National Suicide Prevention Hotline: Dial 988
March 10, 2021

Grief Without Closure

Twisting the swing in circles and then unwinding, over and over. A powder blue windbreaker, flared pants, and my sassy Dorothy Hamil haircut. 1977.

Ah, recess! The freedom to twirl into intoxicating dizziness.

The restless mob of students charged the doors to escape the classroom and the eyes of our teacher, running full speed while screeching to coveted pieces of playground equipment. A few minutes into our freedom and my drunken dizziness, Mrs. Dalton was walking toward me.

“Honey, your mom called.”

“My Aunt Marilyn?”

“Yes, your mom is coming to get you in a few minutes.”

I knew she had cancer. I knew it was bad. My mom had gone to visit her a few times. She told me she was going to die.

Mrs. H., the grandmotherly babysitter that often stayed with us, was on her way.  Mrs. H. made us cinnamon sugar toast, so I was just fine with my parents leaving, usually. This time I wanted to go with them to see what was going to happen, to see what death meant.

My younger brother, Mrs.H., and I were left to wonder and wait for phone calls. I was sad. Sad enough, that my Aunt dying was an acceptable excuse to skip my piano lesson.

It was an overt plea for sympathy because I needed my sadness recognized; the thought that I might be sad was lost in the haste of my parent’s quick departure (and I hadn’t practiced much).

I adored my Aunt Marilyn! She was so fun. Many of my memories are from photo albums filled with snapshots.  But I do remember a sleepover with bed bug fights in her huge king bed! The sheets were tangled tunnels for escaping. Mornings came with a facetious stern warning to not eating the hole in the doughnut, “Don’t do it!” my aunt would mock. It was always gone, no matter how hard I tried to eat around it!

Baking with Aunt Marilyn meant there were always mixer-beaters to lick. Her famous peanut butter fudge and persimmon pudding cannot be duplicated. I have the recipes and a record of failed attempts.

These are the memories of my Aunt Marilyn, who died too soon at the tender age of 34 from lung and brain cancer.

Chemotherapy in the 1970s was barbaric, and the radiation on her brain caused hallucinations; there were potato chips left in the house plants that made her irate.

Cancer sucks!

I did not get to say good-bye because she was not in her right mind.  

I did not get to attend her funeral.

Both decisions were made for me since I was only an 8-year-old third-grader. As a parent now, I understand there were reasons to not have children around; I am certain my mother needed her space and time to grieve the death of her younger sister and manage the grief of their mother. My grandmother, already a widow of 25 years, lost her youngest child and now had a motherless 12-year-old grand-daughter to care for. A devastating situation that had other layers of family dynamics of which I was never completely aware.

The decision to leave us home was a loving one, an effort to spare my brother and me from grief at tender ages.

But the lack of closure, forty-plus years later, lingers.

A jewelry box from my aunt’s dresser, dark wood with painted gold detail, is still with me.   The tiny drawers lined with patterned low-pile gold velour hold remnants of my adolescent collection; a spare gold earring post from getting my ears pierced, an obnoxious neon foam earrings from high-school mismarked fashion, and a collection of ski pins from the 1980s.

This little box holds my tangible collection of youthful relics and lifts my Aunt Marilyn to my thoughts every time I wander through the memory-filled drawers.

Over the years, I eventually learned to trust that I can still draw upon our loved ones' love and memories.  In the earliest days of grief, it seems gratuitous to think the memories and relationships will live. But they do, year after year, memories are replayed, and new insights come with the shared stories of those we lost.

Understanding the circumstances of death, our reactions, and others' decisions come with time, distance, and our own life experiences. We learn to forgive the choices beyond our control and keep what we can.

The heart is an elephant, and won’t forget the indelible love that was had. That’s the leap of faith we make through the mourning process. Be kind to yourself as you lean into the faith journey that shapes your heart’s memory.

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