Monday, November 3, 2014

Not "Just" an Aunt

I'm off to see my sister, Liz, for an overnight visit.

Two years ago she moved much closer to us, but we still don't make the time to see each other as much as we would like. School and work and routine conspire against us. Many nights she'll be at home on her computer, and I'll be sitting on the couch watching tv 2 hours away, when we could be doing it "together."

When we are in the same room, we're the queens of parallel play.

Our interests rarely intersect, but it's nice to be near each other, no matter what's going on. She thinks running marathons and going to bed by nine is the way to go. I'm all about staying up late, sleeping in, and my running shoes are just to pair with my yoga pants when it grows too cold for flip-flops. Not that I even do yoga.

Oh, and did I tell you she's a yoga instructor?

She likes gadgets and technology, and is the sole reason there are any digital photos of my kids before 2006. She is also the queen of comfortable shoes and makes my sensible Aerosoles and LifeStrides look like Jimmy Choos.

She is also far more generous than I am. She'll find something she likes, a lot, and will buy one, then two, then....

L: "I got this great deal on puffy vests from Old Navy! I got one in this color and that color and I want to get one for you..."
A: "But I'm not sure I need another puffy vest..."
L: "Your puffy vest is on its way! Puffy vests for all the land!"

I'm more of a "I really like this shirt, and I hope I don't have to give it to someone off my back" kind of girl.

So we are quite different. But we are extremely close.

I met with a lovely writer this week to talk about writing and grief, and she and I talked about our losing Jack, and her losing her beloved nephew. As she began to share about her grief, she made sure to preface it with, "Please know I am not trying to compare losing my nephew to losing my child," but she went on to describe their years of closeness and the gaping hole his death left in her life.

Her preface was kind and sensitive, but in this case totally unnecessary; I have never doubted for one second how devastated my own sister is over the loss of Jack, and how his death changed everything.

She was there when he took his first breath.

She spent a few years as "Auntie Yiz" when Jack couldn't pronounce his "L's" and eventually just became "Auntie."  She was generous with my kids, staying up to date on their interests and getting a kick out of their personalities, even across the miles.

Sure, we regret times we did not make the effort to travel to see each other as often as we could have. We regret how we judged each other's parenting, both of us in the trenches with little ones at the same time, bringing the same childhood background but different personalities to our mothering as we do to everything else.

I know that when we lost Jack, Liz lost BIG.

Aunts (and uncles and best friends and neighbors) are sometimes thrust into caregiving roles at the very moment their own worlds have suddenly fallen apart. I think of Liz driving 5 hours through the darkness to get to us as soon as she heard Jack was missing. Of serving as a gate-keeper in dealing with the press and the outpouring of love, grief, and support that was coming our way while her brain was fractured and her heart broken. Of trying to support us the best way she could, while worrying about her own children and how they would survive their cousin's tragic death.

She wrote a speech about what she had learned from Jack, which captured his essence, to be read at his funeral. She had to try to put her own grief aside almost immediately, in the effort to HELP and to PROTECT us. What a burden those first hours, days, and weeks were to her. She was in triage mode, as we all were.

And those of us who grieve know that after those busy times, come quieter times, when you must figure out how to go on. She had to learn how to keep mothering in the face of loss, even when looking at her son, Jack's best friend, was so painful. How to encourage us to still get together, even though Jack's absence made those first visits horrific.

How to deal with the anger and bitterness.

How to try to make peace with God.

Liz did her grief work while she ran and ran and ran, logging in an unbelievable number of miles that first year.

I did my grief work while writing, showing up at this computer day after day.

Yes, her grief is different than mine, but an Auntie's loss is real.

The death of a child, the death of anyone, extends beyond just one household. Yes, you can eventually turn your focus back to the ones in your care, under your roof, or on your insurance plan, but the eyes with which you gaze on them see with a different perspective than before. Your heart is not the same either. There has been a shift. You know the fragility of life. You feel the absence that one person can leave. You realize that the present you are looking at could have and should have been different.

Grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles  and neighbors suffer. They need love and support for themselves, even as they are trying to give it to the parents and siblings of those who have died. They need time to reassess in the wake of a tragedy, to find ways to cope, to plumb the depths of their despair, to examine their beliefs to try to make sense of what feels senseless.

They may not get as much grace and latitude as those "closer" to the death do, but they need it just as much. They still cry in their beds at night.

And are more than "just" anyone.

33 comments:

Anonymous said...

