A note: This post is a departure from my usual efforts. While this essay does reflect on “the natural world, life, and dogs,” the themes of my Wild Sensibility blog, the recent event prompting it entails much sorrow: the sudden, tragic accidental death of my brother. This post describes my initial steps on the long journey called grief.
Depending on your own situation, you may wish to skip this one. I understand if you do.
Tuesday, October 13, 2020.
From my oldest brother. At 7:30 pm. It can’t be good.
I only hear from any of my three older brothers on my birthday, or if something bad has happened.
My phone’s notifications are set to silent. Always. I prefer to choose the timing of interruptions from the outside world. Voicemails are rare. I don’t like texting; too abrupt, slow, and small, both in screen size and thought invested.
With trepidation I play the voicemail a half hour after it was left.
Sam’s message simply asks me to call him back, that it’s about the youngest brother, Tim. That’s all.
Shaking, my nerves tight with dread, I call Sam, knowing my world is about to tilt on its axis. I’m not ready.
Sam has minimal details. The day before – Monday, October 12th – Tim had a cycling accident near his home in California. He turned his head to say something to his partner riding behind him, hit a curb and fell, his head striking a rock. He was life-flighted to a nearby ICU with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and bleeding, facial fractures, and a broken arm.
“A freak accident.”
In the blink of an eye, Tim’s life changed. Drastically.
Later that evening I text Tim’s partner of the past few years, Denise. She texts back. She’s not able to see him because of Covid-19 restrictions at the hospital.
The wait begins.
Not knowing is hell. Fear fills in the blanks. My fear is that even if he survives, Tim will never be Tim again. His brain will be too damaged.
I wake up in the middle of the night. My teeth ache.
I’m clenching my jaws in my sleep.
It’s my body’s unconscious response to stress. During past stressful times I’ve broken molars already weakened with decades-old fillings. They had to be crowned.
I try my best to relax my mouth, to sleep with my mouth open. Yet the next time I wake up, my teeth are aching.
I wonder if I’ll break a crown.
Wednesday, October 14, 2020.
You’ve probably heard of the “five stages of grief” first described by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. I remember studying her ideas in my college psychology classes in the mid-1970s.
She described the five stages as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Since publishing her book, many experts have noted there’s no empirical evidence to support these stages, that her evidence was anecdotal from working with terminally ill patients.
If I’ve learned anything over the years, it is that grief is individual. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, no roadmap that directs everyone along the same route or to the same conclusion. There’s no timeline.
For me, though, the stages described by Kübler-Ross fit.
After my conversation with Sam on the 12th, I was in shock. This can’t be real.
Awakening the next morning after a fitful sleep, I thought, Maybe it’s not as bad as it seems and he’ll eventually, slowly, recover. Bargaining.
I went for a run. I needed movement. I needed to be in the forest. I went “naked” – no dogs, no running vest, no phone – so I could think without distractions.
I expected running to make me feel better, as it usually does, to provide some clarity.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I spent that hour of running angry. Seething. I was angry at the universe, and bizarrely, at Tim for getting hurt so horribly.
I hid my anger inside. Three different times I surprised mule deer on the trail, one group with two fawns. Each time, I stopped and we gazed into each other’s eyes for a long moment before they casually walked off into the trees. This is the one place where no hunting is allowed, so they have little fear. My anger briefly disappeared. Their calmness calmed me, reminding me what a gift it is to be alive and have these experiences.
Tim no longer can.
I felt as though I was receiving some cosmic message from these deer but I was unable to interpret it.
I kept running. Thinking. Remembering.
Already in a dark interior space, memories of other horrible occurrences taunted me.
In the 1990s, a friend committed suicide.
I had known Jan for several years, both of us members of a running club. Jan hid her depression well. Too well. When – not long after she and her live-in boyfriend broke up and Jan moved out, surfing couches – she used a gun to kill herself. I was shocked and stunned. I had no idea. None of us did.
Another shock, in the ensuing days, was how angry I felt toward Jan. How dare she do something so horrific, leaving friends and family to pick up the pieces, without answers? Could I have done more? What did I miss? Why didn’t she reach out? Why couldn’t I have prevented this tragedy? How dare she do something so final that makes me and others feel this way. How selfish.
Such of crazy mix of conflicting emotions, many of which piled onto the guilt I already felt.
Eventually I came to understand how Jan’s depression affected her thinking, why she saw no other solution for how she was feeling and why she didn’t reach out. My anger eventually turned to compassion and acceptance.
