This is a story about learning to grow and cope despite great loss. Its also about opening the heart and mind to possibilities for healing and growth. Tools to understand the process and deal with the tragedy of loss are offered for the grieving and their loved ones.
This is not a story about death. Its about trying to understand death, and how it affects our lives. Its about a journey that no parent chooses to take. Its about learning to live life to its fullest while searching for Peace.
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About the Author
Susan has worked in the health care field in various capacities. She has spent most of her career working to help senior citizens and their families.
She has a Bachelors degree in Social Services from Eastern Connecticut State University. She has co-facilitated a support group for Alzheimers caregivers, and she currently facilitates a parents grief support group.
Read an Excerpt
Learning and Growing
I remember when I was a freshman in college in 1972 taking English Literature 101. We were assigned to read portions of the book, Speak, Memory by Vladamir Nabokov. In the book, Nabokov writes about many details that he recalls from his childhood. I honestly do not remember much of the book, but I do remember an assignment we were given. We were told to think back on the earliest memory from our childhood that we could possibly recall and write an essay about it. The professor said that most people if they really try, will recall something from their third year. The first memory that we have is usually something that has had or will have, an impact on our lives.
I spent a lot of time trying to recall my earliest memory. My mother had three children in her first marriage. Two sons had died as babies. My sister, Barbara, was also from her first marriage. Barbara was seven years old when my mother and father married in 1948 in Las Vegas. My brother Eddy and I were born in Burbank, CA, and we lived in Peco Rivera when I was little. I knew that we had two Boston Terriers. The male was named Pal Boy and the female was named Ginger. Pal Boy was a traditional black and white dog, but Ginger was light brown and, as her name would indicate, she had ginger tones in her coat. I never really remember playing with Ginger, but I had seen pictures of her and my parents had told me stories about her.
As I searched my memory I remembered standing in the yard with my father. He had stooped down close to the ground to speak to me and looked directly into my eyes. Maybe the deliberateness in the way he spoke to me that day is part of the reason I remember it. He told me that I would never see Ginger again; that she had died. I had never heard the word before then. I asked where she was. I remember him telling me that she had stopped breathing; she had gone down into the ground and a special part of her had gone up to Heaven to be with God. He said that she would be safe there and would always be happy. I remember feeling sad, but happy at the same time.
I spoke with my parents about the assignment I was working on and asked them how old I was at the time. They were shocked that I remembered Ginger dying. Then they told me that I was three years old. We were still living in California when she died and moved to New England toward the end of my third year.
As I traveled through my life there were many deaths and subsequent funerals that I remember impacting me and shaping my perception of death, as we all do. My mother was one of eight girls and my father was one of eleven siblings. When I count aunts and uncles and their spouses the number was about thirty-four. I can't even begin to count the number of cousins I ended up with. We don't always think about it, but the bigger the family, and the more friends we have, the more deaths we experience. It's only natural. In some way, we may become immune to the pain of some of the losses. We see it as a part of life, and that is the right way to look at death. At other times the occurrence of death has a profound impact on how we view our world.
As I look back on some of the deaths I have experienced I can see the knowledge and growth I experienced through them.
After we moved to New England I lived in a two-story house that my parents rented. I remember going to visit my Grandpa and Grandma (my mother's parents) in the apartment they lived in at the time. It was on the second floor of a large building on the corner of Main Street, called the Maci Building. My Grandpa used to sit in a rocking chair in the front window. Every day at 6:00 P.M. the fire whistle would blow. I remember sitting on his lap and he would tell me that he had a secret button under the windowsill. He said that he would push that button every day and make the fire whistle blow to let everyone in town know the correct time. I felt amazed by that and thought that he must be the most important person in town.
Grampa died when I was five years old. It was the first funeral I ever attended. My mother and her seven sisters were crying at the funeral. I wasn't sure why they were so sad because to me it just meant that Grandpa was going to go in the ground and then up to Heaven to be with God. Wasn't that a good thing? I remember going up to one of my aunts and telling her to stop crying because she would see Grandpa again when she went to Heaven. I couldn't understand why she cried even harder after that, I thought to hear that would make her happy.
A short time after Grandpa died I started to become aware of a feeling at night after I would get into bed. It felt like Grandpa was in my room, standing in the corner. Like he wanted to say something to me, but couldn't. I found it very comforting, and I wanted to talk with him. I told him that I missed him and loved him. I told him that I knew he was okay because the fire whistle still blew every day at 6:00 P.M. When I told my mother that Grandpa came to be with me at night she asked me if I was scared. I told that it didn't scare me but made me feel good. She said that she was happy that I was comforted by Grandpa.
John F. Kennedy
The next time that I remember experiencing death was the day that John F. Kennedy died. I was at school and very excited because we were having a Girl Scout ceremony after school and all of the parents were coming in to see it. I remember sitting in my fourth-grade class when the teacher was called out to the hall to speak with someone. When she came in we could see that she had been crying. She told us the news.
