The first chapter of my book is reprinted here because this time of year always returns me to the time of my brother’s death.
Did the universe know the collected notes, pens, paper, and calendar of writing deadlines would be my sacrifice to grief? Unsure and tentative, I was writing an article for a local monthly and relying on the closeness of notes and pens to urge sentences from a frail, guarded inner self. When I heard a car door shut, I looked out the front window and saw my mother and grandmother coming up the walkway. We are not a family to visit one another without warning, but without curiosity, I walked to the front door.
I felt a timeless, serenely indifferent thought wave crest and roll around, through and beyond the house when I opened the door, forever leaving me in an endless wake. Their faces were grim. We heard my husband, Sam, and son, Zachary, coming from the TV room. Mother stood in front of me, Grandma Spiking to the side.
“You don’t have a brother anymore,” Mother said.
I stepped back and stiffened, “No.” It was a forceful denial of what I was experiencing in the thought wave’s endless wake. A vision appeared of my brother, Jody, wearing a blue shirt and holding a gun. He was among tall pines in a small clearing. He held the gun in his right hand, pointed it through his ribs and fired. A rush of heat went through my right chest and out my left, neither pleasing nor painful, only very hot and final. His legs gave first, before his hips sagged under
falling torso, and then his handsome head with wild curly hair the color of summer’s wheat hit dirt.
The five of us were silent and mindless. “How?” I asked.
“He did it himself, but we don’t know. The police chaplain was waiting when I came home from work. That’s all I know. I have to call Donna now.” Mother called her sister, said arrangements needed to be made and the police still had him. Still had him. I felt a sliver of self the width of a hair leaving. Mother and Grandma, who had said nothing, left.
On August 7, 1979, I was called to the unwanted hero’s journey through traumatic grief.
The hero’s journey is the first form of story, dating back to at least 2500 B.C. when it is believed the Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh was written in stone. Buried in ruins in Nineveh, the tablets were unearthed in the mid-1870s. The literary hero’s journey is told to strengthen group beliefs in an interesting, usually uplifting way. Heroes are people others want to be like because they show courage, strength of body, character, leadership and intelligence. Heroes are loved because they can right a wrong, face adversity, save the helpless and then be humble shy folk embarrassed by the showering of gifts when they are thanked. They face obstacles or trials, and their victories often reach far beyond their own lives as they become our examples and leaders.
Two hundred items have been listed as part of the hero’s journey in scholarly study, but a basic description is:
They live a routine life.
They receive a calling to a quest.
They face challenges and learn from them.
Others benefit from what the newly designated hero learns.
“Gilgamesh was king of Uruk, a city set between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers,” is the first line of Gilgamesh. “Once upon a time” begins fairy tales of princes slaying dragons and kissing fair maidens to awaken love before living happily ever after. Once upon a time tells what is going on when the hero receives the call to action. “Once upon a time there was a prince. He wanted a princess, but she had to be a real princess,” starts The Princess and the Pea by Hans Christian Andersen.
Human heroes also start their journey with simple words of how it was. In his memoir, Night, Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Hitler death camps gives a description of his tranquil boyhood in the village of Sighet. “My parents ran a shop. Hilda and Béa helped them with the work. As for me, they said my place was at school.” My routine before the call was: on a Tuesday work day, before preparing dinner, I was working on an article I hoped would launch a more interesting career. Life was pleasant and normal.
Mythical and historical heroes often appear to be leaders from the
beginning, and we enjoy following their stories and admiring their strength. The first lines written by Homer to describe the hero Odysseus in The Odyssey tells us all we need to know to believe in him. “This is the story of a man, one who was never at a loss. He had traveled far in the world, after the sack of Troy, the virgin fortress; he saw many cities of men, and learnt their mind; he endured many troubles and hardship in the struggle to save his own life and to bring back his men safe to their homes.”
The tales of Odysseus, Gilgamesh, King Arthur and the Norse god Odin are from long ago and have become myth. Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Buddha and other religious figures have a hero’s story. The Ugly Duckling and Thumbelina come from fairy tales. Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and Harry Potter are recent fictional heroes.
The hero’s journey is a template holding the stories of life. Falling in love and marrying, raising children and creating a career can be told as a hero’s journey. And, of course, love, raising children and a career don’t always end happily. Living has many challenges and not all of them are settled in a way that makes people proud or peaceful. Challenges are not always successfully met and sometimes a would-be hero falters. Shakespeare’s Hamlet and William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice are compelling stories of tragedy that have all the elements of the hero’s journey, but along the way the protagonists fail.
Contemporary stories of grief’s hero journey that are used in this book can be found in many lives. The call for C.S. Lewis, author of The Narnia Chronicles, came when his wife died of cancer. Candy Lightner who founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) lost her daughter when she was hit by a drunk driver, and Nando Parrado survived a plane crash in the Andes that killed his mother and sister.
While in my thirties, over a five year period, my only sibling, my mother-in-law, Grandma Spiking and my father died. Reasons were suicide, cancer, old age and complications from surgery. They were all important people I continue to love in memory and given a choice, I would have all of them back in my life. I still remember the endearing and aggravating things each one did to create their niche in my heart and memories. Not once in all that time did I think of myself, or anyone else who lost a loved one, as a hero.
Grief’s emotions were different with each one. Sam, Zachary and Mother also had different emotional and intellectual good-byes. Jody’s was the most traumatic for me, and I know, for our mother. Only in the last years has Jody’s memory obtained the patina of long thoughtful polishing that is comfortably warm and an indelible part of who I have become. Recovery shouldn’t have taken so long. It’s easy to say suicide created the guilt, regret, shame and sadness, but looking back, I know there is more.
Traumatic is not always unexpected. The hero’s journey also includes those who have tended a loved one through illness or the results of an accident. Grief is not about the person who died. It is about the person who continues to live.
Sam’s call to his mother’s death was when he was told she had cancer and was going in for surgery within the week. Sam, Zac, Mother and I struggled during this time of the five deaths, sometimes with each other, and sometimes alone.
Being told devastating news of someone we love irrevocably changes our life’s path. The news sets an opening scene, but it does not make anyone a hero. Odysseus was not a hero when his call came to leave home to fight the Trojan War. King Arthur was not a hero when he pulled Excalibur from the rock to prove himself a leader. The title of hero is given only to those who complete the trials presented to them. However well grief’s hero’s journey is completed, survivors of traumatic death understand why Mother still says when she wants to talk of her son, “Before Jody left ….”
Hearing of death from doctors, strangers in military uniform, police or religious dress is a difficult rite of passage to begin the hero’s journey. More inviting and charming was Harry Potter’s unexpected letter addressed to his sleeping quarters under the stairs urgently calling him to school. Both calls change a person’s life.
Taken from Blossoms of the Lower Branches, A Hero’s Journey Through Grief available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, independent bookstores and my website.