Remembering Jan as I ran, I indulged my general sense of anger about Tim as I followed the forested trail, hoping to get it out of my system.
On a curvy downhill stretch with toe-catching tree roots and rocks I heard what I thought was yet another deer several yards below. I blew a snot rocket, then another. Suddenly a man appeared, running up the trail. “I’m sorry!” I said. “Had I known you were coming I wouldn’t have blown snot rockets!” He laughed in response and said something witty that I’ve since forgotten.
Fucking Covid-19. I’m worried about snot rockets on a trail with few other humans. I haven’t had a hug in nearly a year. And my brother is laying alone in an ICU without partner or family for comfort. I am so done with 2020.
Sometimes I know too much. My long career in family law and guardianships has exposed me to so many terrible, life-altering scenarios. What I know about closed-head TBI patients is that – if they survive – they’re never the same.
That’s terrifying in the abstract. Also terrifying is that my gut is telling me that Tim is not going to survive.
I don’t share that belief with anyone. I stifle it. Another taste of anger, that I can’t share my fear, my awful prediction, which means no one can comfort me. I’ve rarely felt so alone.
Running, breathing, carefully picking my steps on the dirt trail, the beauty of the deer, trees and lake all around me – Don’t fall and hit your head! I think ruefully – my mind kept drifting to concern for Tim’s two adult daughters. More anger. Why did he have personality traits that interfered with his relationships with them, causing long-term estrangement?
I have always supported his daughters. Tim was far from perfect as a parent. That strained my relationship with Tim. I’m pissed that now those rifts – between Tim and his daughters, between me and Tim, between Tim and other family members – may never be healed.
That train of thought opened the floodgates of my anger and resentment toward my narcissistic mother and our own estrangement.
I thought I had “worked through” those feelings a year ago, in the months following her death. In reality, all I’d done is bury them. Tim’s accident brought them bursting – unwanted and unwelcome – right back to the surface like a poisonous fog that nearly suffocates me. Tim is very much like her. His strained relationships with his daughters mirror mine with my mother.
So much unsettled emotional business and difficult feelings that, now, will never get sorted out.
And that fuels a last flame of anger: I’m being selfish, thinking about how my brother’s horrific injury is impacting me. I’m angry at myself for being angry at Tim. How dare I?
That’s the thing about such tragedies. The shock waves rapidly push outward, hitting loved ones who grapple in stunned disbelief with grief and other uncomfortable emotions while the injured one lays in their hospital bed, oblivious.
I wonder whether, if Tim and I lived closer to each other, we could have at least discussed these issues while running together. He, like me, is a life-long runner and loves being in the outdoors with his dog. We shared political and social beliefs. We agreed on some family issues, disagreed on or avoided others altogether. But we haven’t lived near each other for over 30 years. That geographical barrier prevented heart-to-heart talks, leaving us distantly cordial.
Thursday, October 15, 2020.
Tim’s status is unchanged. Intubated, not moving, showing no reaction. Alone, in the ICU.
Denise still can’t visit. She texts me, sharing that a kind nurse put her on speaker phone at Tim’s bedside. Denise read Tim a list of all the family, friends and dogs who love him.
I offer a virtual shoulder of comfort and support to one niece via Messenger.
I’m not sleeping. But I’m not tired. I’m numb.
Friday, October 16 and Saturday, October 17, 2020.
It’s horribly quiet. No calls, texts or messages from anyone. No change. No good news. No glimmer of hope.
I chastise myself for thinking, “I’m not surprised.”
After watching several episodes of America’s Got Talent each of the past two nights – my mind-numbing digital pacifier – I play Solitaire on my computer into the wee hours while listening to Greg Maroney’s ethereal The Light Within, drinking too much wine, waiting and hoping for tiredness to overtake me. Finn snoozes on my bed, waiting for me. Conall sits beside me, his hip resting against the therapy ball I use as a chair, his head turned to rest on my left thigh so I’ll stroke his head and ears, soothing me, calming me.
Such mundane, routine things that I get to do because I’m alive, uninjured. Tim can’t.
Maroney’s music somehow pulls from me the full spectrum of feelings within my grief: fear, disbelief, loss, anger, sorrow, compassion, even acceptance of the awful reality of it all. Hope has faded. Tears finally fall, shock and a need to be strong for others keeping them at bay until now. Small parts of me break.
And maybe they start to heal, just a tiny bit.
Sunday, October 18, 2020.
Finally, late in the day, some concrete information.