After school, we held the Girl Scout ceremony. We all gathered in a circle, held hands and sang This Land is Our Land. I swear that everyone in the gymnasium cried. That was the first time I saw death as truly sad.
The next days were filled with news broadcasts of the assassination, Americans from all over the country wept. The impact on me and other children was profound. Somehow, I knew that I would never look at death the same way again. It was much more than going to the ground and then up to God in Heaven.
I think we can all relate to the first death that we experience that impacts a large number of people. We remember the moment we learned of it, where we were at the time, and who we were with. The entire event becomes an experience of growth and maturity. The world is never the same again. Think about what that experience was for you. Was it when John F. Kennedy died? Was it when Elvis died? Maybe it was the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. Maybe it was on 9-11. Every person in every generation experiences that newsworthy death that changes our lives in a way that prevents us from ever going back. We experience the loss of innocence.
My little Boston Terrier, Pal Boy, was getting older. I was aware that he had some health problems that my parents were trying to take care of, and they brought him to the veterinarian several times. I was only about nine years old and didn't understand what was wrong with him, but I remember praying that he would be alright.
One day when my brother and I came home from school he was still at the veterinarian's office. My parents waited until after we had eaten dinner. My father went into Eddy's room with him and my mother took me to my room. They simultaneously told us that the doctor had to put Pal to sleep. I remember telling my mother that he should wake him up now. As she tried to explain what had happened, I started crying. I knew what she meant, but I couldn't stand to hear it. I heard my bother begin to yell from his room as my father tried to calm him down.
This was the hardest lesson in death that I had been dealt so far. I was much more aware since John F. Kennedy had died. I understood the permanence of death now. Pal had been my most consistent companion since the day I was born. I didn't think I could handle the loss.
I remember going to school the next day. I kept starting to cry and couldn't concentrate on anything. My teacher brought me to the office. The principle, who was a very kind and soft-spoken man, asked what was wrong. I couldn't answer because I was afraid to cry more. He asked me if everything was okay at home. That's when I told him that my dog had died. He looked at me with total sympathy and understanding. Then he called my mother and asked her to bring me home. I remember him telling her that I was too sad to be in school. This was my first experience of feeling grief and I couldn't understand my emotions.
Eddy wanted my parents to get another dog, but I wasn't ready to love another dog yet. My parents decided that Pal was the last dog they would have. Eddy and I both vowed that when we grew up and had our own homes we would get dogs. I guess that looking forward to a future that included dogs was part of the healing process for us.
Around 1965 my brother, Eddy, became very good friends with a boy two houses down from us named Henry. Henry had a heart disorder. I never really knew what the problem was, but he had been pretty much confined to his house most of his childhood. Henry underwent a successful open-heart surgery in Boston. He came back home and was told to recover and get strong by exercising and being busy. He got very strong and would go hunting and fishing with Eddy. I remember my parents brought us all deep sea fishing out of Hampton, NH.
Henry was like another brother to me and my whole family loved him dearly. In 1968, at the age of twenty-one, he went back to Boston for the second part of the open-heart surgery. He came through the surgery with flying colors and we were told that he was doing well. A couple of days later we were told that he had developed pneumonia and had died. I felt devastated. This time death hurt. It hurt deeply. I felt like I had lost a brother. In a way, I had.
About a year later I was at a party at a girlfriend's house. Someone pulled out a Ouija board and we all took turns playing with it and giggling. When it was my turn at the board I thought this was silly. I barely touched the planchette when it actually started to move. I asked who was with me and it spelled out H-E-N-R-Y!! The board said that he was with me and watching over me. We all sort of freaked out and I let go of the planchette and wouldn't go back to it. I'm not saying that I believe in Ouija boards, but just that this is my experience with them.
I had a friend named Bobby when I was very young, but his family moved to Maryland when his father was transferred for work. One day in high school I heard that there was a new boy in the school. I saw him and thought he looked vaguely familiar. I approached him and asked if we knew each other. He told me his name was Bob and that he lived in town a long time before. When we realized that we were already friends it just became the natural thing to spend a lot of time together.
He wanted me to date him, but I already had a boyfriend so we remained just friends. We became very good friends, and nothing more, but he always let me know that he wanted to be my boyfriend. After a time, I told him that if he was going to keep insisting that I go out with him that I would have no choice but to stop seeing him even as a friend. It was a difficult thing to do, but I stuck to my decision.
A few months later I heard from a mutual friend that Bob had died. He was at a lake up north with his parents when he drowned in the lake. I remember the funeral and that I was so sad. I wanted my friend back. I remember looking at his mother at the wake. I didn't think I had ever seen anyone grieve so deeply. I knew that I was sad, but I couldn't imagine the depth of her sorrow.
