It was Christmas 2017, this year I admit I was a bit more sentimental as it was my first Christmas with my recently transplanted heart. It was not my new heart that made me stop one night and think of those in my family who had died too soon from our family curse, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy - HCM it was the fact that I knew a family somewhere was processing the death of a young woman whose heart was now a part of me. I looked over and saw my grandmothers’ rocking chair and the hidden story within it that took me years to fully understand. It’s a story of grief and coping and I wanted to share it with you.
My grandfather, Larry Sr. from what I was told was a strong man with large hands, kind eyes and was a hard working carpenter. I know that a doctor in the late 1940’s told him he had a heart murmur and to stay away from coffee because it could raise his heart rate but that is all we really know about his health. The Christmas of 1952, he gave my grandmother, Kate, a gift, a rocking chair, this fact I would not learn until after her death. She was in her mid-30, he was 42 and they had 3 children, my father was the eldest. The following June my grandfather died of sudden cardiac arrest on the eve of my father’s high school graduation. They spent Father’s Day that year at his funeral rather than graduation. This rocking chair was the last gift he ever gave her.
My grandmother passed away in 1999 and I asked to keep her rocking chair and it has been in my living room since. I admit I didn’t know my grandmother as well as I would have liked and I think this was due in part to the fact that this woman had to manage a large amount of grief without a great deal of support. One of her forms of support was to sit in this rocking chair and hold on to the arms and think about the man who gave her this last gift. I recall seeing her sit in this chair specifically if she was sad or telling stories about the past. As she would sit in the chair, she would use the arms almost like a “worry stone” and press her thumbs into the wood repeatedly so much the finish on the chair changed.
I can imagine her sitting in this chair grieving her lost husband from 1953 until 1964 when a new grief entered her life. Her daughter was killed in a car accident the day before Christmas 1964. I can imagine her in this chair again griping the arms and processing the grief she was feeling for the loss of her only daughter. Years went on and she grieved for her daughter and husband and hardly mentioned them out loud, but it was in her eyes always. She was a strong woman and maybe I never appreciated the depth of her pain.
In 1990 grief would revisit my grandmother again as HCM took her youngest son. This event I recall with stinging clarity. I watched her sit in this chair rocking and holding on to the arms rubbing back and forth as if she had done it a million times before, maybe she had. I saw the pain in her face and the comfort the chair brought her, only at that time I was unaware of the origins of the chair. I would learn that much later.
In 1995 when her granddaughter, my sister, was taken at the age of 36 from HCM we were all in deep pain and each grieved in our own way. I remember stopping at my grandmother’s house and found her again in this chair with the same posture and grip on the end of the arms and the motion of her hand and the pain in her eyes. This chair was her way of grieving.
Towards the end of her life, I recall coming to visit one day to assist her with a medical device to help her failing kidney and bladder. Getting in and out of the rocking chair had become difficult and she was spending most of her time on the sofa. She asked me to help her into the rocking chair. She took on the old posture and her hands grasped the arms and the motion was back. In retrospect, I believe she was grieving her own soon to come passing. Her eyes were distant and the expression she had was one of a woman who had a great deal of pain she wanted to let go of and I think she knew she was about to do just that.
She passed away a few days after her 81st birthday and the day before my 30th birthday. As the house was being dismantled, I asked to keep her rocking chair and that is then my father told me that it was the last Christmas gift she had received from her husband. It was then it made sense, the look on her face, the way she held the arms, the far away look in her eye. It was her way of being close to her husband, my grandfather. Was she grieving for him or with him? Regardless of her reasons it brought her comfort. It was at that moment I knew I would never let this chair be tossed away, sold or placed in an attic. It has been in my living room ever since.
This year as I looked with fresh eyes at this now 65+ year old chair and I see it as a sacred place where a strong but broken woman processed pains too hard to express in words. Each of us in life will experience loss, some more than others. What I have learned from the amazing clients of the HCMA whom I have served for 22+ years and my own family and friends... we all grieve in our own way but the most important thing of all is to allow grieving after a loss, without it we harbor the pain and it can destroy our life and our happiness. Death is something we must deal with, not sweep under the carpet or keep it in. My grandmother used a rocking chair to cope. I formed an organization to help others not become victims of the same broken system that failed my sister. Some people garden, cook, draw, paint, read, meditate the list is endless but I encourage you all to allow yourself to grieve loss as it builds you back up and helps you LIVE the rest of your life. Love never dies...it just changes form.