Grieving family from a distance
April 17, 2016 8:20 PM   Subscribe

How do you do it?

My aunt died, almost a year after a cancer diagnosis. I loved her, felt loved by her, close to her - when I saw her - i.e., most summers until my late teens, and a few after that. But I didn't know her well. I didn't share my goals or troubles with her growing up; she wasn't a direct influence on my life. I wasn't able to visit her when she was sick. I missed her funeral. (Money issues.) Her death feels unreal. I can't square it (or her illness) with my memories. (She was whip-smart - wise, so funny, a gifted storyteller. A little kooky, in some ways I'm kooky. We looked alike.)

My parents immigrated, I'm second generation. The pain of distance has been a big one for me. I envied people with aunts and grandmothers they could see on any weekend, or ask for support when things at home might be wrong (as they were for me, often). Or even just see at Christmas. I longed for that feeling of automatic acceptance (can't say I felt it in my community). I got it when I saw them (so much love, a little strange at first, but real). But visits were always too brief.

I've worn black for many, but have made it to exactly one funeral of a member of my own family. Have lost most of them. Similar sort of thing - visits back and forth, usually more frequent contact than with my aunt (because of logistics). They've all just drifted away, it's like they were never here. Like that love never existed. It did, though.

Just one grandmother is left. She's going to go soon, too. She's on her own, in a home, too ill to travel.

My aunt is bound up with an idea and feeling of home and love, also distance and loss. I'm so sad that I couldn't know my aunt's reality, and that I'll never have the chance. And that that feeling of home, that home is gone, going. And that she suffered so much through her illness and surgeries and treatments, and I couldn't be any kind of comfort or witness. I can't be that for my grandmother, either, she's alone, far from her children and grandchildren, after a hard life.

There may or may not be a small, very private sort of memorial service for my aunt here, but it's not up to me, depends on how my mother feels (she is devastated, has lost faith, is unsure about that). I'm not religious at all, but I hope it happens, I want some formal recognition that she was here, that her life happened and mattered.

How do I grieve the aunt I never really knew, but - somehow, and really - loved? I don't have anywhere near enough memories to not lose her - three ways, with distance, death, and forgetting. How have you personally dealt with this kind of loss?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Write down what you remember about her now and add to it whenever you remember another tidbit. That will help with the forgetting.
posted by MsMolly at 8:39 PM on April 17, 2016

We don't forget people who are important to us: we may not think of them every day and we may forget some details but but they are with us 24/7 in spirit because they helped make us who we are. (I say this as a non-religious person who has lost loved ones, some very familiar and others less so, some recently and some long ago.)
posted by smorgasbord at 9:16 PM on April 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also, you could work on feeling more connected to your family roots and parents' home-country. This could be something big like saving up for a trip or small like reading Wikipedia articles about the country.

I also really recommend books by bell hooks for their focus on love, family, and connections. They may or may not be for you but it sounds like they might be perfect.

I'm so sorry for your loss, and wish you all the best as you remember and memorialize her.
posted by smorgasbord at 9:20 PM on April 17, 2016

I'm sorry for your loss, OP.

You can create your own formal recognition. If your mom doesn't want to have a religious service you could suggest a secular wake or memorial event held in someone's home. Or it could be as small as making a dish she used to make or drinking her favorite whiskey/tea or writing a letter to her.

Failing that you can ask your family to tell you stories about her, on Facebook if you are connected to them there.
posted by bunderful at 9:24 PM on April 17, 2016

Buy a spectacularly beautiful and substantial candle. Buy a lovely dish or vessel to hold it. Light it and think of her. Light it every time you want to be "with" her. If you ever burn that candle to the end, buy another beautiful candle and burn that one. THAT'S how you can be present and grieve and be gentle with yourself when you can't be comforted by ...well, much. Candles can be comforting.

I'm so sorry for your loss. I know that kind of sadness and it's complicated and feels like a cold hard stone in the belly . I send you hugs if you want them.
posted by taff at 3:14 AM on April 18, 2016 [5 favorites]

why not suggest an agnostic memorial service to your mother and then organise it yourself? she might be grateful for the help.
posted by andrewcooke at 4:45 AM on April 18, 2016

[This is a followup from the asker.]
Thank you, everyone.

Just want to provide a bit of context... I feel that my roots are/were really just my family. What's there now bears no connection to them, or to what I remember. The country itself is a disaster, has been for years. There is a national identity crisis, turmoil, poverty, widespread corruption... there's bit of shame around that, if I'm honest, less pride than pain. Connecting to wider roots really means getting involved in political action (kind of unavoidably, one is pulled into it one way or another), which is an important obligation that I struggle over and is worthy of time, but not so much a comfort right now. (I'm fluent in the version of the language my parents spoke when they left, I can cook the dishes, I know some songs - that and my grandmother's and aunt's homes are about it, for me, for roots.)

My mother felt uneasy about a small memorial… Traditions around death, over there and in my corner of the diaspora, are very community-grounded - formal, social, personal. No one here knew my aunt but us. Usually, people travel back for funerals. Tickets are expensive (lots of weird connections); I couldn't go just because I can't afford it - my mom already went three times this year, each time thinking it would happen then (it, meaning either or both my aunt or grandmother going). She thought it might feel flimsy and weird to invite people who didn't know my aunt; equally so to *not* have people over, to just have a kind of dinner or something, with just our small family - it'd be too much about *us*. I know memorials are supposed to be about the people left behind, but really, it feels wrong to not have a clear and formal way to honour my aunt's memory. Or for those ways to be so far out from what people we know do. To be so disconnected. It *does* all feel flimsy and small and *unreal*, just so unreal.

I like many of these suggestions, though, thank you.
posted by cortex (staff) at 7:01 AM on April 18, 2016

My condolences.

My father died right before I was to get on a plane to visit him and it was very jarring. I felt like I needed something to mark his death; I had already taken off a week from work but there was no memorial planned yet and no one from my family nearby. What helped me was to go for walks while thinking of him. I took some pictures on my phone. There was one tree in a nearby park which someone had decorated for Christmas, but in what looked like a private way, just a few ornaments. I was very taken with that and it became attached to his memory in my mind. I also like the idea of a candle. Just something to attach your feelings to in this early period. Other things will occur to you later.
posted by BibiRose at 7:44 AM on April 18, 2016

i don't have any other suggestion, except perhaps talking (skype or whatever) with anyone back there you still have contact with. in a vaguely similar situation myself i am making a large effort these next few years to visit my parents as often as possible; maybe there's some way to put some of this frustration / energy into spending more time with your grandma?
posted by andrewcooke at 7:48 AM on April 18, 2016

My mother died last month from cancer. I am from the UK. I have lived in the US since July 2009.
I was there when she died, I was able to go back for the funeral. To be completely honest I am so used to being far away from my family, I constantly think I want to tell my mother something, or I haven't talked to her in a while and should email/text/call her, then I remember all over again, she's dead. I don't want you to think your inability to go to the funeral is somehow preventing you from getting closure. I don't want you to think that it would be better if your circumstances were different.
It really hurts to think about my mother, sometimes it's unbearable. Last night I hysterically sobbed on my couch.
It probably sounds like I'm trying to make you feel terrible but I'm not. I just want you to know that it's hard, and it's probably even harder to grieve so far away from where that person was. I'm so sorry you have to go through this, I know how awful it is. It doesn't feel real no matter the circumstance. Remember that feeling it means you haven't forgotten.
posted by shesbenevolent at 12:00 PM on April 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

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