I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to find peace after a loved one dies.
Two weeks before my brother Richard’s death, several family and friends said he told them he finally felt complete in his relationship with me. For Richard, completion appeared to be about peace. I too have had a growing feeling of peace with him, but something felt incomplete until a few days ago.
I want to share my progress towards wholeness with him, and I hope to learn from your experiences with your own loved ones.
My July 1st post refers to the door in the woods that Richard and I built on our family island when we were teenagers. I wrote about the door in my memoir. It was the only project throughout our lives that we did – just the two of us – until shortly before his death, when we found ourselves scheming to co-host a first-ever McGrath cousins’ reunion. Our mother and her brothers had not encouraged cousins’ gatherings. The only time we saw her family was at funerals. This communicated that it was moreimportant to show up at death than at life.
In our adult lives, Richard and I had worked hard to heal relationships among ourselves, our siblings, and our extended Rockefeller relatives. The McGrath reunion was an opportunity to find balance with the other branch of the family.
My oldest McGrath cousin, Grace, and I first cultivated a relationship after she came to hear a talk I gave at the Cosmopolitan Club, in 2009, in which I impersonated both my grandmother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and my mother, Peggy McGrath Rockefeller.
Grace enjoyed my antics, perhaps because she too embodied the McGrath “spunk”. We stayed in touch afterwards by email, and occasionally by phone.
Two years after we shared laughs at the Club, Grace was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer. She told me she was in a lot of pain, and dealing with anxiety about prognosis. I shared this with my siblings, and encouraged them to be in touch with her.
Richard, the doctor in our family, responded, asking if I thought she would be open to talking with him about ways of coping with her anxiety.
I said yes, but suggested that they talk in person. Grace was just two years his senior. I had a feeling she would appreciate his humor, and might benefit from his medical wisdom. A month later, he flew his Meridian plane to Southampton, and spent the day with her and her family. It was her 67th birthday. I spoke to Grace that night and she thanked me for encouraging him to come.
Grace died two days later. Richard attended her funeral, along with Paul and me. She had been the first in our generation to die, and was another McGrath who we had scarcely known in life.
Richard and I talked about how nice it would be to do a McGrath reunion this August, on our island in Maine. It would be an opportunity to get to know other relatives on that side of the family. He spoke to our father about it, and Dad enthusiastically agreed to arrange for their transportation. We set a date, and I agreed to draft the logistics. That was as far as we got.
Now with Richard gone, almost two months to the day after Grace died, I wondered whether to continue with the planning. Surely the McGrath’s would understand if I called it off, but a voice inside has persisted, saying, “Do it!”
I sat with the voice and asked, “Why?” The answer eventually came: Because continuing to plan this reunion, even without Richard, is a way of honoring him, and of finding peace in our relationship. I have always wanted to do another project together. While the idea sprung from both of us, this time I will carry it to completion.
We will gather together this August as planned. Perhaps we will build a new door in the woods. The project of working together could leave behind the old pattern of showing up at death, and open us to a new blueprint of celebrating family while we live.
At dinner together, we will raise a glass in gratitude for Grace and Richard. They got us started.
What ways have you come to peace with loss?
Dearest Eileen, you have made me feel closer to Richard with your Poem, with your explanation of the door, and now with this reaching out to the McGrath side. Much love, Katherine
Thanks Katherine. I’m so glad. It is truly a way of honoring him to be doing this reunion, and I’m so excited about the warm response from the McGrath’s. Something good is coming of all of this, even though I don’t yet know all of what it is. love, Eileen
Eileen, as you already know far too well, doors – doors that have been closed for far too long in our lives – are never forgotten. They become weights, pulling us down more and more as years go by, sapping us, turning in our minds. In my mind, it is time to do what your heart tells you to do.
There is no need for procrastination as we are talking here about throwing open that door wide in welcome. This is family. And in family, our hearts should be open in love.
None of us can have too much love in our lives, can we? To talk about untold family stories, funny tales that actually bind us together, is a learning-growing-heartwarming experience that should not be missed — and yet often is missed in families that hold grudges or stay apart. The older we are, the more we truly need this gathering of love. If we have childen, we want our children to see that we – or you, Eileen – has open arms in welcoming family back into the fold.
YOU will always know that you will never have to say “I wish I did . . .” as so many do too late. You are perfect for this as I see you warm and loving, gracious and caring — and all of us crave your qualities in our lives. I call it LOVE, the most important thing in life, though often we do not realize it until it is too late. On your private island, Richard and you made that very solid interesting closed door in the trees. Perhaps now – in the gathering of family – a wonderful symbol would be a series of open doors amidst the trees – where, from now on, all those we love are not only welcome but embraced as a wonderful family always does. The symbolism may be one that will carry on to future generations – and if all in the family have place even one nail in that open door, hopefully you all will again become as one.
What you, Eileen, do now that is right and good will form the beginning hopefully of a family divided becoming whole once again — with love once again as its core. In life, all we can do is take the first important steps . . . and then see what wonders they have wrought.
For you and your family, I wish you so many.
Dear Joan. I agee. Love is with us always. May we all, always feel it, Eileen
Dear Eileen, you are a peacemaker indeed! I urge you to see David Whyte’s new post on Gratitude for it is truly inspiring.