Of eleven children in my father's family that lived to adulthood, my father was one of six that developed Alzheimer's Disease. He was diagnosed in 1995. I helped my mother to deal with the progression of the disease. I started taking her to an Alzheimer's Support Group to help her understand how to deal with the progression of his disease and to better cope with the changes. She started to really enjoy the meetings and looked forward to seeing everyone once a month.
My father had seen several of his siblings with the disease and he used to say, "I pray to God that I don't live long enough to get as bad as they did." He also often told us that when it was his time to go that he wanted us to let him go. He was clear that he did not want to have his life extended with any heroic measures.
By the summer of 1999, my father had started going to an adult day care program. He absolutely loved it there and spoke of the men being the best workers he had ever worked with. Like many people in adult day care he thought he was going to his job when he went there.
On a Thursday in October of 1999, my father had a massive stroke and went into a coma. I will never forget the kind nurse practitioner who told me that he would choose the moment that he would pass. She said that everyone chooses that time for themselves. She said, "He might go when there is a crowd here, when there are only certain people, or when he is alone, but it is in his hands now."
For four days my mother, Eddy, and I took turns holding vigil by his bedside in the hospital. We kept him hydrated, but as he had wanted, we did not extend his life. It was his time, and it was our responsibility to help him pass peacefully. Several family members came to see him, including his grandchildren from Florida.
By Sunday morning his breathing was very shallow and we were told he wouldn't make it through the day. I knew that a lot of people were coming in to see him that day so I brought his shaver in and I shaved him. As I did he lifted his chin so I could shave his neck and moved his head so I could reach places on his face. Even in a coma, he reacted appropriately to the feeling. I was determined to make him presentable. My father never went out in public without being clean and neat, and I would be damned if I was going to let him be seen any other way even if he was on his deathbed.
That afternoon he had a room full of visitors. Everyone was talking and laughing. It had the feeling of a party; a celebration of his life as we told stories about him and spoke to him. I noticed that he had gotten color back in his cheeks and his breathing improved. I asked everyone to take a minute and look at him; at how natural and happy he looked. He was enjoying his company.
The next morning, I stopped in to see him before I went to work. I knew that I had to leave, but I would be back in a couple of hours. I bent to his ear and asked him to hang in there a little while longer and I would get back as soon as I could. I was back in his room by noon. My mother and Eddy were there also. Eddy told me that they had both told him that he could let go now. I held his right hand and my mother held his left hand. Eddy sat at the foot of the bed. Here we were, the immediate family, all together. I leaned over and told him that I loved him and that we were all together now. I told him it was alright to go now. He took a deep breath and then his breaths became further and further apart. It only took a few minutes before he took his last breath. He had chosen his moment, just as the nurse had said that he would.
My father's death was the hardest thing I ever had to deal with. I couldn't comprehend my life without him in it. The pain I felt for weeks and months seemed unbearable at times. At times I felt that I couldn't go on, but I knew that my mother needed me more now than ever. I remember looking at my husband and telling him that for the first time in my life I understood the difference between grieving and mourning. To me, the act of mourning seemed deeper, longer, and more intense than the sadness of grief.
Excerpted from "The Dragonfly Spirit"
Copyright © 2018 Susan Brunell.
Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Dragonfly, xi,
Part I Learning and Growing,
John F. Kennedy, 5,
Pal Boy, 6,
My Father, 10,
Part II Rising Tides and Shifting Sands,
Twenty-Four Hours, 30,
Going Through the Motions, 35,
The Wake, 39,
The Funeral, 41,
Part III Life After Death,
Mother's Day, 47,
The Coffee House Meeting, 52,
The First Psychic Reading, 54,
A Text Message, 58,
It's a Boy!!, 61,
I Carry Your Heart, 63,
The Angel Dream, 65,
The Second Psychic Reading, 67,
Pink Balloons, 78,
One Year In-One Year Over, 79,
Keeping Memories Alive, 83,
The Next Step, 86,
A Life Interrupted, 90,
"I do", 95,
Baby Powder, 98,
A Group Visit, 99,
Tattoo Me, 101,
The Weekend Megan Came Home, 105,
The Bubble Dream, 107,
A Home Visit, 109,
Another Psychic, 112,
Snuggles, Part 2, 113,
An Embrace from Dad, 114,
Send Me a Sign, 119,
Inscription for A Gravestone, 128,
Please Touch Me, 130,
Mom, Part 2, 133,
Another Home Visit, 137,
Megan Sends a Sign, 150,
A Family Gathering, 152,
Joshua, Part 2, 155,
The Spirit Dragonfly Takes Flight!, 159,
Grief Counseling, 162,
Who Would You be Today?, 168,
Rosy & Anne, 170,
A Hartford Reading, 173,
Lost Teardrop, 175,
The Next Step, Part 2, 178,
One Decade Later, 185,
It's Just Stuff., 188,
Part IV The Dragonfly Spirit Soars,
What I Have Learned, 195,