Living in Grief: Coping With the Death of a Loved One

The following is a record of some of what I encountered in the days following my younger brother's death.
It is not the complete account, but rather some tidbits that stick out in my mind. While it is not a term paper, it is still capable of putting across some valuable insight into the grief experience.

March 4, 1991, 10:20 p.m. 
My fiance' and I had just gotten home about 10:00 from the airport after a five day trip to Acapulco. We went through the drive through at Burger King and when we got home, I said hello to my dog and to my guinea pigs. I was just about to sit down to my food in the living room and watch the last ten minutes of M*A*S*H. The episode was the one where Frank Burns pretends to know how to operate a tank in order to impress Hot Lips. Anyway, Holly finished talking to Bill and Cindy(the people who took care of our animals), and then the phone rang again. I didn't think anything of it, I thought it might have been my mom seeing if we made it home. It wasn't. Holly told me that it was my aunt's neighbor and that he said it was very important. I picked up the receiver and Jim told me that my brother, who was living with my aunt,was very sick and that I should get hold of my dad and go to the hospital in Burlington. I hung up and told Holly, but at this point I still wasn't overcome with fear, I felt maybe that my aunt was just over-reacting like she sometimes does.

I tried calling my dad three times, but the phone was busy, and then I got through and arranged to pick him up. At the time, I felt as though he wasn't really interested in going, but now I can realize that it seemed as though he already knew that it was serious. I picked him up and we made small talk on the way. My dad and I don't see each other that much, so we don't communicate very often.

We made it to the hospital around 11:00 or 11:15 and found the nurse who told us that the paramedics had to give Mike CPR on the way in, and she asked us if we knew what that meant. My dad then asked if he could go see Mike, but she said no, we'd better wait until the doctor came out. About three minutes later, the doctor came out and told us that Mike wasn't breathing and his heart wasn't beating, and even if they could get him going, there would probably be brain damage. My dad asked what the cause was, and the doctor said that it was an overdose probably. My father just looked at the doctor and shook his head. I just felt as though A) it was all a big mistake, and B) I didn't want my brother having brain damage.

Then the cop who accompanied the ambulance came out and asked us a few questions. The police officer seemed to me to be intruding on our pain, while I must say that the doctor was very professional and compassionate. The nurse then asked us if we had a minister that we wanted her to call to the hospital. I said no, we didn't know anyone. A little while later--(I lost track of time by this point), the aunt and uncle with whom my brother had lived, walked in the door. My aunt was hysterical and became even more hysterical after I told her that it didn't look good.

Finally, the doctor came out of the treatment room with the expected verdict. My brother, Michael Scott Stoxen, age nineteen, was dead. The nurse then offered to get a minister from town if we wanted, and my aunt and I said that it sounded like a good idea. I then went and called my fiance' and asked her if she had gotten a hold of my mom, who lives in Illinois. Holly said that she wasn't able to and she then asked what happened. I really didn't want to tell her over the phone, so I just told her to keep trying to get my mom, and then I hung up. When I walked back into the waiting room, I watched my dad as he took off his hat and threw it against the wall. My aunt just kept repeating "Not Michael, Not Michael".

It was at this point, strangely enough, that I first started consciously observing the coping mechanisms that I had learned about in the "Death and Dying" class that I am enrolled in at U.W. Parkside. I realize that my father was experiencing anger, and my aunt was involved with a classic case of denial. I also felt myself suppressing grief, mostly because I felt an urgent need to inform my mom, and because I wanted to make it easier on both of my parents, for I learned in my class that the death of a child was one of the most traumatic experiences for parents. I sort of involuntarily decided then and there, that the last thing my parents needed at this time was for me to fall apart. If this seems unrealistically detached to you considering the circumstances, it does to me also. It also seems very strange to me that from this moment on, even though I loved my brother very much, especially since there were only us two kids in the family, and even though I had continual pangs of what can only be described as a mini-grief, whatever agonizingly massive grief I had, came when I saw and felt the pain my parents were enduring.

Anyway, to continue the story, about a half hour lapsed before the minister showed up, or perhaps it was five minutes, it really isn't clear to me. I was struck by how supportive and compassionate and caring he seemed, even though he didn't know us. I don't know if he really cared about us or not, but he did do his job well. The doctor then came out and gave us the optional opportunity to see Mike's body and to say a group prayer over it. I was quite nervous, but I felt it was something I had to do.

The sight and the feelings that rushed over me are something I will never forget. This was the first time I had ever seen the body of a person that I cared for who wasn't supposed to be dead. As I think back on this moment, I remember feeling pain, anger, and guilt all at once. I wanted to both hug my brother and punch him as hard as I could in the face, and I felt horrible about this thought. I started to weep quietly, trying to hold it in, for what reason I don't really know. By now my dad's wife had arrived and I remember feeling both relief that someone else was there to take care of him, and abandonment because everyone had someone to hold onto now except me.

