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Saturday, May 13, 2017

Opening up about death –What I learned from losing my husband, brother, aunt, and BFF, who all died within 5 1/2 years



Lately, the topics grief and death receive a lot of attention, largely due to Mrs. Sandberg's PR campaign for her book "Option B." In a way, it is a sad thing that it takes a celebrity's efforts to shine light on a topic that touches all of us.

All of us are living "Option B," every day; all of us lost somebody.

I lost four loved ones within only five-and-a-half years: my husband (2000), my brother (2003), one of my two aunts (2004), and my BFF (2005). 

Occasionally, I have been asked silly questions like “And, there wasn’t anything that could be done?” and more often than not people just didn’t know what to say or ask.   

Here is one of my four stories:

Growing up in Austria, my brother Michael and I were inseparable. As the older sister and tomboy, I once beat up the hometown bully to defend Michael, a soft-spoken, smart child who detested physical violence.



In 1981, the two of us took a legendary bus trip to Istanbul. By chance, I was able to purchase last minute tickets for only sixty bucks each; the trip turned out to become an awesome adventure.



Strange little signs

A few years later, I got married, had two children, and moved to the United States. Traveling back and forth with the little ones was difficult, so I relied on the phone to stay in contact with my family in Europe. 

Sometimes, I could not reach Michael for many weeks. He said that he traveled a lot. 

When in 1998, I visited Austria, I was surprised that Michael declined meeting at a nice restaurant but wanted me to visit him at his cozy but rather small apartment. There, I also noticed that he never got out of his chair but didn’t want to mention it. It took another year till the alarm bells went off.

A cry for help in disguise

In the past I had given Michael two books about movies he liked. In 1999, he suddenly sent them back by mail, without any comment.

HI was urt and furious, I vented to my Austrian BFF Miki,
“I can’t believe that he did this! What did I do to deserve this kind of passive aggressive behavior?  If Michael didn’t want the books, he could have thrown them away. Sending them back practically screams, ‘I want you to know that I don’t want these books’.”  

That’s when Miki broke down and told me that Michael had Multiple Sclerosis. The doctors thought he had severe MS; he probably had only five to seven years to live.  Knowing that I was far away, Michael made the whole family promise that they would not tell me. There was nothing I could do.

Tragedy wasn’t done with me, yet

Then, in September 2000, my husband died unexpectedly. Reclaiming my life to the point where at least some things became easier took two years.

By Summer 2003, I was checking flights to Europe on a weekly basis. Though Michael’s condition was stable, the disease had progressed to a point where he had to live in a long-term hospice facility with 24-hour care. Finally, I got lucky and could buy three plane tickets to Europe for $350 each. The downside was, we had to wait and fly in November, usually defined as the “low season.”

The day before the kids and I started our 12 hour flight, I called mom and said, “Please call the nurses and ask them to tell Michael that I’ll be at his bedside the day after tomorrow.”

The next day I awoke to the news that Michael had died during the night, unexpectedly.

What-ifs and maybes

Instinctively, I knew that Michael died so I would never see him looking like skin and bones and being in pain all day long. He wanted me to remember him as the boy, the teenager, and the young man he had been; the cool, fun guy.

It was the only explanation. Michael had held on to life for so long, his health status had not changed in months, yet he died within hours of learning that I was about to board a plane.  If I would have been able to fly sooner, he probably would have died sooner.

The following year (2004) my Aunt Annemie died and a year later my BFF Miki who had let me in on Michael's tragic secret. 

During these years I thought a lot about life and death and tried to examine how my loved ones had lived their lives.

Without a doubt, all four, including Michael, had lived full lives.

Dealing with Grief

In her book “Option B,” Sheryl Sandberg writes how communicating on Facebook helped her in dealing with grief. Then again, isn’t the fact that everybody is glued to their Smartphone instead of talking to the person next to them, a major societal problem?

Sandberg also quotes writer Tim Lawrence, “When you’re faced with tragedy, you usually find that you’re no longer surrounded by people—you’re surrounded by platitudes.”  Again, I believe that social media is part of this problem. On Facebook, people see how others post “I am so sorry for your loss (sticker of crying kitten or puppy).” 

This shows proper etiquette, but: Is it Personal? Or Is it Platitude?

My grandparents and great-grandparents who survived World War I and II saw many dozens of their family and friends die or disappear. Still, even without grief counseling, all of them stayed pretty sane. What did they do to ease the trauma?

They told and re-told each other the good stories until they became legendary!

