A death in the family? ‘Be tender and gentle with yourself.’

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

As we founded WeAreCaregivers earlier this year, we promised to cover a wide range of issues facing the millions of caregivers working every day across this country. But one subject we haven’t addressed is death—a fear that looms large for many of us. At least at times, doesn’t it?

Now, as we count our blessings and give our thanks this November, it seems appropriate to touch on this subject that affects so many families in so many ways. Today, caregiving expert and author Benjamin Pratt writes about how deeply a death in the family can unsettle our lives. As you approach the year-end holidays, if your family is still coming to terms with a death—well, consider Ben’s story …

A Death Observed

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me.
C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed

By the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt

American tombstone by Steve Evans via Wikimedia CommonsWhen my father died, I gave myself the straight-forward advice that I had shared with others who had lost someone close throughout my long career in pastoral counseling: “Every emotion, idea and action in your life over the next six months pivots on your father’s dying. Don’t make any major decisions, plans or changes for the next year. Pay careful and cautious attention. Be tender and gentle with yourself.”

It was not long until I forgot my own advice.

Life, following the funeral, became filled with the janitorial functions that follow any death. I had to clean out Dad’s house and sell it and his car, the total of his life’s possessions. I handled the tedious probate of his will and paid his debts. This was, of course, on top of my already busy life as a father, husband and professional counselor. I did spend some time, especially in the first two months, with family and friends talking about the impact of losing my father.

I thought I was doing well. But, what did I know?

After settling my father’s estate, my brother and I each inherited about $7,000.00. Not a significant sum, but more than I had anticipated. After the tedious work was finished, the emotional tension began. It pressed me in night dreams and day dreams. The images were intense, exciting and constant. Each was different but with the same focus—I would give away large sums of money to support causes I value deeply. In one dream, I imagined plopping $50,000.00 on the desk of Morris Dees at the Southern Poverty Law Center. I unleashed $75,000.00 to the United Methodist Committee on Relief to help victims of famine and violent storms. The list grew; the funds didn’t. The images of giving away money I didn’t have obsessed me. One day, in a bit of panic, I called a broker, gave him my inheritance and told him I needed him to make a lot of money—so that I could give it all away one day.

The plan was in place.

Then, the stock market crashed and most of the money was lost. Wake up time! It was then that I remembered the admonition to myself at the time of Dad’s death. “Everything in the first six months is about your father’s dying. Don’t make any major decisions or plans in the first year”.

Time to step back and get a new perspective on what is happening. I began to search for the answer to what was really driving my urges to give away money I didn’t have. I began to face and feel emotions that I had worked hard to ignore, feelings that accompany vulnerability. Underneath all of my busy-holding-it-together exterior I was feeling like an orphan without parents, and I was especially aware of feeling very empty, lonely and powerless.

What I came to realize was that my intense images of giving huge sums of money away gave me a feeling of power. In truth, my power felt very limited. The benevolent images helped me cover my feelings of frailty, sadness and loss. They were definitely not the basis for a plan. They were mirrors reflecting the struggle of my soul. When I was feeling least potent because of the loss of my last parent, I turned to a fanciful image to mask my vulnerability and to make me feel vital and powerful.

As I reflect on this chapter in my life now, I also realize that it revealed a very positive trait of my character and soul: that I feel most valued and potent when I am giving to someone in need. That is when my soul sings. The images of giving money away were fantasies, not plans. They reminded me of who I am when I am responding as one crafted by God. There was both frailty and grace in my journey through those months.

As you enter the “family holidays” time of the year, think about all of the men, women and children you will encounter who are still within a year of a deeply felt death. And remember my advice, even if I forgot it for a while: Be tender and gentle with one another.

PLEASE, share a comment on Ben’s column. We also give you permission to share and even republish Ben’s column, as long as you retain his byline and include a link back to http://www.WeAreCaregivers.com, a part of the readthespirit.com online magazine. Want more from Ben? Check out his book, A Guide for Caregivers. (Psst! It’s a great holiday gift for someone you love.)