I identify with Liz...not in the runner, yoga instructor way...but in the I lost my 6 year old niece suddenly and without warning in Aug of 2010 way.
I too always preface my grief with, "I am just the aunt..." And I too tried my best to be the worker...the one to organize, the one to feed the masses and answer the impossible questions...I knew my brother and sister in law and parents needed me to be. But honestly, the pain is/was truly excruciating and I appreciate this post that acknowledges that. I hope it will be the very worst thing I have ever have to live through...because I can't imagine anything as painful as that was/is. Guiding my own 5 children through the loss was traumatic on all of us and really tested my own faith. (But thankfully, God is patient and hindsight has a way of showing us His hand and support in our most difficult days and slowly I am recognizing those signs)
Annie's loss has left a huge gapping hole in our family. Our entire family. Thank you again for recognizing that a loss extends beyond one household. Peace to you and yours...Meg

Mary said...

Thank you. I wrote to you last month about going through a very hard road with my friend Pamela. Sometimes I feel like I should listen to a sad song, or leave my world that is fairly happy to visit hers to try to walk with her for a while. It's dark, it crappy, and it's hard on so many. But nothing like the Momma. Thank you for your words, they are so wise and so good. They help me be a better friend.

Dianne S said...

This is beautiful. I was an aunt six times over before I became a mother (when my youngest niece was 9). I married in my mid 30s and struggled with infertility and for a long time I thought my only babies would be my nieces and nephews. Being a mom is different but it doesn't mean I love them any less - thanks for acknowledging that. It sounds like you and your sister are so lucky to have each other.

Anonymous said...

I love the way you describe your complex yet loving relationship with your amazing sister in this beautiful tribute to her. It must have been so hard for Liz to be such a rock for you and your family (and hers) while she was crumbling inside. Thank you for telling us about her in this context; for shining a light on how your sister's grieving and loss are as important and huge as they are.

love,
jbhat

Peg said...

Thank you for such a lovely post. I reflect often about the ripple effects of a tragic loss. I really don't think there is such thing as grief olympics. Losing a loved one is awful on any level whether it's a child, parent, sibliing, niece or nephew. Liz sounds like a great aunt and your piece speaks volumes about what great sisters you both are.

monica said...

Thanks for this post... My twin sister lost her little boy when he was 3. My sweet nephew Harper would have just turned 8. I remember too vividly that phone call and the plane ride a few states over to get to her as soon as possible. We lost our parents when we were young so we hoped we had lived through enough tragedy. Nothing prepared us for this loss. I still feel it everyday. Sometimes it's waking up and it takes my breath away feeling that emptiness that must hit her. Sometimes it's because I miss him so much and wonder what our lives would be like if he was still with us. I hope I helped her during that beginning and I hope I help her now. I know she needs to know that we still think of him and that's not even an effort -I do every single day. I try to be there for her to laugh and cry and sometimes just for some pointless gossip. She is my best friend and my sister, her grief is my grief and I hope to help her navigate this life without him...

Greta @gfunkified said...

Oh my gosh. It's so true, not just for aunts, but sisters and brothers and in-laws and everyone in between.

Jennifer said...

I think sometimes it is hard for those that are not parents or siblings or spouses or children to feel a little guilty about our grief. Like, why should we feel this way. That person is hurting so much more. But that will always be the case and hurt is hurt. I love that you give us permission to feel that hurt, because you are right. The pain is real.

Anonymous said...

Like. I don't reach out as often, but please know I continue to think and pray for you and family daily. And every time I see a blue ribbon...I think of your Jack.
Lisa G. in CT

Anonymous said...

As always, Anna, beautifully written.

Thank you!

Leah said...

This was a needed post today. I lost my young uncle who was full of life 6 years ago in the army, and I was only 8. I felt like my grief shouldn't have been 'real' because he was "just" an uncle. As I've matured, I have been dealing more with the feelings I didn't allow myself to express, and honestly, I'm struggling. The rest of my family had ample time to grieve because they were 'allowed' to (sister, wife, children who didn't really understand, parents, etc). I always felt that others thought my grief wasn't real. This really solidifies me - that I, "just" a niece, am valid in my sadness.

Anonymous said...

This was beautiful and so thoughtful. I feel a love and protectiveness over my my nephews--exactly as if they were one of my own. Nva J

Nanabanana said...

Thank you so much for putting into words the grief of those who have lost close loved ones! We recently lost our son-in -law to a very sudden illness. I can't tell you the number of nights I have been woken up with a phone call from my terribly sad, lost and sobbing daughter! My heart breaks for her loss and OUR loss too! Even after 6 months from his passing, I still find myself "catching my breath" just thinking about him and all that my daughter has and is going through! Again, thank you, thank you for your thoughts, your blog and (most importantly) your book! You don't know what a help and comfort you have been to me and many others! I truly admire you and your grace!

