A Tribute
by Ute Carson
Death Education, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1984

It is a tradition in our family to sit around the table on New Year's Eve and play games until midnight, when the new year is welcomed with a toast. On this night the ringing of the telephone does not interrupt the festive mood but is expected, as friends and family members call to exchange good wishes for the coming year.

It was my turn to leave our playful round and pick up the receiver. "Hello, Stan, Happy New Year, how nice of you to call." A moment of silence was broken by the solemn announcement "Here's Christa, she needs to speak to you." Her voice seemed more distant than the actual miles between us. She spoke like a recording, measured and calm. "Valerie is dead. She was killed in a car accident." I must have shrieked because there was silence at our table. Our children' queried, "What, what‹ what has happened?" I repeated to them what I had heard. Valerie and Andy were hit by a truck on their way to a ski slope from a motel where they had been spending the weekend. The roads were icy and covered with fresh snow. It would be some days before the children could be brought home, so treacherous were road conditions.

I probably mumbled some senseless words of bewilderment and sorrow. I had known Valerie from the time she was conceived. We had guessed her sex and hair color and talked about names. Now she was finishing high school and had just been accepted to college. Just 18 a few days ago. I did manage to ask "What can I do and when is the funeral?" I was given a probable date and a composed reply. "Please don't come‹not yet‹I need you later." "Sure" is all I said. "I'll call you and come when you want me to." Right then I knew a delayed reaction would be forthcoming. For the moment the blow had numbed Christa's feelings and sorrow. She would be swallowed up in the day's event only to wake up to harsh realities.

Our children sat sobbing at the table but insisted on resuming our games. In between we talked. We recalled Valerie and her parents, her brother and younger sister. While we talked and played, midnight approached and we toasted each other with a love made nearly too intense by our grief which reminded us of the threat of the loss of a loved child. It was Freud who said that no separation is so devastating as the loss of a child because no other separation is such a blow to one's narcissism.

Four months elapsed and the time had come to be with my friends‹Christa and her former husband, John; his wife, Rita, and Christa's friend, Stan, and the children, Christoph and Lara. Each of them had come to some kind of interim resolution. I was surprised to find Christa coming to terms with the loss of her oldest daughter so formidably. At first I was skeptical of her reactions and worried that her grieving might be delayed. But this was her way of mourning her loss. Six years ago Christa had gone through another separation‹a divorce that had also come unexpectedly and shaken her profoundly. Self and probing questions about her marriage left her self-absorbed. I served as sounding board then and sorted with her through the maze of memories. For years the divorce was, for her, an incomplete separation. It was a seesaw movement between hope and resignation, anger at John and self-reproach. I had known her during the early years of marriage as a gregarious, joyful extrovert. During the years of her divorce those traits lay dormant, overshadowed by introspection. Valerie's death seems to have reawakened Christa's warmth and generosity. I was showered again with the affection I had often experienced in the past. She was able to open up after the tragedy, reaching out to other people again where she had been closed and concerned with herself for a time. From where did she take this strength?

A first answer came during a walk on a brisk sunny Sunday morning I spent with her. "In the midst of all the sorrow my own mother came back to me," she said. "I saw her in our country parsonage when she was sad and troubled. She would go to her room and pray a little and maybe cry, but then come back again to peel the potatoes and scrub the vegetables. I did just the same. When friends and neighbors came wailing and sobbing to our house after they had heard the tragic news, I thought how I could feed everyone and started making a vegetable soup. On the day of the funeral we buried her in the morning and held a memorial service that evening. I baked all the bread for the communion myself and left it to rise while we were at the cemetery. My mother, now years dead, was a presence in me in those early days and I assumed her strength."

As worldly as Christa appears and looks in her behavior, in her heart she remains deeply religious. Years ago, in a heated debate about religious questions she once retorted sharply, "No, the heavens are not empty. " Her faith that life continues after our mortal existence remains unaltered. It gave her the confidence to plan the memorial service, select the hymns and the Bible text. In return she received the support of a whole church community in an outpouring of grief. The church was filled to capacity, people were even standing outside. Christa was convinced that Valerie was watching, and said to herself with a knowing smile, in the midst of tears, "See, Valerie, you always loved parties. Now you have the biggest party ever."

Christa's tears come mostly at little everyday reminders of Valerie's death. Seeing her clothes in the closet or not hearing her play the piano, or watching the tulips they had planted together pierce through the snow. But Valerie is present in all the memories of the years together, and Christa gathers strength from that knowledge. "Valerie would have told me to do this or asked me for that," was a regular refrain. Valerie's room is used for guests. Not as a morbid retreat into the past but as a reminder of her. I slept there, surrounded by the objects of an 18.year-old would like and it felt good. Valerie is felt and talked about by her mother. Not as if she isn't gone but still a part and always present.

