I recently spent a week travelling back and forth between members of my German family. Having lived abroad for 40 years makes me their exotic outsider, a stranger and occasional confidant. One of their gifts to me are their separate ways of coping with the death (after a failed heart transplant) of my nephew’s 38-year old wife, the mother of their seven-year old daughter, and daughter-in-law to my brother and his wife.
I was struck by the intimacy between child and father, their physical closeness, frequent holding and touching, eye contact, whispered conversation. Their home still wears the signs of ‘before’ with wedding and holiday photos and a child’s handmade sign reading, ”Hello Mummy, I hope you’re feeling better.” In our time together, death was never mentioned in words, only in the occasional silence.
Staying with my sister-in-law (66) and brother (71) gave me another taste of loss, sadness, and missed opportunities. Also of blame … for self (“We could have done more”) and other (“Why didn’t they/he include us during the months of struggle.”). My brother found it difficult, nay impossible, to articulate his feelings. At one point in a conversation about recent events, he stood up abruptly, spoke of the ache in the pit of his stomach, and left the room to watch teevee.
Family systems theory posits that individuals cannot be understood in isolation, but rather as a part of their relationship system, where people influence and respond to each other. Words, in our particular situation on that particular day, were of little use. My sister-in-law named some of her feelings and my nephew has sent some guarded emails, but my brother, who rarely shares his feelings with anyone, remains hidden deep inside of his grief.
After a short while I went to sit close to him in front of the television, put my arms around him, stroked his neck and shoulders, without saying a word. “Let’s go for a walk,” he said eventually, turning off the set. The topics of death and loss remained tabu for the rest of my visit, but we did have a few good laughs together.