With Love, Louise
Thank you Louise. I love David Whyte’s poetry. Right up there with Mary Oliver! xo, Eileen
I continue to talk about all of our good and happy experiences. I hope to honor my husband, who has been gone almost 10 years, by being the most honest and kind person I can be just as he was.
Dear Gladys, you are an inspiration. I will learn from you! Thank you. Eileen
Beautiful blog, Eileen. Sounds like a good idea to meet your McGrath cousins in Maine. Hopefully, the gathering will create new friendships and lasting relationships. The best way I’ve found to have peace in my heart when someone leaves my life is to remember the good times we shared. Whether it be a furry friend or significant other, the times we spent together will always remain a part of me. Memories are friends. The heart remembers. . . Warmest wishes, Phyll
Dear Phyll, I’m sure it will be a wonderful reunion. And it will create even more good times. warmest to you, Eileen
Hi Eileen, A family gathering of the McGraths is a nice idea and all will have a good time. In fact the support all will give to you and family, remembering Richard, will help everyone. New England is beautiful in summer and the air, breeze and summer weather will add atmosphere, regardless of sun, rain, fog, etc..
When my young 20 year old cousin died, tragically, 5 years ago, I was sad for the family who had summered all of “her” life, a few houses up the street from my parent’s house. The cousins were much younger than I. I was the oldest by at least 9 years. Of course that seniority did not give me any specialness, but I knew everyone more years than any other paternal cousin– that is special in its own way.
To continue… My family of four arrived for our planned two weeks of vacation and I walked up the street, alone to my cousin’s family to extend my condolences. Anxious and sad I thought about what I would say to her family. I wanted to tell my husband and children how “all” were doing before they visited.
As I walked up the stone stairs to my aunt’s house, I was greeted by my aunt ( the loving grandparents) and other family members. There stood a beautiful stone and sand statue of an angel and a garden that had been built in this young lady’s memory by family and friends who brought plants, flowers, seashells from the beach, sea glass and herbs. The birds and butterflies seemed to sing, softly, around the blossoms in her memory. The garden continues to bloom on its own each spring and summer and family and friends continue to bring small gifts to the garden.
Much of my healing from having lost this dear young cousin was helped by visiting the garden. I drop by each summer to say a prayer in front of the angel.
What a beautiful idea Elaine. Thank you for sharing. I guess I’m doing my own version by planting a specimen Service Berry bush at the corner if my house. It will anchor the house, providing beautiful blossoms in springtime, and red berries & orange leaves in the fall. It is a humble shrub, just like my brother, and service was his life.
Thank you once again for sharing your heart on a very difficult and painful aspect of life. Your question is a good one.” What ways have you come to peace with loss”? I do hope I have your permission to answer from a faith based perspective? As a Christian, a true believer in the Bible, Old Testament and New, this is how I personally have best been able to come to terms with loss. This is not to say it is easy, by any means. However, coming from a personal perspective, the Lord is an amazing comforter. When we allow Him. I particularly appreciated when you phrased part of your question “come to peace”. This is the key. Arriving at a place of ”peace”.
Blessing and Love,
Judy : . .
Dear Judy, Thank you for your faith based perspective. There are many ways to come to peace. Faith to me is about doubting the doubt. It helps. Warmly, Eileen
Beautiful, dearest, Eileen!
I remember when my Dad died suddnely and unexpectantly. My siblings and I all went down to his house in Florida to clear out the house. We had no idea that this traggic incident wouild really bring us much closer. It was really hard to get through the funeral service because we were all so emotional. Spending the time together sifting through Dad’s stuff and remembering him was a bonding time. We still talk about that trip and reminiss about Dad. I think family is the key to coping with loses. Family bonds and memeeories always get me through. Family is guaranteed to be familiar, no pun intended.
I am so moved by your words of wisdom and heartfelt memories that you have shared about Richard. I hope that your reunion in august is filled with open arms and beauttiful memories of Richard, Grace and your Mom.
Dear Rachel, thank you for your empathic response. We all join the “secret club” of loss at one time or another. Family is a great source of strength. with love, Eileen
Eileen, so moving. I love your armchair blogs. Keep them coming. xx, Diana
Eileen, I spent many years with the McGraths as a friend of Gordon and Grace and remember her laughing so long & so much when describing your Cos Club rendez vous. She had the biggest smile on her face, and I doubt it’s possible to know what happiness that afternoon gave to her if you had not been with her through many ups & downs. I too have attended many of their family funerals but I know much more about laughing with them and I hope you will continue to engage with the fun McGraths. So many fun times with Grace. She was crazy in a fun way.
Dear Karen, Thank you so much for sharing this with me. In fact that reunion two years ago has catapulted me into myriad get togethers with my McGrath cousins. I’m so happy to hear that my antics at the Cos Club gave Grace a belly laugh several times over. She had the McGrath humor for good fun and mischievous humor. I was with Lisa at a family wedding in August, and have been in touch with most of her daughters as well as my other first cousin, Sims and his family. In a few weeks I will be sitting with my eldest sister and Lisa for a first time reunion for them. Can’t wait to hear the stories flow! Thanks again for writing. May you find Grace’s spirit still laughing with you, Eileen
So very happy Eileen. You are a treasure. Funny how your own private tales of family angst are universal, and when you shared your soul searching journey out of the woods, know in your heart of hearts you create a wonderful awakening for many of us to be brave and embrace those emotions that often trip us up. Grace is my laughing star like the one in “The Little Prince” as she is for so many of us. Unforgettable fun.