BY LAURI PERMAN SEPTEMBER 26, 2021 6:00 AM
“How long does grief last?,” a recent widow asked, struggling with the pain of her loss.
In response I shared this story. I was 15, sitting cross-legged on the floor near my grandfather in his heavy wooden rocker, when I learned he was sad about his dead sister. “How odd,” I remember thinking. “How can he still be sad about her? She died so long ago. She was a teenager when she died, or so I thought, and he is old. How can he still be sad about her?”
A few years later, my younger sister, then 17, was killed in a car accident with three other teenagers and the adult driver of the car. It took a while to learn to sleep again, not to spend my nights in the bathroom crying. After three months, I felt pressured by the culture to move on and I did. I thought I was doing grief right by “getting over it.”
The pain became less raw with time and I could sometimes talk about my sister without crying. I was often stumped, though, by the question, “how many sisters do you have?” Do I betray her by leaving her out of the answer? Or do I include her, subject myself to questions about her death, and risk making the other person sad and uncomfortable? It took years for me to decide to leave her out unless I really wanted the other person to know me.
I thought the goal was to get over grief. If tears came, I was embarrassed and ashamed, worried that my grief was unhealthy and that others would judge me negatively.
In my 20s, when I began therapy for divorce, the therapist said in our first session, “I think there’s a deeper grief here,” and the stories and tears about my sister tumbled out. I learned that a new loss can trigger old grief.
A big surprise revealed itself when I began journaling dreams. At first all I captured were scraps, at most a sentence. I began one January, and at the end of the month, when I reread my journal, there were nine dream fragments, each one mentioning Vicki, my dead sister. Vicki was born on January 6 and died in late January. I’d heard of anniversary reactions, but this was the first I knew I had them. I learned that anniversaries can also trigger old grief.
By the time I reached 30 and moved to State College, I thought grief for my sister was largely behind me. After all, it had been more than 10 years. I didn’t think about my grandfather and his sister.
And then one day, many years later, sitting in silent worship in the State College Friends Meeting, tears began to flow. I asked myself about them and the answer came — it was January, 25 years since Vicki’s death. That made me cry harder. I thought about my grandfather and understood. It had been years since I had cried that long and hard for Vicki, but I was grateful for my tears, for still caring about her, for still feeling the pain of her loss. I didn’t worry that I wasn’t doing grief right, that I hadn’t gotten over it.
Recently I’ve been doing some family history research and was surprised to learn that my grandfather’s sister was not a teenager when she died. She was 31 and the mother of four young children. My grandfather, her younger brother, was about 75 when I learned he was sad, around the 50th anniversary of his sister’s death.
This past January was the 50th anniversary of Vicki’s death. I’ve never tried to remember the exact date she died. It’s not a day I want to remember. The memories of that time include a long weekend with a six hour visitation day at the funeral home. I have trouble remembering how many teenagers died in the accident or how many coffins were at the front of the church during the combined memorial service, but I can remember the funeral home. Three large rooms had been opened up to make one very large rectangular room with a teenager’s coffin in each of the four corners and the adult driver’s coffin on the long wall opposite the doors to the room. Lines of people snaked around the packed room. When I try to remember how many people died, I visualize the funeral home and the answer comes to me.
This year January passed without a remembered dream about Vicki, with no acute grief, no tears, and with only my mother’s reminder that it was the 50th anniversary of her death. I hadn’t been counting the years. Once reminded, I remembered my grandfather and his sister again. I am grateful that he showed me that we can remember and grieve a sister even 50 years later. I don’t feel odd for still missing Vicki. Maybe next year I’ll be blessed with a dream.
How long does grief last? If we’re lucky, if we have loved and been loved, it lasts a lifetime.
Lauri Perman, who lived in State College for many years, recently relocated to her native Minnesota, where she has three living sisters. This column is coordinated by www.learningtolivewhatsyourstory.org, whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation.
This was first printed in the Centre Daily Times on September 26, 2021.