Grief is a sacred journey

We Are Family: Strengthening Connections after a Dad’s Death

David and Anthony

My son David and his wife Liz drove from North Carolina and met my local son Anthony for a beer at Two Goats Brewery on Seneca Lake before they arrived at my house. David and Liz came with three dogs and coolers filled with fruits and vegetables from their garden.

The next morning, Liz and I released a monarch butterfly and set up a crate of milkweed cuttings for the largest caterpillars.

We needed an adventure that worked for Liz who fractured her jaw a month ago and struggled with a jaw held together (temporarily) with screws and rubber bands. And “the mom” who is prone to vertigo in steamy weather. Plus, two dogs, one young rescued sweetie who needed exercise and a five pound Chihuahua who hates being left home. My dog Willow and David’s older dog were happy to stay home in exchange for chew bones.

Anthony suggested we meet at Upper Treman State Park. Before the floods that came a few days later, we were greeted by a waterfall and full stream. It wasn’t crowded like Taughannock Falls or Watkins Glen. I’d taken my kids swimming at Lower Treman Falls years ago, but didn’t know these trails. David and Liz hadn’t seen Upper Treman. Bingo.

We walked the Gorge Trail and then the Rim. Cascading waterfalls, rushing water, and long views around every bend. I lagged climbing the steep trail to the rim. They sat in the shade to let me catch my breath.

David, Anthony, & Vic, 1977

I watched this threesome, joke and play. It wasn’t always easy between my sons. They argued the way kids do. Then, one moved south and one west. They rarely saw each other except at Christmas.

When their dad was sick, they came home often and we spent more time together as a family. During those years, a close friend died. Unhealed wounds bubbled to the surface in her family as siblings argued over property and just about everything.

“Don’t turn on each other,” Vic asked our sons with a pleading look I won’t forget. “Be good to each other.”  He knew they would support me, but hoped they would support each other and be brothers who could count on each other, something Vic never had.

They heard him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

After Vic’s death, they worked to get to know each other as adults and spend time together. Love demanded tolerance and forgiveness. It demanded psychological awareness, acceptance of a new family configuration without Vic, the jokester and peace-maker. They needed to become interested in each other’s passions and each other’s style—including mine since I’d changed, too.

On the trails, I felt how far we’ve come in learning to admire, support, and love each other’s differences. As I watched them jive and joke, I imagined Vic laughing with them and shooting fast quips as he always did. I wanted to jive, too, but my hearing doesn’t allow fast repartee with a waterfall in the background. And that’s OK. When I stand back and leave space in the center, they get a chance to know each other.

By the time we reached Lucifer Falls, I’d let go of straining to hear every word. I trusted they’d tell me what I need to know. They always do. They always will.

When I’m with my family, I see myself in new ways and face who and where I am. I see how to make life better and easier. I find new beauty and possibility. Their love makes me strong.

Even with one missing, we are family.

***

How has your family dealt with a major loss? Have you found ways to pull together? Was it a challenge? To read more about my family, see Sunshine on the Wedding. For another post about family and the beauty of the Finger Lakes, see My Uncoupled Life: Family Changes after a Death.

 

23 Comments
  1. Dear Elaine, Thank you for sharing more of your family stories and wonderful photographs with us, especially the first photo with both your sons looking at each other … it spoke volumes! It was lovely to read all about your Gorge Trail and Rim trek with Liz, David and Antony. (I love it when I discover or try out a new walking trail.) And those picturesque, cascading falls looked awesome! How wonderful that your sons have embraced their differences and leaned into love rather than turned away! What a joy that must be for you to witness as their mother and to know that Vic would be happy and smiling too! I guess many readers, (like myself) nodded and understood your deeply wise comment about, “stepping back and leaving the centre empty” so each sibling could find the other without having to go through you first. Such beautiful wisdom and deep knowing from one who knows … like the moment you gave up trying to hear everything and trusted that love and deep connection all around you! Love, light and laughter, Deborah.

    • Dear Deborah, thank you for your kind response. I love that photo of my sons. No one mugging for a change but just a sweet connection. I truly have to learn to be satisfied with visual information. I’d learn to sign but no one in my world knows American Sign Language so my doctors have me focusing on lip reading. I’m fairly good at that already. In beauty from the Monarch Mama

  2. Lovely, Elaine. I’m happy for you. I too have two sons; they fought constantly as kids, instigating in turns. I get a particular thrill these days when I watch them be together. They work together now and have such separate and distinct skills, it works well. But oh those growing up years! One year my tack was to have them go to their separate rooms and write down what had happened. The best thing out of that is the entertaining reading they now provide. 🙂

    • What a wise plan, Janet. We separated a while and then talked it through. Pre-puberty was peace and fun between them. I’m grateful we’re finding deep connections again. Liz has a balancing and loving energy to add to the mix.

  3. I loved this so much I shared it on my page. Thanks, Elaine, for writing such thoughtful pieces. Your vulnerability helps people by showing them how you “lean into” the changes and articulate the challenges after loss. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks so much Lynne and thanks for your beautiful page. Just after I posted my blog on FB, internet dropped on my computer so I haven’t been on line except to send a few emails. Learning new tricks on my new iPhone required for new hearing aids coming next month so I could read and respond to comments. I’ll look at FB when my main computer is on line.

