My First Deaths

What was your first memorable death?

As a baby boomer raised in the American suburbs, mine was a dog named Ginger. One day, my age still counted in single digits, and mostly unaware the family puppy that I named was ill, my father took Ginger to the vet. Dad returned alone.

During high school, Mom’s mother died. I loved Grandma. She and Grandpa owned a ranch, giving me—a kid raised with sidewalks and city parks—access to a magical, wonderful realm. My most vivid childhood memories included cattle roaming vast fields, skipping rocks in the year-round creek meandering through their land, and exploring an immense walnut orchard that seemed equally mysterious and dangerous.

Following a surgery—as I inaccurately recall—health worsened for my sweet, energetic Grandma. My mother (and her siblings) would drive the two hours to the ranch, taking care of their mother. They witnessed Grandma’s decline. I did not. In the peculiar, fractured way of memories, Grandma went from happily digging in her purse for coins to buy the mud pies my older sister and I made (yup, literally dirt and water mixed in a borrowed pie tin) . . . to being dead. I don’t recall her dying. I have a hazy recollection of trooping across a cemetery, flanked by my parents, to and from Grandma’s grave.

Back then I was a shy high school nerd. How could I know that my mother’s world was rocked to the core?

Well less than a decade later, it was my grandfather’s brutal death that began changing my view of dying and grieving. Early in life, we know everyone dies. We know, if only because of a pet’s demise, about grief’s abrupt tears and sleepless nights.

But nothing truly prepares us. Not for the “predictable” deaths. Not for the shocking ones.

Sudden death stuns us. A last breath takes our breath away. A long dying whittles away at our patience. An expected death, after the proverbial long, good life, can still seem unreal. Grief and mourning and bereavement are mere words until they transform into a daily unsettled reality that everyone dreads: losing control.

Some are relieved when a loved one (or a not-so-loved-one) dies . . . but they never expected to feel that relief so strongly. Other responses include disbelief, anger, or numbness. The immediate (or delayed) feelings are an emotional tsunami, not there and then completely there, forcing us to our knees or causing us cry out as if struck by a fist.

+      +      +

Grandpa was murdered*.

His second wife, not my grandmother, shot him. Then she shot herself.

Uncle Ernie, a great guy who was a fun-loving, gentle man in my child’s eyes, called me.

I was in my mid-twenties, almost finished with seminary, recently ordained as a United Methodist pastor, and less than a dreary year away from being officially divorced after a married-too-early marriage. I was young enough to think I knew everything. I was also old enough to begin to doubt the confidence of my youth.

I didn’t believe my uncle when he called. Even with Grandma’s earlier death, couldn’t my grandfather live forever? And no one was ever killed with two bullets while they slept. I can be as irrational as the next person.

My uncle gave me the task of finding my parents. I sometimes wonder if Uncle Ernie was relieved to hand over that responsibility or if he would’ve rather done it himself? But it had to me . . . and my older sister. Mom and Dad were on vacation. We had their (very flexible) itinerary. My sisters were in Sacramento, the older one caring for the younger one. I lived in Fresno. Our parents were traveling in the Midwest, somewhere . . .

This was before cell phones and the Internet. This was the era of pricey long-distance phone calls and Western Union telegrams. People sent postcards that arrived a week or more later. Where were my vacationing, cruising-the-backroads parents? Eventually, with my older sister and I dividing up the phone tasks, we made contact. In a phone booth way to the east of Chicago (I think it was Indiana), our parents were given some of the worst news of their lives.

Death always rearranges . . . everything.

A rental car would be quickly returned. A long flight home would be scheduled. While my parents’ leisurely trip became a mad dash across the country, hasty and awkward decisions were being made by families that did not know each other.

A compromise was made (likely influenced by shock and exhaustion) between the adult children of the woman who killed my grandfather and the adult children of the victim—Grandpa. Their caskets would share the same room for a “viewing.” There would be one funeral for both. Was it a wrong decision? Possibly. But so many decisions, in all circumstances, are made in haste. Or anger. Or convenience. Or a lack of funds. Or ignorance. Or . . .

I waited in the mortuary’s “parlor” for my mother’s arrival, twenty-four hours and two-thousand miles removed from her vacation. Two side-by-side coffins greeted her. It was the only time that I ever heard Mom scream in anguish. Piercing, long, soul-wrenching. I can still hear the echoes.

My father inexplicably ordered me to take care of Mom. And then—in my Swiss cheese memory—he disappeared. Dad went off by himself as I tried to comfort Mom. Was he still in that parlor? Had he gone to another room or outside? I had no idea.

+      +      +

This is what I eventually learned, over three decades later, near Mom’s death in 2013: my father did not “disappear” because he couldn’t handle his wife’s emotions or that his son, a newbie pastor, could do a better job in caring for Mom. Instead, Mom told me, my father was also deep in pain. Dad revered his father-in-law. Until Mom explained (and I actually listened), I didn’t know how much Grandpa’s death devastated my father. This part of the murder had no mystery: death destroyed one of the central people in Dad’s life.

I bet now that my uncles and aunts and parents would have preferred separate funerals. I bet now that everyone on “my side” of the family would’ve handled everything differently. But responding to death can be non-stop panic. We talk, but don’t hear. We agree to plans we don’t understand. We lack funds to cover expenses or over-spend because how can you put a price tag on love . . . or guilt. With our souls and minds numb, we give responsibility for crucial decisions to funeral directors and clergy that don’t know the family.

We also don’t know how the suddenly grieving are feeling. For years, I thought Dad was immature and callous when he “handed off” Mom to me. But, you see, he was a complete mess. And how much were my uncles and aunts also a mess? All of these mature, lovely, kind adults were reeling in a storm surge of emotions.

