I don’t do grief well. But I have learned to study it in others and thus find my way.
My father died more than 10 years ago, and except for essential papers related to his estate, I simply boxed up most of his papers and stored them in the attic of my rectory for future attention. At long last I am sorting through those boxes. Among his effects were also many papers of my mother’s, who died about two years before he passed away.
I discovered many things that moved me. As I read through the various papers, I was reminded that many of us never really know the pain and grief that others bear. In particular, I was struck by the poignant file that was simply labeled, “Mary Anne.” (A photo of my father and sister is at right).
My sister Mary Anne was tragically afflicted with mental illness from her earliest days. My parents knew there was trouble early on when she did not speak a word until she was well past two, and even then only at home. She had a pathological shyness that led her to shut down in the presence of others outside the home. The counselor at her elementary school spoke of Mary Anne as “disturbed” and insisted on psychiatric care for her by the time she was six.
Discretion and brevity limit what I intend to share here, but Mary Anne was deeply troubled. By age 13, she had to be hospitalized and spent the remainder of her life in 15 different mental hospitals and 6 different group homes. She was often able to visit with us and even stay over on weekend passes. She had stretches during which she was stable, but soon “the voices” would return, as would the dreams that afflicted her. Her psychotic episodes often led to running away, outbursts of violence, and attempts at suicide.
Through all of this, my parents fought very hard for her, and to be sure she got the care she needed. This often led them to various courts and generated much correspondence with insurance companies, state mental health officials, and private hospitals where she was confined. Indeed, during her lifetime my parents made many sacrifices for Mary Anne, both financial and personal, to ensure her care. At one point in the early 1970s, aware that Mary Anne felt isolated in the house with three brothers and desperately wanted a sister, my parents even went so far as to seek to adopt a baby girl. They filed paperwork and came very close, but the plan ultimately fell through. The baby sister we never had …
Maryanne died in a fire in the winter of 1991 at the age of 30. She likely had a hand in that fire; she had set fires before when the “voices” told her to. I could see the pain on her face as her body lay in the casket and I wept when I saw her. The funeral director explained that there was little he could do since her skin had been singed in the fire. She had clearly been crying when she died—a grief observed.
My father wrote this on the frontispiece of her file:
Mary Anne Pope was our first child.
She led a tortured existence during a short life
and fought hard against great odds.
We remember her for her courage.
And as I read my own parents’ touching recollections of Mary Anne, I could not help but moved, too, by their own pain. Such a heavy grief punctuates each page. I give them great credit for the fact that they insulated the rest of us, their three sons, from the most of the dreadful details of poor Mary Anne’s struggle. They kept their pain largely to themselves and stayed available to us. It is true that there were episodes we had to know about, but as a young boy and teenager I saw in my parents only strength and stability when it came to this matter. I saw my father’s grief and pain for the first time as he wept, standing there at the funeral home looking at my sister—It was a grief observed.
After my sister’s death, my mother’s grief grew steadily worse, causing her struggle with alcohol to worsen as well; she became increasingly incapacitated. Her life ended tragically and suddenly on a cold February day. My father had looked away for only a brief moment, going into the kitchen to make a sandwich, and mom wandered out into a snowstorm. Incapacitated by alcohol and disoriented, she died of hypothermia. We found her body only after three days of searching, when the snow melted a bit. She had died almost a mile away, near the edge of the woods—In her death it was another a grief observed, it was her grief.
My father never quite forgave himself for letting her slip away. The open front door, a first sign of trouble; the searching on a dark, frigid, and stormy night; the steady awareness, “She’s gone.” Those memories haunted him. In the months that followed, he often wondered how he could go on when half of him was gone. He, too, was gone within two years. His congestive heart failure worsened and he died in 2007, literally and figuratively of a broken heart—a grief observed.
All these thoughts swept over me as I looked through this file labeled simply, “Mary Anne.” I too am grieving
There is an old spiritual that says, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus.” And it is a mighty good thing that he does know. Sometimes the grief is too heavy even to share, even to put into words. But Jesus knows all about our troubles. There is a beautiful line in the Book of Revelation that refers to those who have died in the Lord: He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Rev 21:4-5)
For my brave parents and courageous sister, who all died in the Lord but who died with grief, I pray that this text has already been fulfilled, and that they now enjoy that everything is new—a grief observed no longer.
Requiescant in pace
I made this video on what would have been my parents 50th anniversary. I picked the song “Cold enough to snow,” since it spoke to my Father’s grief in losing mom on that snowy night.