Susan Hendricks

Like most, death has been no stranger to our family: new generations have replaced older ones in the endless cycle of continuing life. Yet none of the expereince of the passing of generations prepared us for Easter Sunday, 1991, when our fourteen-year old daughter, Kristina, was killed in a tragic car accident one mile from our home.

Her older brother, Jonathon, was driving and lost control as he navigated an unexpected turn in the road. What followed was a mad, chaotic descent into the absurd and the existential, from which we probably have not fully returned.

The best we could do at the time was function in a numbing, emotional fog. Five months after Kristina's death I wrote:
I am feeling numb, paralysed without a great sense of will to continue this journey. I am so deep into inertia. Is it normal
to feel this way? Right now, I feel like a lifeless blob, dead to all sensation except a pervasive melancholy. I listen to Enya's
Watermarks all the time. The music reflects my mood because it has a haunting, melancholy tune to it. Within me, there lies
a heaviness, an anchor that holds me down and roots me in depression. I'd like to be able to rise up and soar above it but
the flying images don't work. My feet are lead, each step takes effort. The pain in my shoulders acts as an antigravity agent and I feel the tension and burden of the journey there at each moment of the day.

By and large, men and women grieve differently and we were, and are, no exception.

As a mother who had carried her child in the womb for nine months, my psychic pain became embodied. I felt that someone had ripped my entire womb right out of me, without benefit of anaesthetic, leaving a giant, gaping hole that no one would ever be able to sew up again.

My husband felt that he should have been able to protect and take care of his children at all times. For him, the experience led to a debilitating sense of loss of control and failure as a parent; a permanent sense of anger and the futility of life took over. He withdrew inwards, slept little, adopted a closed, defensive posture, seldom speaking of his feelings except to rage against the injustice of it all.

Initially our son was overcome with hysteria and guilt, not only for having been an instrument in his sister's death, but also for still being alive. Later, he too would become withdrawn and unexpressive, while trying to live a semblance of a normal teenage life and coping with the overprotection of his now vigilant parents.

As time has gone by, we have learned to cope with our loss but still particularly heartwrenching are holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries or other life cycle passages such as christenings, weddings and funerals. Our own sense of loss and differentness is felt more deeply when the world around us appears to be happily celebrating.

We are learning to accept the emptiness within these moments while finding comfort in our continuing strength as a family unit. We maintain certain traditions from the past while building up new rituals and ways of being together and now celebrate together free of any expectations imposed from within or without. Our holiday rituals have become more centred in the love of each other, and the one who is no longer with us, and are carefully planned taking each one's need and emotional vulnerability into account.

We are no longer the same people we used to be: our personalities have undergone significant shifts as we deal with our loss. Our values and what we find meaningful are no longer what they were. Time and life have become precious commodities: we find we cannot abide idle chit-chat or meaningless socialising.

Friendships have undergone corresponding changes; some are stronger, some are entirely new and others have been discarded when friends were not able to accept the new people we have become. We have learned that it is not easy for friends to deal with the sudden mood swings of the bereaved or to accept occasionally misdirected anger. It is often the bereaved who end up supporting or educating their friends through and about the death experience.

What has changed most is our world view and our spirituality. The belief that good things happen to good people is gone forever and has been replaced with the sense that anytime, anywhere, irrespective of our actions or good intentions, the absurd can break into our lives. The one who should have been continuing our life has now, instead, become our ancestor. There is small consolation in bringing flowers to a cold grave when what we most want is to feel the touch of her hand, the warmth of her embrace or to hear the familiar laughter in her voice.

And yet, we also know that the dead, especially Kristina, of whom we seem unwilling to let go, remain part of our lives forever, a lifelong legacy and present. And yet, "in the end, those who were carried off early no longer need us:/they were weaned from earth's sorrows and joys, as gently as children/outgrow the soft breasts of their mothers./But we, who do need such great mysteries,/we for whom grief is so often the source of our spirit's growth--: could we exist without them?" (Rilke).

That's the journey of grief, isn't it?

She may be contacted at: [email protected]

or Bereaved Families of Ontario - Durham Region
Po Box 70518
1615 Dundas St. E.
Whitby, ON
Canada L1N 2K0


Susan Hendricks

The first guest column is written by Susan E. Hendricks, BA, MLS. Susan is the Co-ordinator of the Durham Region Affiliate of Bereaved Families of Ontario, a self-help organization of families who have lost a child through death. She comes to this position through experience and self-teaching following the deaths five years ago of her daughter and her father within eleven months of each other. Strongly committed to the self-help, mutual aid model, she has worked in the area of grief and bereavement since 1993 developing programs, facilitating groups, supervising volunteers and providing presentations and workshops on the dynamics of grief.

Also Director of Library Services at Oshawa General Hospital near Toronto, Canada, Susan continues to explore the spiritual dimensions of grief through continuing studies at the Toronto School of Theology. Her interest in Jungian psychology and personal commitment to dream analysis provide her with a means to the psychic reintegration that is an ongoing part of the grief process. Susan hopes that her story will witness to others that new life and opportunity may arise out of even the deepest tragedy.

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