Keeping Love Alive When Grief Goes Underground



I miss my big brother’s Sunday calls.

I want to tell him Bob Dylan won the Noble Prize in Literature. My brother Jim brought Dylan records home from college when I was 14. I want to tell him Clinton will win this endless upsetting election. He was sure Hillary Clinton was the woman for the job.

I want to tell him I’m OK without him, but that’s not quite true.

Jim died in April. It’s only been six months, but his death feels too distant. I feel a little numb. Something is off.

Grief went underground. I hear it rustling in the dark. It’s hard to grip what I’ve lost. Unlike my husband’s death, Jim’s death didn’t change my daily life. We hadn’t lived together since I was in college. Memories of him don’t permeate my home.



With only a few mutual friends and with his family at a distance, I rarely share stories about him. Unlike the strong community of support I had with my husband, this time I’m on my own.

I don’t want to lose who I was in Jim’s eyes. He saw me as capable, interesting, even wise. I felt protected by his presence on the earth.

I go days without thinking about him, even though I want to remember him and feel our closeness. Life presents an opportunity.

This week, I’ll take a two-hour drive to read a five-minute article at the launch party for The Healing Muse. I’ll also spend time with two dear friends, my only friends who knew Jim well. Despite the distance, I need to go.

14572165_1607028775989506_7795366770190437363_n (1)In mid-April, after weeks in the hospital, Jim seemed stronger. He waited to be released to rehab, so it was a good time for me to take a quick trip home. Along with paying bills and feeding birds, I polished an article I’d written for The Healing Muse. I hoped to place my third article in three years in this journal from SUNY Upstate Medical University’s Center for Bioethics & Humanities. Jim read an early draft and gave permission to submit.

Playing "father of the bride" at my wedding 1968

Playing “father of the bride” at my wedding, 1968

After hitting the send button, I got a call that Jim hadn’t gone to rehab after all. Instead, he had pneumonia again. I drove back to Cambridge to be with him. He died of cancer complications a few days later. As he asked and as I hoped, I was with him and his family for his last breath.

Before reading my article, I’ll remember the support we gave each other and dedicate the reading to Jim. It’s a way to honor this quiet grief.

After my husband died in 2008, Jim called often. We saw each other more than we had since we were kids, and even more after Jim got sick.

“I’m sorry,” I said when I wept with grief.

“Don’t be sorry,” Jim said. “It’s natural to cry.” He was a man who rarely wept, but he never suggested I should get it together or move on. Not once.



Jim’s long illness made us close. The love I took for granted felt more precious. “I’ll always support you,” he said many times, but I didn’t know what that would look after his death.

When I read the article, his article, I’ll feel both grief and love. If unshed tears surface, I’ll try not to be ashamed. Instead, I’ll remember Jim.

It hurts to be the last one standing, but here I am. It’s up to me to keep our connection alive. I’ll look at old photos. I’ll tell and write more stories. I’ll remember with ritual and flowers. I can turn toward this quiet ache of sorrow and let love rise from my hurting heart.

In this way, I’ll reach out for my big brother’s hand.


How do you stay connected with those who have died? Or have you decided the memories are too painful? For other articles about relationship with  my brother, see Soul Care in Hard Times or The Thief: When Cancer Returned (published in The Healing Muse, 2015).


  1. Yes, dear Elaine. “If their song is to continue, then we must do the singing.” I think both Jim and Vic will hear your lovely voice today. ♥

  2. You are capable, interesting, and wise, Elaine. This comes through clearly and deeply in your writing.

  3. A beautiful tribute to your brother Elaine. You can’t measure time or grieving periods as you well know. Every death we experience is taken in differently and touches a different part of our hearts. I think it’s beautiful how you honor your brother, what you shared, what you miss and what you’ll always remember. Enjoy the reading, shed a few tears and know that your brother still knows. <3

  4. The best way to stay connected to those who have died is to write: you of Vic and your brother, I of my mother – and very soon my aunt. My sisters say they feel the sharp edges of grief. I think mine have been caressed by the therapy of writing. (I wonder if that last sentence makes sense to you – that’s what my fingers wrote just now.)

    As you mentioned and Mark echoed: You are capable, interesting, and wise.

    Poignant tribute.

    Condolences still . . .

    • No doubt writing is the primary way for me to stay connected. It’s also important for me to make space in life to feel those sharp edges of grief. I co-led a hospice bereavement group last weekend, another opportunity to turn my thoughts from my husband who is so accessible in my inner and outer worlds and think about my brother. Then I remember what’s missing. Those phone calls. Talks about politics without anger. Sharing his concerns and burdens around facing death. Comparing notes on childhood and family dynamics. It was a gift, especially after Vic’s death, to be seen through his patient and positive eyes. He never doubted that I’d find a way to be OK.

      Thank you, Marian. Yes, condolences still for all of us for a long, long time.

    • Writing has helped me so much through the process of my mother’s final illness and death last winter, I kept a journal through it all, and have written on my blog about the grieving process. I’m hoping to turn it all into a book someday.

      Cooking my moms favorite recipes is a really important way I stay connected with her. I also wear some of her clothes, have some of her artwork and home decor around the house. Small things that help in a big way.