  4. It is touching to read how you see your sons as a mirror of your evolving family. You and Vic did a fantastic job of raising them, and they are proving it with their pulling together for common goals now. Together, they seem to be an amalgam of Vic as jokester and peacemaker.

    You mentioned siblings arguing over property when a loved one passes on. I’ve heard it happens in many families, and my financial advisor warned, “Sometimes people even fight over a thin dime.” None of that happened when we settled two estates, but the sisters had a few angry flareups because of the stress of the ordeal.

    You live in a beautiful part of the world, and it’s obvious you have passed the love of nature on to your sons. I love all the photos, especially the one of you and Liz. Precious!

    • Thanks, Marian. I’m fortunate to have a loving daughter-in-love who feels like a daughter. Wasn’t our hike beautiful? Many around here have bumper stickers: ”Ithaca is Gorges.” My brother and I didn’t struggle when my mother died. In hospice work, I see how often that happens. No necessarily over things or $, but old resentment bubbles up and irritation from stress. I’m glad Vic and I helped our sons learn to talk things through and they continue that family style.

  5. This is so beautiful Elaine thank you. I loved reading every word. My good wishes to Liz, may her being in nature and with all of you help her jaw heal well. The photographs are lovely thank you. Death brings up so much is my first reaction. Or the prospect of death – It forces us to face the big questions. We are fortunate indeed if we have the sturdy rock of family to sustain us at all times, including the difficult ones.

    May the configuration sans the Vic the jokester and peace maker continue to flourish Elaine. Your sons have surely learned much from their father and from you. Among it all, you and family, and nature, the thread of love shines …

    Thank you again.

    • Your words are reassuring, Susan. Thank you. It’s sobering to deal with grandma who is 102 no longer on hospice service because she gained weight and all wounds and illnesses healed. She is most definitely not actively dying but her situation is hard to watch. And now a mom losing her hearing. Such is this life and such is a family. I’m grateful for our mutual love and support.

  6. Elaine, thank you again for your deep insights and beautiful way of expressing them. I had a stepson, his wife and daughter stay with me recently and was blessed to have my daughter and her children show up at various times during their stay to reconnect with them. It was nice to stand back or work in the kitchen while they all enjoyed each other.

    • We’re fortunate in this way, Lynne. I’m glad your stepson and daughter stay connected with each other. It must be great for the cousins–and for you. A good meal always smooths the way I cooked one and David and Liz cooked another. We all pitched in to chop, set tables, and clean up. Miracle of miracles, it didn’t rain while they were here. It hasn’t stopped since they left–but I won’t complain because this is much better than forest fires and drought.

  7. I loved reading about and seeing pictures of your family’s deep connections. As always, the honesty with which you write makes your stories resonate deeply in the heart. Even in my 60’s,I am still working hard on witnessing the authentic relationship my adult children are building with one another rather than wishing they were more alike/closer/or whatever distortion of reality I am imposing. And when I manage, as you wrote,to “stand back and leave space in the center,” I see how my stepping out of the way allows them to get to know each other better. Thank you, Elaine (Monarch Mama!), for sharing your beautiful wisdom.

    • Thank you, Anne. I love seeing my sons enjoy each other. It’s natural to want them to be a certain way. My husband had worked his way out of a housing project through hard work and good grades, but he truly believed in “Follow Your Bliss.” He didn’t need his kids to do it his way and helped me accept their unique styles. I simply know that I will jump through hoops to get along with them, even when we’re mad at each other. We keep talking. I’m grateful we’re all willing to work through the rough spots–because there are plenty of those in any family.

  8. So beautiful that your family grew tighter in rough times Elaine. Many drift apart, and often because of what’s willed to one and not the other. I speak from experience. Not from my dad of course, but from his dad who outlived my father by 2 years and undid everything my father had planned left for his children – an even divide. Me, I’d never ever fight over money, but then, my siblings are not me. 🙂

    • I agree, Debby. I’ve watched others drift away because of conflict. Of course, we have conflict, but we keep talking–and it’s never about money. I have a clear and updated will and all is left 50-50. They both know my financial situation now and I keep everything open in that realm. If someone borrowed money (when they were younger and starting a business, for example), the other knew every detail and all was kept track of in a clear way. My mother was secretive about money I never understood why it was worth trying to hide or divide with secrets.

      • Absolutely agree Elaine. Perhaps those were the old ‘hush’ ways of the last generation. But there’s too much info available these days, and why bother deceiving our loved ones. 🙂

  9. Your family sounds lovely. Thank you for giving us a glimpse into this part of your life.

    • Like all families, we’ve had good times and hard times, times when we liked each other and times when we didn’t, times when we supported each other and times when we should have done more. Fortunately, we always had enough love to come back for another round of working it out.

  10. Powerful tale here, and such a beautiful nudge to the heart. Thank you for this. x

    • Thank you, Jean. I appreciate your comment. The death of a beloved father and husband rocked my small family hard. We moved into new roles and saw each other in new ways. I’m grateful they’re good at being open about grief and about just about everything.

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