to a 30 year old man who has decided to give up? He would fall asleep at family meals, would sneak to the bathroom where we knew he had more alcohol hidden. It was not a time I like to remember.
Finally, a few years after my Aunt Jean died, my uncle found Jeff on the floor in his bedroom. While he didn’t technically kill himself, his drinking, his unresolved grief, and his lack of desire to live had done it for him. His body had just given out.
When they took his body away from the house, I helped clean out Jeff’s room. I still get sick to my stomach when I remember what we found there. Jeff had spent the last few months of his life essentially living in his bedroom. There were liquor bottles everywhere. Big plastic gallons jugs that once held cheap vodka were piled in his closet, balanced on shelves, and stuffed under his bed. No matter how many I threw into the huge black trash bag I held, the piles just seemed to go on forever. I knew he had gotten bad, had been drinking a lot. In reality, I had no idea how awful things had become. I couldn’t match up what I saw in his room with the person he had been to me.
We didn’t really have a funeral for Jeff, since we didn’t see much of a point. He had been so close to his mom that he never really bothered to get close to anyone else, not even his dad. I went to the funeral home with my mom, and watched as she sat alone and wept next to the body of a man who had been like a brother to her for her entire life. I wanted to go in and to sit with her, but I couldn’t. When I saw Jeff lying there, his skin a yellow-gray from the abuse he had put his body through, I ran from the room and threw up in a trashcan in the hall. I’d been to a number of funerals, but Jeff somehow looked more lifeless than anyone I had ever seen. And I knew he had done it to himself. It was so hard to see, so impossible to understand.
Of course, I told people that my cousin had died, but I only shared with a few close friends what really happened. I guess I didn’t want the Jeff that I knew, the smart, quiet, soulful man who used to make the most amazing meals, to be thought of as “just an alcoholic.” He was so much more than that, and I was so angry and upset about how his life had ended. And to be honest, I was angry at myself as well. I know we probably should have tried to get him some help, but I didn’t, and I don’t have any reasons or excuses for that.
For those of us who have faced these ugly losses, grieving includes forgiveness, both for ourselves and the person who died.
It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I could love my cousin, and hate the choices he made. It’s an odd feeling to have such conflicting emotions in my heart. I’ve had to accept that in the end, none of us can truly make decisions for someone else, no matter how much they may mean to us. A few years after Jeff died, his father (my uncle) also died, also as a result of his drinking. In less than 10 years, that entire limb was gone from my family tree. It didn’t have to be that way.
An ugly death should not overshadow a beautiful life. Have you ever made a decision you regretted? Said something you didn’t mean in anger? Felt so sad that you forgot what happy looked like? We all have bad days, and we all make bad choices. Most of us are just lucky enough to not have those days and choices cost us our lives, or the lives of people we love.
I believe that a person should be viewed based on their entire lives, not just their final months or minutes. I also believe that a death that may have been prevented is still a life to be celebrated, and a loss to be grieved.
If you have had a loss like this, a loss that you have struggled to share with others or to come to terms with in your own heart, we would love to hear from you. You are welcome to leave your comments anonymously if you choose. The more we talk about these deaths and recognize how many others are facing these feelings, the more we can give ourselves permission to grieve and to grow.