An MRI shows massive damage to Tim’s brain and brain stem. Sam is told that Tim is likely paralyzed – whether quadriplegic or paraplegic, they don’t know. And while they preface the bad news with “We don’t have a crystal ball” they say they don’t believe he’ll ever wake up. “At best, he might someday open his eyes,” is their educated guess.
Sam and I talk by phone. Tim left clear directions for just this circumstance: he doesn’t want to be kept artificially alive if there’s little or no chance of regaining his usual quality of life. And Tim enjoyed an amazing life.
Tim was also clear – in his Directive to Physicians and on his driver’s license – that he wanted to donate his organs.
Plans are initiated to put Tim’s wishes and directives into effect.
I spent much of the day talking to Sam and middle brother Rick, smoothing ruffled feathers and making sure information is shared. I messaged Tim’s daughters about options available to them if they want to try to visit Tim one last time. Covid-19 restrictions make it almost impossible. So many tough conversations. I’m exhausted, playing family mediator as long-standing dysfunction and grievances resurface.
I also feel relieved. The uncertainty is over.
I feel guilt that I feel relief.
Sam doesn’t know when they’ll remove Tim’s ventilator. They need to coordinate surgeries for the organ recipients; Tim’s donated organs must be transferred to the recipients quickly to remain viable. I learn more than I want to about how these transfers from donor to recipient are done.
I’m proud of Tim for having the forethought to make his wishes clear. Not only will others benefit from this tragedy, but Sam’s internal struggle over giving authorization is lessened.
I wait, just as Tim waits.
Soon he’ll be free.
Monday, October 19, 2020.
A gorgeous morning. I’m exhausted, bone-tired, but I take the boys for a run. I need movement, exertion, fresh air. The boys need all that as well.
It’s rifle-killing season and options are limited. I chose the least-risky, a nearby ski resort where there are employees about. I stick to a service road for safety, and we climb to the summit.
As we climb, I realize what a special place this is to me, this mountain. I’ve spent so many happy hours running here with my dogs since moving to Idaho in 2005. In the summer of 2013, after Maia and Meadow passed, I created three memorials on the mountain, leaving some of Maia’s and Meadows’ ashes at each – lower, middle, and summit cairns. I didn’t have to build the summit cairn myself – I discovered a natural jumble of piled boulders up there, and that’s where I left their ashes.
The boys led me to that summit cairn this morning. As I got near, I noticed someone had built a small cairn a few yards in front of the natural cairn. I smiled. Some of the rocks had toppled off the top, so I replaced them in honor of Tim and considered it Tim’s cairn. The girls will keep him company.
The boys and I took time to enjoy the 360-degree views. My eyes leaked, thinking of the girls, thinking of Tim, saying goodbye to all of them, reassuring them I love them. This was where I needed to be this particular morning.
To banish my guilt for being outside doing what I love while my brother lay alone in an ICU bed, I whispered to the big open sky, to the universe, “I’m doing this because I can. Because Tim can’t, but would if he could. I’m here for you, Tim.”
I’m working toward acceptance.
Tuesday, October 20, 2020.
Late afternoon. Sam calls. Tim passed the night before, October 19, 2020.
Sam was there so Tim wouldn’t die alone. When they removed the ventilator tube, Tim didn’t move; no gag reflex, no struggle. He didn’t try to breathe on his own. All clear signs indicating just how severely his brain was damaged, that this decision to let him go now was the right one. After about 15 minutes, Tim’s heart stopped. As soon as this verification of his death was observed, Tim was taken to surgery and the transplant teams went to work.
Sam wasn’t able to learn which of Tim’s organs were donated. I plan to follow up. I want to know. I think I’ll feel better about Tim’s untimely death knowing that several of his organs are now helping others enjoy life. At age 65, Tim was healthy and fit and – other than an affinity for wine, which I share – had no bad habits.
There’s a rumor that Tim might have been able to donate both lungs to a single recipient, a rare thing called a double-lung transplant. I hope so.
The Next Few Days
On Friday, October 23rd, I took the boys for a run on the mountain again, seeking solace and calm in nature and movement. But everything was subdued – colors, views, thoughts. Nature wasn’t tossing me her usual shiny bright objects for distraction. I took a fraction of my usual photos, feeling uninspired, unmoved. I told myself this, too, was a normal part of grieving, sadness and depression. I’ve been in this space before. I know that the joy of nature’s beauty will eventually return, revitalizing me.