      • Thanks for your reflections, Becca. I’m so sorry your mom died. Being a caregiver followed by life without the person we love transforms us. I imagine your blog helps many with their grief. I’m glad you kept a journal. I bought a new journal the day we understood my husband had a rare incurable cancer and wrote in it every day. Sometimes, on the most exhausting days, I only wrote a list of what happened in the last 24 hours. I’m grateful for every observation, experience, and feeling I recorded. After he died, I joined a writing class where I wrote about experiences during his illness, learning to live on my own, and stories from our life together. In a few years, I realized I had the core of a book. I had less contact with the day-to-day care of my brother because I live 8 hours from him, but when I was with him, my journal and often my blog focused on him.

        I love the ways you honor your mom. I agree that small things help in a big way. Your book will be a big, big way to honor her.

  5. Elegant and moving as always, Elaine. The last one standing bit really got to me.

  6. Another rarely discussed topic beautifully expressed! You are an inspiration to those who grieve, Elaine. And that includes all of us!

    • Jeanie, I dug around to find the root of my feeling that something was missing and not being faced. Now I’m thinking about him all the time. This feels healing and right.

  7. My friend Yvonne’s birthday came a day before mine, and we often celebrated together. After I moved away from Ithaca, we corresponded increasingly infrequently (Yvonne didn’t have email). But each year we sent each other long letters on our birthdays, catching up on news and reminiscing. Since Yvonne died, I miss her most keenly when our birthdays come around. After reading your wonderful tribute to your brother Jim, it occurs to me to continue writing a birthday letter each year to Yvonne. Perhaps it will be a small but satisfying ritual.

    • What a great idea. Jeanne. I imagine it will bring a sense of closeness with Yvonne. It’s hard to grieve a death for someone we didn’t see often. They disappear–way over there somewhere. Birthday letters are a good reminder for all of us–for the living and the dead. Sending you love.

  8. “I don’t want to lose who I was in Jim’s eyes”…
    My father-in-law died in April of last year and my wife is continuing to grieve. He had many weaknesses, was infuriating in many ways, but had oodles of charm. Your words above reminded me of how he held me in his eyes, and for today has made the loss an immediate one and I thank you for this. It has been much needed in me.

    • Thanks for your comment, Brian. Your wife might be interested in my TEDx talk (“Good Grief! What I Learned from Loss,” which focuses on ways to deal with grief and make it more meaningful. I’m glad this piece helped you remember your father-in-law in a different way. Sounds like he was a normal human mix of wonderful and maddening.

  9. as always Dear Elaine: Thank you for your truth and beauty and love!!!!
    I hope your event went swimmingly!!

    • Thank you, Lori. It’s been good for me to do more digesting of my brother’s death. The reading went well. It’s always a pleasure to attend a Healing Muse event.

  10. I have been so inspired by your writings, Elaine. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

  11. I kinda understand the distanced grieving thing. I never really got to grieve for my father as I was so busy with my daughter, first keeping her alive and then falling to pieces when she died. Over time I’ve learned to “check in” with my dad. Often, when there’s some financial thing to consider, I set aside special time to light a candle, have wine and really good cheese, and share my thoughts with my dad. Money and food were our ways to connect before he died. So this works for me. In this way he is still getting me to think about how I’m spending.

    • Wine, cheese, and Dad’s trusted financial advice. Sounds like a winning combination, Robin. I’m glad you’ve found ways to feel close to your dad. I love how we create unique personal rituals to suit the person and the relationship.

  12. Lovely Post, Elaine. My brother and I are just starting up a tradition of Sunday morning calls. We’re the only ones left of the family and it’s a very comforting thing to do.

    • Thank you, Joan. After Vic died, my brother and I took more time to support each other. For the past 10 years, the Sunday morning calls became the glue along with more frequent visits. I’m glad you and your brother share these things, too.

  13. As always you write so eloquently and beautifully Elaine about feelings that are difficult to articulate .. it is a true gift which you share with others. May your trip go well and your talk … those who will be there are fortunate indeed …

    • I did the reading yesterday, Susan. I was emotional, but not over the edge. It went well. It took forever to write this piece (and I still want to edit the ending) because, as you say, these feelings are hard to articulate. Also hidden and mysterious. Thanks so much for your encouraging words.

  14. May your words honor your brother’s life and your voice express the depth of love you felt for him and the grief that has surfaced again. Up and down go the waves.

    I like what Mark said above. And third it, after Marian.

    • Thank you, Shirley. I’m glad I took the trip. My two friends who knew Jim were at the reading. A wonderful gift. Up and down goes grief, although that wasn’t true with Vic. It was strong and steady then. I was surprised by the way this sorrow hides away. My grief is much less hidden now.

  15. Tender and beautiful as always. The very last line brought tears to my eyes. I think it was pretty clear how well and how much he came to appreciate the love that was always there but that you brought to him in the end and made palpable and clearly apparent. Perhaps it surprised him some. He clearly found peace and solace in it. One is fortunate to have you as his sister.

    • Thank you, Dennis. Yes, Jim may have been surprised that I showed up so strongly when he got sick, but we’d already strengthened our connection during the previous ten years. I know our conversations surprised me as they went deeper and became more philosophic. He was honest about perspectives and ideas that weren’t helpful, but in time there was solace in sharing his experience, his fears, even his dreams with someone close.

  16. I’m so sorry about Jim, Elaine. He sounds like a wonderful brother, as you were a wonderful sister to him. I hope the reading goes well. Those tears can be so cathartic sometimes. xox

    • Thank you, Mary. The reading went well, and I’m glad I made the effort. In general, I’m a weepy one. Few tears was a clue that something had been repressed. My tears are back.

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