“The Stories”

Here are a few tales from my family:
  • During World War I, my great-grandfather and his best friend escaped from a Russian prison camp and walked home, a distance of about 1,000 miles.
  • My grandmother on mother’s side solved and sent in the church magazine’s crossword puzzle  every month for more than 40 years. She won the main prize, a paid trip to Rome, five times.
  • During the early Fifties, my father took a train trip to Paris. While there, he saved money by eating mostly bananas. In Paris, two pounds of bananas imported from the French colonies cost only 1 penny, then. Returning from that trip, dad never ate bananas for the rest of his life. 
  • During my sister’s 25th birthday party, my brother Michael predicted the Fall of the Berlin Wall–four years before it happened. Having visited Berlin and crossed Checkpoint Charlie in 1980, I bet Michael ten bucks that the wall would not come down during our lifetime. Of course, I lost this bet.
  • And, my late husband? He did it all—drop out of school, immigrate to different countries, amateur box, and fly planes...

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Nobody ever asked for these stories but I have the choice to tell them.

Even my grandmother comes off like a super hero. Winning five trips to Rome by solving crossword puzzles is no small feat. Under different circumstances, my grandmother who researched the needed clues in dictionaries and encyclopedias could have been a code breaker or an FBI agent.

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It is my proposition to help alleviate grief by asking for and talking about the stories that make each life unique.

Sharing stories also forms a bond between the storyteller and the listener because the storyteller can let the listener in on something special, maybe even a secret. Storytelling is the oldest form of encouraging others and ourselves to move on and forward. Long before our ancestors could read, that’s how tribe leaders motivated their people.

Personally, I believe in the power of storytelling so much that in 2012, I penned a life-skills book which features 41 true stories. These and all good stories transport messages that teach how to get to the next level while also valuing the past.


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Do you believe that storytelling can help ease the pain and moving forward?

~ ~*~ ~

Gisela Hausmann is the multi-award winning author of NAKED DETERMINATION 41 Stories About Overcoming Fear and NAKED EYE-OPENER: To Reach the Dream You Must Forget About It." 

She tweets @Naked_Determina


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10 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Giselle, you are awesome. Awesome that you would share such personal tragedies and still do what you are doing today. Many would have "folded" and just become so depressed they could never leave their house. You instead have written many books and many blog posts.
      You have had a journey that most would shudder at and could not comprehend the strength you have in surviving all these things.
      Your patience, endurance and strength are incredible. Your faith in your times of crisis and your ability to keep moving forward are fantastic.
      Kudos to you. Prayers and that you may continue successfully on your journey

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  2. Thank you for sharing your story and the stories of your loved ones. I can't imagine the incredible loss you must have felt. You are a strong woman. I do believe in the power of storytelling. Having worked in counseling my adult life and for a time with Hospice, I believe that is the best way to grieve and process.

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  3. I agree that telling stories helps. The only thing for me is I cannot say them out loud, so I write them. That's one of the reasons I am an author. My second book, The Underground Toy Society Saves Peggy, is about my mom and her favorite doll, Peggy. My mom died from breast cancer in 1995 when my sister and I were teenagers. My stories are keeping her memory alive and a way for my daughters to connect with her although she is gone.

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  4. Thank you @Wanda and @Jessica for sharing your stories - No doubt, this is it; the history of storytelling proves it.

    Also: there are quite many excellent indie author books laying out excellent strategies how to deal with "real life problems" as well as copying with grief; some of them are much better books than celebrity authors' books.
    Again, thank you for sharing your stories.

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  5. I know what means to loose a loved one. It is not easy but somehow we find the strength we need to keep going. Time and having family and friends around help to go through.

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    Replies
    1. And - WRITING :))
      Thx for commenting and sharing @Marcia :))

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  6. I'm sorry for your losses, Gisela. No heart, no kitten, no puppy. Like you, I think that telling the stories does help but I'm not so sure that our grandparents were without deep scars from all they went through. The worst platitudes are those that make somebody bereaved feel guilty or inadequate for grieving. I remember so many of them that made the pain worse. 'It's for the best' or 'God never gives us more than we can bear' and so on.

    Two of the best: when my mother died a neighbour phoned me ( a woman in her 30s) who cried down the phone all the time and told me 'She was like a mother to me.' I'm a rather private person and replied, 'She was like a mother to me too,' but the comment was wasted.

    Then there was the elderly neighbour who rushed to my house after I'd miscarried, sobbed and comforted me with, 'You're going to be like me and never have children.'

    They'll all end up in a book one day!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, @Jean, this is just terrible. Poor you that you had to go through this.
      Sadly, from experience I know that some people will make this type of tactless, insensitive comments which are really about THEM, THEIR curiosity, or THEIR opinions.

      And, these comments hurt, a lot.
      I believe that this is where Sandberg and Grant's book fails the reader. Sandberg's privileged position excludes her from knowing what "real" people go through.

      Because her husband's death was widely publicized people also did not feel the need to "ask (investigative) questions", give their opinions as hobby-doctors, or share experiences of similar events (deaths).
      And, I agree with you, at least fifty percent of uttered references about God's will are totally inappropriate.

      Then again, there is always memoir writing.
      Self-publishing authors contribute a lot to telling more down-to-Earth stories, how real people overcome tragedies.

      Sending a heartfelt hug, Gisela

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