I called Holly again and asked about my mom who she was still unable to reach. Holly asked me what was wrong with Mike, and I felt myself on the horns of a dilemma. Although I didn't want to tell her the news over the phone, I also didn't want to lie to her or keep it from her. So after a considerable silence, I told her that Mike was dead. We then hung up and Holly made a renewed effort to reach my mom. I then assisted my father in getting hold of some of his family, after which I told him that I was going to find my mom to tell her. I drove home to be with Holly to see if she was alright. She told me that she got hold of my mom's best friend who was going to go to her house to tell her. I didn't see this as the best way for her to get the news, but then again, there is no good way to deliver this news. I tried calling again and finally got through.

She was already hysterical and seemed to get even worse when I made the news official. She kept asking what happened and why, and then hung up on me in mid-sentence. For good or ill, I decided to drive to my maternal grandparents house and to an uncle who is especially close to Mike and me, to tell them the news in person. It was two in the morning, but a phone call or a delayed notification didn't seem appropriate. Cindy, who helped take care of our animals while we were gone, had come over to be with Holly. When I tried to leave, they decided that I was unable to drive (even though I returned from the hospital without any problem). So they called Bill who was to drive me around.

While waiting for Bill, I had my first ever uncontrollable fit of anger. I started yelling at Mike and threw three or four punches into the wall. I was mad and hurt because this looked sort of like a suicide and for many years, I off and on considered suicide as an option, but I never went through with it because I didn't want to hurt A) Mike, B) my mom C) Holly, and D) my dad. In fact, I had spoken pretty much these exact words to Bill about three months earlier. The anger and the hurt came because he didn't provide me with the same courtesy. 

Bill picked me up and we drove to my grandparents house to let them know the bad news. When we got there, my grandpa met me at the door and told me that he had already heard the news. My grandma came out of the bedroom and was crying and was asking how and why it happened. I told them all I knew and then I left. I was a little relieved that they took it so well, because I wouldn't really know how to console them.

Next, we drove to my uncle Keith's house. He's my mom's half-brother, but he's only four years older than me, so we are very much like brothers. When I got there his wife Chris met me at the door and also told me that they had already heard. I was amazed at how quickly news spreads. Keith seemed as if he were in shock and later in the week admitted that he didn't recall anything that was said that night. After talking with them for about fifteen minutes, it was time for my most dreaded moment, which was to console my mom.

When we got there, she met us at the door and she was shaking and crying and asking why and what. I felt so helpless because I couldn't at that point even tell her what happened, let alone why it happened. I found myself being strong and holding her up and letting her cry on my shoulders, just like she let me do when I was younger, although I never had any problems quite as severe as this. This experience was heartbreaking for me, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world. I felt needed, and I felt unable to help. My mom kept asking what she was going to do. Almost all of the coping mechanisms were there...the shock, denial, along with some guilt and anger (mostly at God) were accompanied by chain smoked cigarettes and nervous pots of coffee.

I was intrigued by watching how my mother would be falling apart one minute; then, when she was called to the phone to talk to one of her brothers or sisters, she was quite composed as she consoled a crying sibling. I was also a little bit confused at my inability to cry. I don't know if I was in shock, or if I was just being strong for my mom. By the time I left, everyone in the family knew, and my mom had calmed down considerably. 

The wake was held on Thursday, March 6, from 4:00 - 9:00. The family was to be there at 3:30 in order to pay respects privately. By this time, Mike's girlfriend who was on the phone with him when he died and who heard him gag and fall to the floor, had arrived from California. Nikki was experiencing the same fits as most of us were, where she was fine and functioning one minute and violently sobbing and crying the next. We walked into the funeral home together and I walked up to the body with Nikki and my mom. Out of us three, I was the only one to have seen the body previously so I was a little better prepared for it. They both shook and cried, and my mom reached out and touched Mike's arm. It was quite hard for everybody to see Mike's body.

The funeral home was filled with splendid flowers of all shapes. While Shawn in Each Day a Gift, didn't want flowers by his body for ecological reasons(167), I believe that the huge number of flowers was very therapeutic for both of my parents. In conversations with each of them, they mentioned how much the flowers meant to them. It also made almost everyone happy to see Mike dressed in his everyday clothes instead of a suit and tie. He had on a nice purplish sweater and his ever-present baseball cap.

As for myself, I cried a little right when I saw his body, and I sometimes started to cry when I saw my mom or dad cry or when someone came to me and told me how sorry they were. During the night in which approximately three hundred people came to pay respects, I felt a sense of guilt, as if the wrong Stoxen was lying there, and I also felt an irrational need to stand by Mike. I stood next to the casket non-stop from 3:45 until 9:15. I wasn't overcome with grief or anything, I just couldn't bring myself to leave my brother's side. I remember feeling a sick sort of pride in the fact that my brother could attract such a crowd and so many flowers, but I also felt saddened to think that he had to die in order to find out how much he was loved. 

