Nothing Prepares You for a Loss: A Tribute to my Uncle Sam
By: Christine Smith (McFarlane)
It’s the phone message you always dread waking up to-a member of your family calling you and saying, “Please call, it’s rather urgent.” In my case it was a nightmare come true, but it wasn’t about the person I thought it would be about-it was about my favorite uncle.
Nothing can prepare you for a loss or a death, whether it’s a friend, a member of your family or even a pet. I have always had this awful dream that one day I would get a phone call from back home in Winnipeg saying, “Christine, your mom has passed.” In fact in the current manuscript I am working on, I have a story about that dream. I never thought that a semblance of it would become real.
I remember holding my phone, punching in my voicemail password and rather groggily listening to my voicemail. I hadn’t even crawled out from under my blankets yet. As soon as I heard my mom’s partner Jim say “it’s urgent,” I jumped out of my bed like there was a fire lit underneath me, and I started pacing back and forth, back and forth, listening to the RING…RING…. RING… of the phone on the other end.
Minutes passed before I finally heard my mom come on the other end of the phone. I said, “What’s wrong?” and the words I didn’t want to hear came out “Your Uncle Sam passed away.”
At first I didn’t want to believe the words, and I kept muttering “oh my god, oh my god,” and then my mom’s partner came on the phone and told me once more “Sam is gone, he died last night.”
At first when I was told that my Uncle Sam was gone, I didn’t cry. I was in shock. I got really quiet and then the words came out of my mouth like verbal diarrhea
“OMG!! OMG!! What happened? When did this happen?”
My Uncle Sam was special to me. Even though I only met him a few times over the years that I have gotten to know my biological mother again, he stayed a part of my life in his own way. It was this that made him special to me. When I first started to get to know my mom and her side of the family, I remember I moved around a lot. I never stayed at one address longer than a year, but this didn’t stop my uncle from trying to stay in touch with me. I would move to a new address, and I’d receive a letter from him.
It was complications from diabetes that killed my Uncle Sam. He was 58 years old, too young to die, and I’m going to miss him, especially when I go home every summer to see my mom. Dealing with a death is difficult. I’ve gone from every kind of emotion you can think of. I’ve been feeling incredibly sad, have fits of crying, have felt immense anger, and just generally feeling like the whole thing is a dream and I’ll wake up and find out its not real. Sadly, that’s not the case though, and in dealing with my uncle’s death, I’m also learning once more to cope with another great loss.
Grief, much like mental illness is a neglected and misunderstood process that touches us all at one point in our lives. I have learned that grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss of any kind, so the feelings I’m experiencing are also normal and natural for me, but it doesn’t make things any easier. The problem is that we have all been socialized to believe that these feelings are somehow wrong and unnatural. It’s especially difficult when someone tells you “it was the Creator’s plan,” even if you know it to be true on a subconscious level.
Grieving is difficult though, no matter what. According to the “Grief Recovery Handbook: The Action Program for Moving Beyond Death, Divorce, and Other Losses,” written by John W. James and Russell Friedman it is said that “since most of us have been socialized to attempt to resolve all issues with our intellect, grief remains a huge problem,”
I don’t know how long I will feel this incredible sadness over my Uncle Sam passing away because it was definitely a shock, but I also know that though I am going to miss him terribly when I go back home each summer to visit my mom and the rest of her family, I do know that he is no longer suffering like he was before he passed on.
In the last few days, my mom’s partner has been calling me to see how I’m doing. We chat about how my Uncle was when he was well. We talk about the sense of humor he had, what a jokester he could be, how he would go around showing my writing to people on our reserve, and we laugh and remember him for how he was.
The difficulty I have in my grief is my last memory of him and the words he said to me. It was during my last visit home that I noticed how unwell my Uncle was and how he could barely walk around and was using a walker for assistance. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him and I said a few words in the language and he asked me who had taught me the language, and then after a few minutes of silence, he looked over at me and said “This may be one of the last times I see you.”
I recall getting quiet when he said those words, and feeling an immense sense of sadness wash over me, but I brushed them aside because I didn’t want to think of my Uncle not being around anymore. I didn’t think those words would come true, but they have.
Another memory I have is how at one point when he was trying to go outside to sit with everyone in the backyard, he fell and my mom’s partner and I tried to help him up. In my haste
to help him, I accidently grabbed his bad arm (the one where he was receiving needles for his diabetes and dialysis) and he hollered “my arm, my arm.”
It was then that I realized how much pain he was in, because he had never yelled at me before. I felt really badly and started crying. I started crying because I realized then that even though he was in pain, and could barely get around, he didn’t let it stop him from getting my other Uncle to drive an hour from our reserve to come and see me while I was visiting.
There is one thing I must remember in my grief and that is that no one likes to see someone else hurting. The important thing I can do for him now is to carry on with my life doing what I love to do, and what he silently encouraged me to do- write.
So, if you have experienced a death or a loss, or are experiencing it now, the most important thing you can do for yourself is to allow yourself to feel the sadness, allow yourself to cry and allow yourself to remember the person you have lost. Don’t stay quiet about the person, remember them how they were, and if they were unwell before they passed on, try to remember that they are no longer in pain, or feeling anymore cold, they will be at peace, and they will want you to carry on in the best way that you can.