The Art of Relating

Christine Kniffen, MSW, LCSW

Sudden Grief: Finding A Way Through

On Saturday, May 13th, my 57- year-old brother suffered a massive heart attack and died instantly. Like most people, I didn’t believe it when I learned the news. I had to do a figurative double take in order to comprehend what had just happened. I have had my share of loss with the death of my father 5 years ago and the death of my nearly 104-year-old grandmother the year before my father passed. However, I have never had the experience of someone close to me dying in such a startling way. Unfortunately, it was neither improbable nor unforeseen, which perhaps added to the complexity of my feelings.

My brother Douglas had a bad experience in the hospital when he was 6 or 7 years old. As a result, he distrusted doctors and the entire medical profession. And, not unlike my father, he would never voluntarily go to one and certainly was not interested in ever finding out about any possible issues with high blood pressure, potential diabetes, etc. I found out yesterday that he had complained to a friend about chest pains, never telling his family and never talking about it.

My brother was extremely intelligent, quite frankly off the charts in some areas. But, when it came to health there was some sort of strange denial and fighting for the opposite of all we know. He claimed his cigarette smoke kept out worse things in his lungs, denied that animal fat can clog your arteries, that seatbelts were more dangerous, etc. To make matters worse, he completely extolled the virtues of “animal fat” and had a diet highly comprised of grain fed beef, pork and loads of real butter. As a therapist, I’m supposed to be able to deduce what caused these wild beliefs. Douglas could fix anything, was a nationally recognized amateur astronomer, but was never able to hold down a job. He always felt he knew more than the professors and would continually set himself up for failure, never getting a degree. He was right. He probably did know more that the professors, but was unable to play “the game of life”, doing what you needed to do to get ahead. All that I can say is that he was someone who suffered from depression and would never acknowledge it nor consider its ramifications. It is the classic case of someone so smart, yet unable to move forward in life.

Now, because of his death, I have been vacillating between sadness and anger. Douglas and I had a complicated relationship. My father had had a major hemorrhagic stroke and was 90 plus days in the hospital many years ago. During that time, I was the advocate for my father within the hospital and with the doctors. When he was ready to be discharged, he needed more rehab in a nursing home, as my mom could not help him up and down from the wheel chair. Douglas yelled at me and said I was “warehousing” my father.

Nowhere was there any gratitude for the mental energy, lack of sleep and pure exhausting stress I had gone through to even get him to this point. His attitude hurt me so badly that I didn’t really speak to him for close to a year. I have had multiple types of this kind of hurt with my brother through the years. Since he passed I have felt such sadness that his kids lost their father at 18 and 22 respectively. I have had trouble letting go of the tragic replaying in my mind of them finding him and trying to do CPR on their father to no avail. Equally, I’m angry that this was so tragic and unnecessary. We certainly have a right to live life on our terms. However, to me it seems so selfish to have a family and not think about how they might be affected by our behaviors. We all knew he didn’t look well but also understood that Douglas was never going to listen to us or anyone else for that matter.

I have thought about him always calling and leaving me with a happy birthday wish, but me not returning the courtesy all these years. I began to go down the “could of”, “should of” path. I am reminded of a saying in AA, “Your mind is like a dangerous neighborhood….don’t go in alone”. Well, there is no good to come of questioning how our relationship went down and beating myself up for not having tried harder. That is a vicious trap we can become perpetually stuck in, if not careful. We are all wiser in hind-sight. Like anyone, I did the best I could. We all loved Doug, but he made life difficult for many of us in a lot of ways.

I talked at length to his wife yesterday. She said she and the kids had always known this day was coming, but they just didn’t expect it so soon. At that moment, I found some relief from this whole thing, as I knew she was going to be alright. My mom seems to be okay as well stating, “Douglas went out on Douglas’ terms”. My mom is a practical earth sign. It is her natural proclivity to be able to live in the headspace versus the heart space. I, on the other hand, am an emotional water sign. I find the fight to get out of the heart space and come to rest in the headspace a little more challenging than she does. Having talked with them and knowing they will be okay has really given me some of the relief I have needed. I felt compelled to write this, as I hoped getting clarity on my thoughts would be cathartic and I feel it has been as intended. Additionally, I naturally hope that people can identify with these struggles and find this helpful. We all process grief differently and it is both good to know who you are and good to give yourself some slack, no matter how you handle your grief.

Christine Kniffen, LCSW is a Therapist and a Relationship Coach in private practice. For a free consultation call 314-374-8396. www.ChristineKniffen.com