Families logo

Grief, Fear, Love and Meanness

by Paula C. Henderson 11 months ago in grief

The Family Dynamic

Grief, Fear, Love and Meanness
Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

Grief, Fear, Love and Meanness

People deal with grief differently. I respect that. Some deal with it by walking away and going on with as normal a day as possible. Some cannot face it head on but neither can they find their way to act “normal” and so they spend the day with family or friends who are also grieving. Another person may need to cancel all normal things and isolate themselves choosing to spend the day alone.

I remember reading an article about a family whose mother was hospitalized. They removed her from life support and the doctors told the family it could be anytime. The entire family, but one, went to the waiting room. The one family member that stayed with their mother was then shunned for staying behind and staying with their mother while she lay dying. The family member who was being interviewed for this article stated it was “sick, just sick. What kind of sick person do you have to be to sit and watch your mother die” she said.

I was taken back by this attitude. Such a strong reaction. Personally I would not want my loved one to die alone and so, I would stay at their bedside too given the chance. Can we instead appreciate those who have the courage to do these things, to deal with the life and death issues that we are confronted with? And, can we also be understanding to those who simply cannot bear it and choose instead to go down the hall to the waiting room?

I held a man in a Walmart parking lot as he died before the ambulance could get there. My daughter and I had finished shopping and as I was leaving it looked like a body on the ground. I told my daughter to stay in the car and slowly walked toward him. It was a man, then I saw what looked like many pieces of a motorcycle torn apart scattered along the roadside. I reached the man and he was bleeding heavily around the head and chest area. By now a man across the street had come out of his home and yelled if he needed to call 911. I said yes. He ran back into his house. I do not want to get too graphic here but it was impossible to tell what the man looked like and I could not even see a way to do chest compressions. I pulled his billfold to find out his name. I yelled, Gary! Gary! He gasp a breath. I could tell he had curly light brown hair just from the very top of his head on the one side. The other side was simply gone. It was really bad. When I yelled his name he would take a breath and so I kept yelling his name and I found a spot on the back of his left shoulder I could place my hand in case he could feel my touch. I no sooner heard the ambulance in the distance when he stopped responding to me. He had passed away.

This was a troubling event for me and I remember calling one of my aunt’s. We were only a few years apart in age. I told her what happened and I was so shocked by her response. She said, oh Paula, you’re going to hell. You didn’t say the Lord’s Prayer. I said well, I was trying to keep him alive not prepare him for death. She was not understanding or supportive at all and insisted I was going to hell. I can still hear her saying those words to me all these years later.

When my mother had open heart surgery when she was just 48 years old, I traveled from Ohio to Tennessee to be there. I will back track just a brief moment and share with you that my family was not close and we were estranged more than not through the years. This isn’t the time for such trivial matters and so I went. My mother’s six sisters, her mother (my grandmother) and my father were there. My brother, who lived near the hospital did not come. He was not estranged with our parents as far as I knew so I asked dad where he was and dad simply said, “he’s at work”. At first I felt angry but I thought well, maybe this is his way of dealing with it. So I never mentioned it to him. Of course, I never saw him even after her surgery he did not show up.

I sat next to my grandmother in the waiting room (a woman who didn’t care too much for me) and kept her engaged in conversation while mom was in surgery. I cannot imagine how upsetting this was for her. To think your daughter my die before you. I mean, to me this would have been a very stressful and upsetting day.

Years later when my father fell ill and was put on life support at just 58 years old, it was unexpected. He had a normal day. Got up, went to work. Normal day. About mid-morning he told mom he wasn’t feeling well and could she see if his doctor could fit him in this afternoon. Now, this was not unusual. Dad habitually went to the doctor when he felt the least bit under the weather or thought he had a cold or flu coming on and his doctor obliged him.

So around two in the afternoon mom picks him up and off they go. Mom is driving and dad is in the passenger side when not a few minutes out and mom noticed my father slumped down with his eyes closed. “Honey.” “Honey.” She pulls over. He was unresponsive. She drove to the emergency room instead of the doctor’s office.

I was ten hours away in Ohio when I got home from the grocery store and my answering machine (it was 2001) and my answering machine was full with messages from my brother that dad was on life support. I packed and grabbed my daughter and off we went. We arrived sometimes early morning after driving all night.

Nine days later the doctor told me he felt the family should make a decision about removing my father from life support. There had been no brain activity during the nine days. The doctor stated he wished he could tell me what happened but they simply could not find a thing wrong with him. They had ruled out heart attack, stroke, a whole laundry list of test had been done. Nothing. I asked him to come to the waiting room that afternoon when I knew my mother and my dad’s brother would both be there and instead of asking the question if we wanted him removed from life support (he had asked several times and they could not come to an agreement and answer him). I told the doctor to instead come and announce that dad would be removed from life support at three this afternoon unless you have some objection. I told him, If no one objects then let’s remove him from life support at three this afternoon. This strategy worked. They said it would only be a few hours now. After they removed life support me and my mother stayed with him for a couple of hours. And then the following day. And then the day after that. My mother was exhausted. I drove her home to lay down and shower quick so we could come back later to be with him.

