Assumptions and Great Aunt Betty

Don't Assume

Great Aunt Betty had died. Though not her real name, Betty was the second most popular name for girls born in the United States in 1929. Just over ninety, Betty had lived the proverbial long, good life. Her thirty-something great nephew was listed in the hospice medical charts as the “primary caregiver” and “HCPOA” (health care power of attorney).

I called him a few weeks after his great aunt’s death to see how he was doing.

Fine, he said.

And then he told the truth. He felt lousy. Unsettled. He was also trying to ignore those feelings. He hadn’t cried yet (which bothered him), was tackling the estate business after her death, and was trying to balance his usual schedule of kids-and-work.

Aunt Betty’s death was a huge blow, but he didn’t have time to grieve.

This is what I learned* from the sparse notes in Betty’s chart and through my conversation with him: he was a busy guy. His wife was teaching elementary school while attending classes to get her master’s degree in administration. He taught at a community college and his more flexible schedule allowed him more time to care for their two kids.

What about Betty?

Was she merely a deceased great great aunt?

Here’s the inside scoop about the guy I called. Betty had raised him. His mother, Betty’s “little niece,” had died before he started kindergarten. His father, who had a lifelong struggle with drugs, was more gone than present. During one of his gone times, he died in a car accident. In her late fifties, having already raised her children, Betty welcomed her great nephew into her home. She had a heart as big as the Grand Canyon, went to Mass three times a week, and set aside $25 a week for her great nephew’s college fund. When he entered college at age 22, after four years in the army, a modest bank account had grown to over $25,000 so that he could worry less about paying bills.

Now you know the bare bones on his life, and his relationship with his great aunt. Without her, who knows what might have happened to a kid without parents?

And yet, several weeks after Aunt Betty’s death, he still hadn’t cried.

He hardly ever saw his wife, except when both were exhausted. Her demands would change in a year or so, but right now . . . their shared goals meant that every day was tough.

And their kids had demands. Kids come first, always.

And work. He had papers to grade, a new class in the next semester that needed to be planned.

Here is the point.

Here is his question that tumbled out as we talked on the phone.

How can I allow myself to grieve? When do I have the time?

In those moments on the phone with him, two questions—two truths—confronted me.

Why do we so easily make assumptions about other people’s relationships? If I had been told, without knowing anything, that someone’s “great aunt had died,” I would assume a death like that wasn’t a big deal. The deceased wasn’t a loving spouse of fifty years or newborn child. On paper, Aunt Betty was a ninety-something sister of a young man’s grandmother. But other than his wife, Betty was the most important person he had ever known.

How many of our schedules exhaust us? In his case, he and his wife had chosen a demanding path. Her education. His work. Both hoped to grow as professionals. They wanted to make sure their kids were safe and would know, every day, that their parents loved them. He had learned, from his great aunt, that if you do a little bit, each day, each week, those sacrifices added up to success. After all, he didn’t have debts from college!

But how can we grieve when there is no time?

I had no magic words for him. But I suggested a few things.

  • If possible, squeeze in time with a grief counselor or grief workshop. Literally carve out a handful of minutes to be able to talk about Aunt Betty and learn about grieving.
  • Give money or volunteer time to non-profit or church or project she supported. If not this year, then next year. (Put a note on a calendar for a reminder.)
  • At certain unplanned moments, his mind might wander into memories and moments about Aunt Betty. Let them happen when they happened. We can’t schedule grief.
  • Make sure, when his kids were old enough, that he told Betty’s story to them.
  • Don’t berate himself for not crying. Everyone grieves differently. (I say that last phrase so often, it sounds like a hollow cliché. But it’s not! Some think they cry too much, and then feel bad about it. Some think they don’t cry enough, and then feel bad about it. Stop! You are unique. Please, don’t forget that . . .)
  • Honor her on her birthday every year by doing something as a family.

Every suggestion I made was small and modest. He might try them, he might not. I knew hospice would call him again. Perhaps, in the future, we would only be able to leave a voicemail. But there would be a reminder from hospice that we were thinking about his family. (And trying not to make assumptions about him!)

And I hoped he would remember—and everyone would remember—that our grief is inevitable, unique, and part of the gift of love.


*All fictional, just like Betty’s name. What is not fictional about “him,” like so many I call, is an exhausting schedule that makes everything—including grief—a struggle.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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  1. I am so lucky that over time I can usually smile when one of my deceased relatives “visits” me, as I call it. I might come across something they made that is in my house, or a situation reminds me of them, and the memory is somehow comforting. I do, however, carry a well of grief inside of myself that has created some stress illnesses for me. I have thankfully learned to talk about my feelings (and, then sometimes others feel worse and I feel better!) It does, however, get “tapped” from time to time. If an animal is hurt or dies, if I see a sad movie or read something upsetting in a book, or if I hear of tragic news on the TV, then I can cry. It is, as you say, unplanned and sometimes surprising, yet it is also a private relief. Thank you for the reminder that it is part of the gift of love.

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