During the wake, my experience in the "Death and Dying" class came in handy, in that it helped me have a private laugh at people's attempts to explain to me why Mike died. I heard all of the classic statements that Professor Johnson suggested were better left unsaid. I heard "It's all for the best somehow", I heard "It's not for us to know God's plan", and I also heard "You have to be strong now and take care of your parents". I might have exploded at any of these suggestions, had I not been half-expecting them.

At the beginning of the wake, I met the minister who was going to perform the services the next day. Reverend Robin Olson told our family that it might be helpful if one of us write a letter to Mike to be read at the service. Being that I was going to school in order to be a writer, and that I seemed to be in the best emotional shape at the time, my dad thought that it would be best for me to do it. At the time, I didn't really want the burden, but in retrospect, it was the best thing that could have happened for me.

After the wake, I changed clothes and drove to my dad's house where we drank coffee and talked until 6:00 in the morning. I then went home and wrote our letter to Mike. I wrote about what I had spoken to my dad about, and what I had spoken to my mom about a day earlier, and also about what I felt for my brother. For me, writing the letter seemed to take the place of the grief process, for when I was through, I felt a great weight lifted from my shoulders, and I almost felt good about life again. Writing it was helpful to me, but it remained to be seen if I was going to be able to read it in front of the mourners at the service.

The funeral seemed to be the hardest part for most people, but it was easier than the wake for me. The Reverend spoke of Mike's 19 years being a gift and of the mystery of God and of our our grief and recovery process. She then looked at me and I nodded, which was our sign that I wanted to read my letter myself. I stood at the podium and steadily read my eulogy. I don't know where I got the courage, because normally I am painfully shy, but I am glad that I did. When my mom and dad thanked me for writing it and told me how much it meant to hear me read it, I finally felt as though I was able to help.

After the letter, the Reverend said a prayer and then I played a song that I dedicated to my brother, by Bob Dylan, called "I'll Remember You". After that, a forty car funeral procession drove to the cemetery. It seemed to be a very difficult time for everyone, but I felt good, knowing that God now had Mike. My mom and dad didn't want to leave Mike alone to be buried in "the cold ground, all by himself". We finally gathered everyone up and went to a hall to have refreshments. 

It's now three weeks later and the times are still difficult. The bills are coming in now, and the thank you cards are being sent. My mother barely eats and my dad seems to be drinking a little too much. As for myself, I dream about Mike every single night, and I feel very angry every time someone gives vital importance to trivial matters. My schoolwork is falling off a bit, and some days I can't even bring myself to get out of bed. But I am surviving and I am in almost daily contact with both of my parents, which wasn't the case before the death. I miss my brother dearly, but I am trying to make some good come out of his death, if I can.

It is now July 1, 1991 and life is getting back to normal, albeit a little emptier. The autopsy results were finally revealed--although revealed seems like such a strong word since the report came back inconclusive. It did say that Mike's heart was enlarged and that he did not die of a drug overdose. He did have traces of cold medicine in him, which perhaps might have given him an allergic reaction. 

The fact that suicide was more or less ruled out seemed to bring most of the friends and family out of the dumps a little, but I have mixed emotions about it. I'd almost rather think of Mike's last moments as him getting what he wanted instead of him grasping and gasping for life. It doesn't really matter in the long run though. I do get upset about the bickering going on about the insurance money. It seems to me that nobody really wants the money because it's too much like blood money. But sometimes it seems like the involved parties don't want anyone else to get it either. It's an unfortunate, sad situation.

As for me, I finally graduated from Parkside. An even more important occasion for me was my wedding day on June 22, 1991. Mike was supposed to be in my wedding, so in his memory we had the girl who he was going to walk up the aisle with walk up with a pillow with his name on it. A few people commented after the ceremony about how I was looking up at the ceiling and all over the church during the whole thing. The reason I did it was because when I looked straight ahead I stared right into that pillow and I didn't want to cry right in front of everyone. Anyway, many people, especially my dad's family really appreciated the pillow.

We decided that at the dinner, instead of the best-man's traditional toast, I would give a toast to my brother. So I sat in my room on the morning of the wedding and wrote a little speech thanking all of the people who helped me throughout my life and then toasting my brother. I cried like a baby when I wrote it, but I managed to stay dry eyed when I read it--probably because I was so nervous being up there in front of 261 people. When all the music and dancing was over with at the end of the evening, I broke down and cried uncontrollably in front of the fifteen or so people who remained. This outburst was undoubtedly induced by the drinking that I did throughout the night, but it also must have come because of the roller coaster of emotions that I had been going through these last few months with me holding in the hurt. Professor Johnson taught us in class that the grief process always needs to be gone through, but I guess I thought that I could beat the system, and it caught up with me that night.

I know that this story never ends, and that as long as I am alive there will be more to write about concerning my recovery from my brother's death. The one thing that will always remain though, is the fact that the year 1991, which was supposed to be the biggest, most special year of my life; with my graduation and wedding and all, will always seem bittersweet to me, because it is also the year that I lost my little brother.

Works Cited
Johnson, Wayne and Richard Olson. Each Day a Gift. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1982.


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