Anonymous said...

thought you might find this sanskrit word interesting:

Muditā (Pāli and Sanskrit: मुदिता) means joy; especially sympathetic or vicarious joy.

Also: the pleasure that comes from delighting in other people's well-being.[1]

The traditional paradigmatic example of this mind-state is the attitude of a parent observing a growing child's accomplishments and successes. Mudita should not be confounded with pride as a person feeling mudita may not have any interest or direct income from the accomplishments of the other. Mudita is a pure joy unadulterated by self interest.

When we can be happy of the joys other beings feel, it is called mudita; the opposite word is envy or schadenfreude.

Anonymous said...

Wow. This is beautiful.

Lisa C said...

You have such a gift. Thank for your giving the outer circle recognition in OUR grief.

Kathy at kissing the frog said...

When my sister heard that Joey had been taken to the hospital, she left work and drove 3 and half hours to be with us. She is not only his aunt, but his godmother. I know she misses him every day, too. We never know how grief is going to affect someone else.

Elaine Alguire said...

I'm so glad you wrote about this and acknowledged it for what it is, Anna.
It's SO very hard for all those who are close the person who passes. I'm sorry for Liz's loss too. I would be completely heartbroken if any of my nieces or nephews were to leave us.

Love to you both.

Heidi Cave said...

Beautiful. Heart-achingly beautiful. And true.

Princess Kate said...

Just beautiful Anna. I just finished your book and I am overwhelmed by your family's pain but yet so comforted by your message of hope through God's grace. Jack is making such a difference.

Thanks also for the Jack magnet. Got it yesterday. Peace my friend.

Anonymous said...

I love your writing and am inspired by your posts everytime I read them. I do wish I could buy your book but sadly it's not in our budget right now. But, please know that I've been here for years cheering you on and am so happy for you and the success that came from your tragedy.

Kristin said...

My first niece was my "first baby" in many ways. I have a zillion photos of her, and she looks and acts just like me. We are so close, and I can't even think about losing her. Thank you for validating those other close relationships in loss. xo

Alison said...

Thank you for sharing what it is like for Liz. I don't know her, but I know her through you, and she's as amazing as you are. What a terrific woman she is.

Colleen Orme said...

Anna, I saved your post to read for a quiet moment when life was not begging its many distractions. I knew that I would cry and cry I did. Your words are so tremendously beautiful and selfless. You radiate grace and I am humbled by it and I am so grateful that you have 'allowed' me the feelings of unbearable loss that losing my sweet, beautiful nephew Matthew have left me with. I always feel like I have to apologize for having such overwhelming grief. You're quote says it all though that it is the price we pay for loving BIG! Meeting with you that day and telling you that I was, 'just' his aunt turned out to be a greater gift for me. Thank you for writing this. I met to write about you. It never occurred to me that you would write about me. Words are so healing. Especially when written by someone who has the gift that you do. xxoo Colleen

mosey (kim) said...

This struck me big time. A dear friend died earlier this year and I have struggled since with being the "just a friend". Thank you in your universe-size hearted way for recognizing that there are all different kinds of grief and they are all just as heartbreaking. Love to you, sweet Anna.

deeincollingo said...

Thank you for this thought provoking post. It reminds me to look up from my own grief as I mourn my youngest child and notice others who loved her and grieve her loss too. I admit to believing that no one could possibly miss Amy more than I, yet their pain is significant too. Losing a child changes everything. Even my ability to validate any grief not related to losing a child, which I feel guilty admitting.

Debby@Just Breathe said...

Excellent post Anna! I love and admire your understanding of all the forms that loss takes with all the people involved in knowing the person who passed away. ((HUGS))

Andrea Mowery said...

This is so beautiful, Anna. It's a good reminder that those who support the ones closest to grief can also use support of their own. We are all connected.

monicac2 said...

Beautiful! Your writing is absolutely beautiful, thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for putting feelings into words so well - from a grieving grandmother

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I loss my sweet nephew, Micah, on Good Friday. Micah was only 20 months old, and he brought us so much happiness and joy. Losing Micah has been the hardest thing that I have ever gone through. I cried several times while reading your post, because it captured my experience completely. Thank you so much for writing from your heart. -not just an aunt

Ximena said...

I work with Liz at TA and just lost my older sister 2 weeks. What you wrote was beautiful and so true.

Kerry Tomberlin said...

This post made me cry. I know your sweet Liz from Holy Yoga and she has ministered to me and my students through the loss of Jack. She truly is a blessing.