Death in the Family

Reader’s Question

My name is Dana, and I’m 26 years old. I have seriously considered going to a therapist but the question comes to mind, “What could he/she say that everyone else hasn’t already told me?”

Here’s the situation.

My husband planed a vacation for my 26th birthday. I felt bad going to Disney without my brother, though (because I knew my mom always wanted my brother and I to go there)…so, he invited my brother and my parents along! To my surprise (my parents not having been on vacation in 34 years), they all said, “OK!”

So, on the day of my birthday (April 27th), we headed to Florida. My mom (that morning) had received a call from my cousin’s boss asking, “have you heard from Cordell? He’s usually either on time or early…and he never showed.” She and I both brushed it off as, maybe he slept in or he decided on that day that he was done with that job (even though he’d been loyal to them for years). We got to Florida pretty late, so, we settled into the rental house and took family pictures on the stairs.

The next morning (April 28th), we received a call from aunt Sandi (my mom’s sister, Cordell’s mom). We couldn’t understand much, but what we could hear was “Cordell’s dead!”

As it’s pieced itself together, this is what we know:

Cordell’s building was stuck by lightning at 2:30AM on April 27th, it caught on fire, and he and his three dogs (whom I also loved) all burned to death. They found Cordell’s body (along with two of the three dogs) by the front door.

He was more like a brother to me…he taught me many life lessons (from how to properly brush my teeth to how to ski down a black diamond hill to how to draw…).

His life was a constant struggle. It seemed as though if something could go wrong (for him), it did go wrong. He was 40 years old (he would have been 41 this June). He was a musician, an artist, a comedian, an inventor…he was brilliant…he was funny, he was talented.

I never thanked him for teaching me everything he did. He and I had a falling out (of sorts) a few years ago. It was a silly argument. I let it go (mostly), but he never said he was sorry…and I don’t think I ever treated him the same after that. I went from very clearly looking up to him…to all too obviously looking down on him (and I should never have done that).

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I don’t imagine that anyone could understand the pain that my family is going through unless you knew him — and the impact that he’s had on all of our lives. The only way I can decribe it is…intense. I don’t know that my mom or aunt Sandi will ever be the same…

My husband (I think) is having a hard dealing with me. He’s been really good about it…but he said that I seem sad (all the time). My friends and family would generally tell you, that prior to this tragedy, I’m optimistic, upbeat, happy-go-lucky. Since the tragedy, the only words I’ve heard about myself are “sad, blank, empty, down, tired”.

This is not the first death of a loved one that I’ve experienced. If it was just that he died, I feel that I would be able to heal. But it was because of the way he died…trying to escape the fire…knowing that he probably witnessed the death of one of his dogs (maybe all three), knowing that he made it to the door. And then looking back on the life that he lead (how hard he tried, how many times he got knocked down, how many times he got back up…and for what? To die…like that!?) All of his music burned…everything…


My main question is, how do I enjoy my life? How do I move past this (knowing my family will not…there has always only been mom, dad, my brother, aunt Sandi, Cordell, and myself)…how do I pretend like it’s okay?

I don’t want to say that I’ve lost faith or even bring faith into this. But I will say that it isn’t offering much comfort. I’m a very logical person. I would never in any way consider ending my life (in case it at all came off that way). Rather, I want to know how to enjoy my life after losing Cordell…knowing how unhappy he was and how incomplete his life felt…

I’m fully aware that this could be posted to the public. I’ve shared this with every stranger I’ve met, though…so, it’s alright…and I’m sorry for the great length.


Psychologist’s Reply

Dana, your post is long because Cordell meant so much to you. You don’t in any way pretend it’s okay, that’s not how the loss of a loved, valuable member of the family works. With his death, each member of the family is mentally reviewing their relationship with Cordell — the good and the bad. Sometimes, as in your case, there is a recent history of something negative such as old arguments, not visiting often enough, holding grudges, a falling-out, etc. When negative espisodes are present, guilt usually follows. In therapy we often term this “unfinished business” or things we would have liked to have said to them. A sudden death almost always produces unfinished business. In bereavement, the brain often focuses on the unfinished business.

Your family may never be the same…there’s been a significant loss. Each member of the family will, over time, make peace with his death, what he means to them personally, and regain the joy in their life. Cordell will never be forgotten and you and your family will represent Cordell — his talent, his music, his art, and his humor — to additional generations and members of the family in the future. Your children will hear about him and how he taught you many things. You can teach future generations “The Cordell Method of Brushing Your Teeth”.

With his death in April, you and your family are experiencing the most intense period of bereavement at this time. Normal bereavement creates recurrent dreams, frequent references to his death, depression, guilt, and loss of joy. You will also be dealing with “Emotional Memory” — emotion-laden memories of Cordell and his passing. Right now, you’ll be preoccupied with how he died when you need to focus on how he lived. Our brain also tends to think the worst, especially when we don’t know all the facts. For example, the fact that he and his dogs were found at the door suggests he died of smoke inhalation — a common situation in home fires, yet the brain will focus on being burned.

A word of caution… Any member of the family who is already under stress or dealing with moderate depression will find their depression, guilt, and rumination (excessive thinking) amplified by Cordell’s death. Family members who do not regain their joy after several months may need mental health consultation.

As miserable and uncomfortable as the family is — this is a normal, healthy reaction. Time does much to heal grief and time may be your best therapy at this time.

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