Three days later my father passed away at 5:30 in the evening during one of the very few moments no one was in the room. I remember racing my mother back to the hospital. My mother running into the room. I stood back to not be in her way. The nurse was standing near dad’s head. The rails of the hospital bed were up. My mom was trying to hug my father. Her husband of 38 years but those rails were in her way. The nurse just stood there. I rushed up and yanked at the rail until it came down so my mother could hold him. I will tell you that this was one of the most moving moments of my life.

It wasn’t until a few years later that I thought back to that time. Those nine days. I was so focused on my mom and my daughter sometimes you don’t realize what transpired until some time later.

I don’t recall anyone asking me if I was okay, did I need anything. Instead they burdened me and burdened me. I took it upon myself to call and let my father’s business partners know he was in the hospital on life support in that first 24 hours. They ask about my mom, which I appreciated, but not me. My father is dying and instead of asking if I needed anything he went into “okay I need you to call around and get us about four hotel rooms and a rental car and then, just call me back when you get that done, okay.” Click. He hung up. What???

My brother and his wife ask if my daughter could hang out with his two girls for a while so he could take a break saying that was why he had not been at the hospital with us. My daughter was a senior in high school. My brother’s two girls were, one in the 7th grade and one a freshman in high school. My daughter said that was fine. She could take them to lunch away from the hospital. Get a break. She came back terribly upset and said she would never do that again. Apparently while my daughter was driving the car they were screaming and flailing their arms around and hitting her across the head and body. She said it was like they were beating her up. What was worse is that as soon as my daughter left the hospital with his kids, my brother and his wife didn’t go in to see dad or spend time with mom or other family. Instead they high tailed it out of the hospital to go do drugs. Only to come back and start screaming at me in the waiting room that I had stolen something from my brother’s vehicle left in the hospital parking lot. Threatening to call the police and my mother, with everything she is dealing with, as to calm him down and convince him that I never left the hospital or her side.

I believe fully in what I stated in the beginning of the article. We all have to be more understanding in how people deal with grief and fear. But this was plain abusive. Not to mention that I had no idea what kind of vehicle my brother drove or that it was in the parking lot. I had no history of stealing anything from anyone so this behavior was completely uncalled for. Not to mention how his feral children treated my daughter. Did no one understand I was glued to my mother’s side making sure she was getting everything she needed? That my own dad was on life support? Apparently not.

Then one of my mother’s sisters had driven from her home about two hours away to spend time with mom and the family at the hospital. When she left, she mistakenly took my purse instead of hers. She called me at the hospital to tell me when she got home. It was 11pm. I said well I’m going to need that tonight, I can’t even get home. The keys to mom’s car and house are in my purse, and my billfold with my license and money. She said (with a snarky tone) “you mean you’re not gonna come here and get it?” No. I don’t even know how I would and ….. She interrupted me before I could finish my sentence, “I just drove two hours. It’s 11 0’clock” I told her, “I just drove 10 hours yesterday overnight after working all day and have not slept. My father is on life support dying, my brother is MIA doing drugs somewhere, my mother cannot be left alone, she can barely see straight much less drive herself and plus I would have to find someone to lend me their car.” She responded with “I can’t believe you’re gonna make me drive all the way back.” And hung up. Really??

Again, I can forgive her if needed, but she really needs to apologize to me and so far that has not happened. It just got worse from there as the days went on but you get the picture. This was not an exercise in a supportive family leaning on one another during a crisis.

The nine day hospital stay was followed by a week of funeral arrangements that me and my mother took care of alone and then that was followed by 4 months of helping my mother sort it all out. I sent my daughter back to Ohio to get back to school for her senior year. I did not return home until after those four months just trying to get back before her graduation. No one helped. No one offered. And what’s worse is my family, accept one or two, scorned me, accused me and treated me badly. Perhaps this was how they dealt with the loss. I don’t know. The fine people of Ohio were not supportive either. Why did you leave your daughter for four month? That’s just wrong. It’s not like your dad died or anything. That was just awful for you to do. Well, thank you for asking. ??

I went back a couple times over the years until my mother died. When she had surgery once, and a couple other times after she had a mini stroke. I had told her to please remove my name from her will all together because I simply could not deal with my brother and his now grown two daughters and the rest of the family. Nothing had changed over the years. And so she did honor my wishes and she left everything to my brother and the grandchildren. My brother was serving an 8 year prison sentence (the second one) when my mom died. Her six sisters and grandchildren lived with just a few miles of her home except my daughter.

I stayed at home. My mother was not there anymore. She needed me when my dad was ill and died. I showed up every time she ask until she passed away. I was happy to do it. She no longer needed me at this time. The family had done too much damage over the years for me to step back into that. It’s a big deal when your mom dies. Life changing. I knew I would not be able to deal with their behaviors without a purpose like I had when dad was ill and passed and I was taking care of her.

If you have someone in your family who steps up to be the caretaker like I did many times during a crisis, please be supportive to that person. At the very least, do not make their journey harder. Understand that this is that person’s strength. Appreciate it and help if you can. If not, usually these people are understanding of how you deal with grief but whatever you do, don’t hinder them or be abusive. If you push them too far they may just eventually walk away.

Paula C. Henderson
Paula C. Henderson
Read next: Understanding the Effects of Addiction on the Family
Paula C. Henderson

Paula is a freelance writer, healthy food advocate, mom and cookbook author.

See all posts by Paula C. Henderson

Find us on socal media

Miscellaneous links