We were four children: Bruce, Michael, Andrea, and Marla, but when I was thirteen, Bruce, the oldest, died by suicide in the basement of our house in Minnesota. He was nineteen. My sister died in an institution at the age of twenty-seven. After many years of illness, my other brother, Michael, died of cancer when he was sixty-three. Each of these deaths felt like a part of myself had broken off.
Sometimes when people ask if I have siblings, I want to reply that I do not, rather than go through this painful litany of their deaths, the full meanings of which were understood by a generation now gone and by just a handful of the youngsters (now in their sixties, seventies, eighties) remaining.
A few years after Bruce died and we’d moved from Minnesota to South Dakota, my remaining family still read the Minneapolis Star and Tribune every morning, its wide pages passed along to me by my father as he finished them. When the obituaries came around, I ignored most unless a teenager had died in some tragic way – a car accident, a fall from a cliff, a gas station robbery, or especially by suicide.
I read each one of those reports with great compassion and curiosity. I studied the young faces in the photographs and tried to imagine what their lives had been like and what they would have turned into and what the lives of their families would look like in the years to come – heartbroken and emotionally adrift like ours was now after Bruce’s death and Michael’s departure from home shortly afterward so that he, only a teenager himself, could join the Navy? Or would these other, maybe smarter and more together siblings and parents bounce back in some admirable way I struggled to imagine?
I sometimes wished I could talk to those families, not for any help I could provide from my own experience because I was only fifteen when thinking about all this; it never occurred to me that I could help anyone. Instead, my thoughts leaned toward wondering about what I could learn from them.
If the Minneapolis newspaper reported on the death of someone who had been forty-five or fifty or older and they’d died in what I considered a normal way, a sickness, my eyes would glaze over their photographs. Those people were really old. They had not much time left, anyway. I might, or more likely might not, have felt a stir of sadness for their families before I put the paper down. But then I was only a kid and needed soon to head out the door and get over to the high school. Weren’t they expecting it, after all, these ancient people? And at least they weren’t suicides. At that time, my brother’s death was the only one I knew, and consequently the only one that felt real, and it felt horrible.
Last week, someone I’ve known for many years died. When I reflected on Diane’s life and the fairly swift coming of her death, naturally my mind wandered back to the years we’d known each other well. Still, I noticed that my first reaction had been: But she’s only seventy-four. This would have been a ridiculous thought to my young self, but not so uncommon to many of us who are judged as about ready to go. Death is welcome only when it relieves suffering. Otherwise, we’d like it to take a step back, please.
These days when I read or hear about the death of anyone at any age and think about those who loved them, I have more than a glimmer as to how those left behind might be feeling. One of the many wonders of old age is what happens when your mind encounters sad, perhaps devastating, events. It sweeps over your knowledge of such things, whether personal or through friendships, like a strong breeze passing over a variety of prairie grasses: Big bluestem, salt grass, bottlebrush, porcupine, rice grass, foxtail, timothy, cupgrass, tufted lovegrass, wild rye. You ask, Which one is this? And then comes a moment when a known grief springs up green and fresh. Oh yes, this kind again.
We see things from where we are. Younger people might assume, as I did when young, that the old should be used to loss by now. Of course some wiser, more gifted younger people empathize with the sorrows of the old and all the wrappings those sorrows have come in over long lives: the deaths of mothers, fathers, beloved cousins, aunts, and uncles, as well as the loss of friends, long-time neighbors, familiar store clerks and bus drivers and mail deliverers. Unless we’re Buddhist monks or completely oblivious, we’re subject to spells of grief and reactivated grief, long or short, for those who depart this earth at any time for any reason.
But there are still other sorts of grieving we know, too. Only a few of such losses include: dear friendships through misunderstandings, the alienation from relatives we love due to drug addiction or alcoholism, pink slips delivered to our desks at jobs we thought we’d keep until retirement, homes lost through natural disaster or bankruptcy, car licenses revoked due to infirmity, and of course the body itself breaking down and losing one capacity or another, bit by bit or all by all. The real wonder of it, a wise young person might consider, is that a good portion of the old aren’t mowed down by grief alone.
When I was seventeen and in college, I won a prize for a piece I wrote about my brother’s death. I’d titled it “The Grass Grows Tall,” thinking of his final resting place on another patch of prairie to the north of me, a cemetery set among rolling hills in North Dakota. I don’t remember much about that essay except for the last sentence: The grass grows tall over my brother’s grave, and I grow with it.
I can recall ending it that way because I thought, or at least hoped, I would grow away from that particular grief eventually, but I never did. If asked, I can instantly list all the reasons I miss Bruce and want him still here, maybe now more than ever before. He was the family member with whom I shared the most, including love of books, humor, interests, even physical traits.
I might find myself gazing into the mirror on any given Tuesday or Saturday or Christmas morning and asking, What would he look like today? Would we still resemble one another so closely? Would we talk on the phone – he in his house in some other part of the country, perhaps New York where I could easily imagine him as a writer or semi-retired book editor, and me out here in the west? I have no doubt we’d agree on nearly everything. Even though some would surely say this is only wishful thinking, I don’t think so. True kindred spirits in a lifetime are few, and they are the hardest losses of all.
I wish I could speak to that young girl sitting at the breakfast table in South Dakota searching the newspaper for some experience like her own, looking for answers about how to proceed with her life. I’d comfort her and tell her that one day not far off she’d move away from the prairie to a different kind of landscape, but even there, like the streams of joy and peaks of happiness that would eventually arrive, losses would visit her, too. They might come in as many forms as prairie grass but all would be survivable, and, no matter what, all she needed to go on was love, only love.
Andrea Carlisle wrote a blog for seven years about caring for her mother: Go Ask Alice…When She’s 94. Her stories, essays, and poems have appeared in Catamaran, Travelers’ Tales, J Journal (John Jay College, CUNY), So to Speak, Northwest Review, Calyx, The Ledge, Willow Springs, Funny Times, and various other publications. Her poem, “Emily Dickinson’s To-Do List,” has appeared in anthologies, most recently in Literature and the Writing Process, Pearson (10th Edition). She also published a book of fiction, The Riverhouse Stories (Eighth Mountain Press). You can find out more at andreacarlisle.com.