Christa's relationship to her oldest child had been at times a rocky one. As she herself admitted, had her death occurred some years earlier she would have been devastated. "But we had grown close and I no longer have guilt feelings or regrets." With Valerie, Christa had to iron out all of the conflicts between her desire to be a good mother and her need to fulfill herself as a professional woman. Valerie was party to the frustrations and contradictions of those conflicts. Once Valerie ceased to be a little girl, mother and daughter could relate as two women and understand each other in a new way. And so it was when they saw each other for the last time early on the morning when Valerie was scheduled to take off with her boyfriend. She slipped into Christa's bed. Such snuggling was a remnant of childhood that could be indulged in again now that the years of breaking away had ended. Many events had accumulated. Mother had watched daughter fall in love and had been able to let her go. The eighteenth birthday party had been a roaring success. But Christa felt tears when Valerie snuggled up to her. "What's the matter," Christa asked in surprise. "Aren't you all excited about your ski trip with Andy?" "Yes," was Valerie's answer, "but I'm so happy and I don't deserve all this happiness." Andy was killed instantly with Valerie that New Year's Eve day. His ashes are buried with her.

Valerie had become a friend to her mother once she had grown up but she had always been her father's daughter. The first time we saw her we were just back from a holiday. Christa and John were sitting on their porch and as we ascended the garden path John grabbed Valerie and, with a big grin, held her up for us to see. Protecting Christa's fragile health after an outbreak of tuberculosis, it was John who did the nightly feedings, who rocked and soothed his daughter. It was from John that Valerie inherited her love for music. She could play the piano with the same determination and dedication that her father exhibits in practicing his profession as a physician. Valerie was one of the few allowed to criticize her father but one who wouldn't for a moment lose sight of him emotionally when he remarried. Their closeness brought conflict because of John's expectations for high school performance and his fatherly jealousy of any intruder. As much as he liked Andy, of course no man would be good enough for his daughter. More than anything Valerie wanted to please her father but she was also able to teach him to accept her growing independence.

John lacks the support Christa can count on from her friends and her church community. The medical world holds such virtues as rigor, discipline and hard work. Only limited time is permitted for expressions of grief and emotions. No channels are available for an experience that by its nature requires time and forms for the voicing of pain.

Work helps John because it brings forgetfulness but it also delays the healing. So he works harder and longer hours only to struggle with deeper depression once alone with his thoughts and feelings. Doctors are not trained to seek help when they are in need. They are only taught to dispense help. John is no exception. Christa called and talked to her friends. He went into himself and his private world talking to only a very few and calling on no one. As an old friend, I had to find a way to him because he wouldn't reach out. Not a believer, he cannot find solace. "Nothing, absolutely nothing can redeem her death for me."

Accident reports and photographs taken at the scene of an accident are seldom seen by survivors. As a doctor, John faced a dilemma that others are spared. When he held in his hand the envelope containing the details of the accident he was torn between the professional desire to know and the fatherly fear of knowing. He resisted the urge to open the envelope but to this day feels that he really should know.

It was Jim who drove me to the cemetery. It was a blustery, snowy day like the day of the accident. The night I had flown into Chicago it had rained and some lines from a poem by John Stone had crossed my mind. "It rains sooner or later, of course, on everything we bury," which sounds so final and leaves no comfort. The snow brought with it a different feeling. Like no other element it covers the frozen ground and has a soothing effect. Our feelings need to be frozen over at times for the sake of survival. But they can also thaw and be revived. How I wished that for John as we stood and placed a red rose on the snow-covered grave. "Cheeks as red as blood; skin as white as snow and hair as black as ebony wood." Valerie had heard that fairy tale as a little girl, as children have and will for time to come. John cried at the grave and I was allowed to hold him for awhile. I say "allowed" because when do we ever feel more keenly our own helplessness as when it comes to comforting another in distress. But then it's also all we have to give‹this feeling with and for the other person.

If I felt impotent in the face of a deep sorrow, how much more did Stan and Rita feel at times their own helplessness. How often during those weeks and months have they put their arms around the person they loved and felt that their comfort couldn't reach deep enough to banish the pain. They, too, had become part of Valerie's life and she, of theirs. She had begun to accept and befriend them. Still, when the tragedy occurred they were outsiders. They had formed a relationship with Valerie but she was not their child. Theirs is a difficult task because although they are essential to Christa and John, they appear marginal. But their selflessness contributes to the healing process and to keeping alive and sharing memories of Valerie.

Children protect them selves against devastating emotional experiences by putting up a front. This shield is necessary because they don't have a lifetime of stored resources to fall back upon. Both Christoph and Lara wanted to continue with their planned activities after the accident. What looks like insensitivity is instead a defense against something otherwise too hard to bear. They need the reassurance of the daily routine. Christoph remarked, "Valerie wouldn't want us to mope around.

She would want us to do our best. "He is right. Life continues and their strength has to go into their own lives for the time being. Valerie's age was too close to their own. Her death was not only a loss but a menace to themselves. They participated in many of the decisions regarding the funeral. It was at their insistence that Andy's ashes were buried with Valerie. They will miss their sister but for them death is probably more like the experience evoked by another of Stone's images‹"suddenly, as when someone leaving a room finds the doorknob come loose in his hand. "The impulse is not to find why and how the knob came loose or what to do with it but how to go on without making themselves conspicuous.

Each of the survivors‹mother, father, lovers, siblings and friends‹responded distinctively to Valerie's death. And who is to say whether the experience of each is not distinctive as well. But if there is a fundamental commonality in the experience of losing a loved one, it is surely captured in this rhetorical line from Dickens' Dombey and Son: "And can it be that in a world so full and busy, the loss of one weak creature makes a void in any heart, so wide and deep that nothing but the width and depth of vast eternity can fill it up!"

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