It took considerable time (and I’m still not there yet) to grasp how important—and how counter-intuitive—it is to support people during and after death. Counter-intuitive? Surprise . . . not everyone thinks or acts like I do! Others need comforting words or want solitude and/or silence or don’t know what they want. Authentically helping another based on their needs rather than what makes me comfortable is always rewarding but often exhausting.

Yes, one of my earliest significant deaths—Grandpa’s murder—was sensational in the worst way. But even a “routine” death carries the potential to wreak havoc.

  • We procrastinate about decisions before and after a death.
  • We make sudden, odd decisions before and after a death.
  • Some belittle others for being more or less upset than them.
  • Many can’t seem to help; many assume too much responsibility.

Even when “everything is planned” for “an expected death” after a “long, good life,” problems can jar our family foundations. Loving parents bicker. Loving spouses misinterpret intentions. Loving siblings debate. Or estranged family members appear and disrupt . . . everything. Some act passive-aggressive. Others too assertive. On and on it goes.

No one can prepare for what happens when the dying, death, and grief become real. However—though it requires demanding physical, emotional, and spiritual work—we can seek to be as empathetic** as possible about how we and others are reacting. In some cases, like mine, it may take years to figure out why certain events happened. Sometimes, we’ll never know. An openness to compassion, of forgiving others or yourself, is essential in our healing.

And so, again, what was your first memorable death?

How did it, and how does it, influence your understanding of dying, death, and grief?

(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.)

*I wrote about my grandfather’s death in this earlier essay.

**A brief, helpful vid on empathy vs. sympathy. By the delightful, insightful Dr. Brené Brown:

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  1. Wow,
    I’ve been doing this so long the only one I think about is a Episcopal priest who had a stroke. He was on my unit when I was doing my first unit of CPE. The other priest invited me to pray. I felt lost and inadequate. I reread the grandpa story you linked too. I too had a suicide last week, my 30 year old nephew. The family asked me to do the service, all of it. That was hard.
    Thank you for writing about the hard stuff too and happy Pastoral Care week!

  2. My first experience was at about age 10 when my Grandpa died. Since my family was not the emotional type nor ones to explain I was frightened when I saw him lying in a flag draped casket. It took me until age 50 to get over my phobia after that trauma though my phobia lead to a fascination. Now I’m an advocate for funeral law reform, home funeral guide and own Alabama’s first all natural burial ground. I hope to help families embrace death instead of fear it. Not that the grief and mourning will ever stop, but I believer DIY funerals help with that process. You can see pictures of a DIY funeral on my web page. It was beautiful. Love the article

    • Thanks, Shelia!!! And I suspect you are far from alone with your childhood experiences/reactions. Thanks for your good work.

  3. My first death was finding my father dead on the back lawn when I was 17. He had massive heart attack while mowing the lawn. My mother never took me to a funeral so this was overwhelming. First I ran inside, told mom dad on lawn and I called fire department (1961). I then ran out back door, jumped fense and got my mom’s best friend. Then back to kneel with mom and grandma to pray. He was gone. Hardest for me was the painful look on his face and the fact that he died alone, a fear that’s been with me my entire life. I had to call my older sister who just had her first child 3 weeks before and have her come to the house not telling her why…mom’s instructions. Because mim didn’t drive I took mim all the places she needed to go in prep for funeral. When viewing came U didn’t want to go in because I thought he’s look the same as when I found him. I’m still afraid of dying alone and living alone I’m anxious every night probably because mom and grandma both died alone in their sleep. I’m a Spuritualist but still fear the moment of dying because if this first death. Ethel

    • Ethel:

      Thanks for reading and sharing your comments. For many, and for many reasons, I think the fear of dying alone is near the top of the “fear list.” It does not surprise me that the memories of your father’s death that you experienced as a teen continue to impact you.

      My hope is that a few key, trusted people in your life know of your fears, and are part of your support and community.

      Take care.

  4. How I wish my wife’s mother death had been a better crossing with the help of Hospice. I had a very special connection with my mother-in-law and loved her as my own mother.

    She was ill, often in pain too. Her daughters whom lived close by had brought her to the “city hospital” for better care. Unexpectedly it was suggested we should have Hospice care for her but it was the decision of the family to make that decision.

    Here is where the unexpected happen. We were given all assurances she would be well cared for by them. What a surprise we were faced with later. All liquids were stopped and food intake. She was in pain so they started giving her Morphine through her IV. We were in shock because slowly they euthanized her in front of our eyes. There was no turning back we had “agreed” for her to be “taken” care of by their kind, caring staff. We could not stop this process because of our signed consent form.

    My wife two years later still has nightmares of what she feels she did. Her Mother was rolled into a room, talking, coherent, and just looking forward to getting some relief. She slipped into a coma from Morphine injections and quietly died. There were no good-byes as we expected.

    I will not forget this trauma that caused my wife and her family to feel guilt to this day. There was nothing natural to the peoceedings of her death.

    I will be surprised to see if this is posted here. But this is a darkside to our medical system, no doubt because of the cost to Medicare. People scoffed and laughed when our new insurance for the masses when it was said euthanasia was a part of new law. I saw it. It is. We will all be next if we die a slow death, which most of us will.

    The only comfort, that there may be a change to a new being, is all we will have left for us in our grief.

    • Justin:

      Thanks for reading and responding. I am so sorry for what happened with your mother-in-law and your family. Though it doesn’t make any of the situation, or difficult memories, better for you and your family, I encourage you to let the hospice know about your reactions and experience.

      Nonetheless, I appreciate your willingness to share this with me.

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