On Losing a Loved One: Something We All Share
A Personal Perspective: Is death just the beginning?
There’s something final about death. But is it really the end? Or is death just a beginning?
Over time, in wrestling with the spiritual side, I’ve personally come to believe that death is the gateway—eternity for those of both good and evil, the yin and the yang of the universe.
It’s taken me a while to get to this view, and I was tested on it recently. My older sister, Maureen, a beautiful woman of all accounts—oldest in a family of ten, a career nurse in Manhattan and Westchester County where we all grew up in Rye—died recently of a heart attack after suffering from a rare form of blood cancer.
I was born on Maureen’s birthday, the second oldest, and for 71 years we shared the same birthday—kind of like twins. And like “twins,” we pushed each other around a bit over the years, challenging our respective place in a large Irish family. Maureen usually won. Early on, we dubbed her “Mother Superior” for her take-charge manner in herding the rest of us like cats. She later persuaded everyone to call me “Lunchie,” given my penchant then for the “free lunch.”
Maureen’s moniker “Mother Superior” gave way to the self-appointed sobriquet “The Queen,” and well deserved at that. Maureen, indeed, was “The Queen,” and every bit of an angel. She was one of the most caring, upbeat, positive individuals I’ve ever known. In so many ways, she was (and is) the essence of good that we all strive for.
Our family’s grief is no greater than anyone who has lost a loved one. Maureen’s story, in many ways, is a window, a mirror, to grief that we’ve all shared in different ways.
Windows are good for reflection. We often take life for granted and assume death is the universal end. But is it?
I confess to taking life for granted at times—self-absorbed in my own milieu to the point of not smelling the roses of a loved one. I suppose I’m not alone in this.
Said her son, Stephen, in an eloquent eulogy in a crowded Resurrection Church in Rye, with his sister Amy, and all the grandkids in the front row:
“I think the real essence of Maureen is how happy she always was, and how much joy she found in life and in people. She was always smiling and loved to laugh at anything. You could tell her the sky was falling and she’d start to giggle… She absolutely adored her grandkids. Probably the greatest joy in her life at the end: Vincent, Stella, Dominic, Matthias, and Pia. She lived for them. Even at 73 years old, she recently showed up at Amy’s son Matthias’ birthday party at Playland in Rye and rode with him in the front seat on the (monster) Dragon Coaster.”
“Maureen’s joy, love of life, and ‘no nonsense’ ability to get things done are traits that will live with me forever. With my last conversation with her, she had been in a Northern Westchester Hospital bed for 48 hours, not allowed to get up and walk or go to the bathroom—no food, on an IV, and throwing up. About to be transferred to Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, I ask her what she needed from home, as she literally had nothing with her. She tells me she wants some lotion for her face, a toothbrush, some underwear, and her computer. She then goes into detail about telling me to make sure I get the tomatoes from her garden and use them before they go bad; maybe make a salad. She also tells me there’s Roma tomatoes on her windowsill in the kitchen that I should use to make a sauce. I stop her after a minute or two and I’m like: ‘Ma, I don’t care about these freaking tomatoes, what else do you need from home?’ She says, ‘Oh, I just wanted to make sure you could use them.’
“Heart failing, a few hours from her end, and she wants me to have her tomatoes. Selfless, loving, devoted, and an absolute legend.“
A few weeks before Maureen died, she spent precious time on Outer Cape Cod with me, my wife Mary Catherine, and my sisters Lauren and Bernadette—walks on the beach, brilliant sunsets, and some good chardonnay. She loved the peace of the Cape, as did her late husband Carl. We never realized it was a farewell. Such is life.
My last communication with Maureen was via text a few days before she died. I asked how she was feeling, told her how much I loved her, along with more than a score of siblings, grandkids, nieces, and nephews. In recent years, the handle “Lunchie” gave way to another name. Maureen began calling me, the “Patriarch.” In her final text to me, perhaps a premonition of what was to come, she wrote: “The Patriarch has spoken… Now do your job!”
I wish I had done a better job early on; birthdays will be lonely now, but resolved in love to follow “The Queen’s” final directive.
The loss of a loved one can yield fruit.
Author Greg O’Brien is an investigative reporter and author of On Pluto who is living with Early Onset Alzheimer’s disease, not dying with it. This article was published on Psychology Today