Time heals all wounds, they say. I know from experience that’s true, even though I never know how long the process will take, and scars always remain. But in the initial stages of grief it’s awfully hard to believe.
I keep moving among those five stages of grief, one stage forward, two stages back. A crazy emotional dance.
Covid-19 restrictions mean there won’t be a memorial gathering anytime soon. Tim wasn’t religious; none of us are, which honestly is a relief, no strictures or rituals to be observed that would, to us, be meaningless. Eventually we’ll gather, a celebration of Tim’s life at which we’ll share happy memories of Tim.
I like to think that Tim has returned to and become part of the star dust from which we were all formed, that he’s running free among the stars and when I look up into the clear night sky, I’ll see him, twinkling along with all the others I’ve loved and lost. I’ll wave, whisper a hello, knowing they’ll always be with me until it’s my time to join them, mixing with the infinite particles of our universe.
What I Know Now
A reader may reasonably wonder, as I did upon initially hearing of Tim’s accident, whether his head injury was so severe because he wasn’t wearing a helmet.
In the hours after learning about the accident I googled “closed head injury” and “bike helmet + head injury” and similar things, trying to make sense of what little information I had. I assumed that only someone not wearing a helmet could sustain such a traumatic closed-head injury.
I was wrong.
Tim was wearing a helmet.
His accident was truly “freak” in the sense that he hit the rock with his face, unprotected by his helmet.
There’s some comfort in knowing that Tim never realized what happened; he was gone, cognitively, at the instant of impact. Somehow that provides solace.
What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?Mary Oliver
You’re never prepared for this sort of tragedy.
You can love someone deeply without liking some or even many of their actions or choices. We are, all of us, complex and full of contradictions. We all struggle. Forgiveness helps.
The internal, emotional repercussions of your regrets are what will initially gut you. You can only vow to do better going forward.
There’s no hiding from the tsunami waves of emotions that come at any time, by stealth and surprise. Ride and survive them as best you can.
Each person has to process grief in their own way, without judgment or imposed time frames. Each journey is unique. Do what you need to do.
Pay attention. Important, difficult, heart-wrenching lessons are being taught in these moments if you’re willing to learn them.
Then, begin the long, slow, tortuous process of accepting those lessons so that eventually, you can let the one who taught them go in peace.
Find a way, a place, to honor and memorialize your relationships with those who are gone.
The overarching lesson? Don’t put off living. Don’t say you’ll do something you’ve always wanted to do “someday” or “when things calm down” or “after I retire.” Start now, begin doing those things today. Be with the people and animals important to you. Make the time, while you have it.
Thinking, at home or while moving through nature, is how I process my grief. Writing about the experience helps.
Every morning the dogs and I run in the forest or walk a deserted country road and I reflect. Every evening, I listen to music, play Solitaire, and reflect some more.
And then I write.
I’m grinding my teeth less each night.
Some Parting Advice:
Please make sure your wishes are known regarding organ donation and whether extraordinary measures should be employed to keep you alive in the event of a horrific accident. That means WRITTEN DOCUMENTS and checking that box on your driver’s license if your state/country allows for it. Don’t put it off. Don’t make doctors or your loved ones guess in a situation when time is of the essence.
Organ donations are one pure, positive thing for family members to hold close in such a tragedy.
Don’t leave relationships unsettled. Fix them, or at least smooth them, while you can, even if that means apologizing when you don’t think you should. At least you tried.
Update your estate planning (or create a plan, if you haven’t already). People and things come and go in one’s life. The plan you established ten years ago likely won’t meet your desires today. Update regularly.
Write a letter to your designated executor and put it in a place easily found by them if you’re unexpectedly incapacitated or killed. Explain why you chose the estate planning options you did; the language of wills and trusts rarely conveys the reasoning behind the provisions.
Provide your executor the means to quickly access your computer, passwords, accounts, etc. Tell them whom you wish to receive certain personal property items. Tell them whom you trust to care for your pets and provide a trust for that purpose. Give them a roadmap to follow in the difficult days ahead so they don’t have to guess or wonder if they’re doing what you would have wanted.
I’ve heard people joke, “I don’t care about all that stuff, I won’t know, I’ll be gone!” My brother’s tragic situation is the perfect example why you should care, assuming you give a shit about your loved ones. Tim made this tragedy just a bit easier on everyone because he had his paperwork in order and his wishes were obvious.
Finally: Live each day as if it’s your last, because it may well be.
Feature photo: the October 15, 2020 sunset from my home.