by Stephanie Bellefeuille
I was twenty years old when I went to my first funeral. I was lucky that I hadn’t known anyone close who had died up to that point, so I didn’t know what to expect. Here I was, going along with my life, never having experienced something so monumental and then being whipped in the face with it: death is something that happens to everyone.
In August of 2008, my mother’s father, whom we referred to as Poppa, died. We were prepared, because at 94, he had lived a full life.
My sister, Katy, was Poppa’s favourite. He would never outright say it, but everyone knew: he taught her to make omelettes when she was young and took her on long drives before he became legally blind. As we got older, Poppa had to start walking with a cane, and it was Katy who got him his shrimp and sautéed mushrooms from the buffet.
In spite of this, we all loved him. Poppa would regale us with his pilot stories and sharing his memories of us when we were born. Of course, my grandmother, mother, and uncle were sad; this was their husband and father. It’s always sad to experience death, but they had a full life with him.
After Poppa died, I thought it would make the crack between my mother and her brother into a chasm. For most of my life, my mother and uncle didn’t get along very well. They were civil, but they drove each other crazy. They weren’t eager to spend time together, and this resulted in my family and theirs not seeing each other often. We only saw each other at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. Our families grew closer together while sharing stories and remembering Poppa, and this meant that we saw them more often. I got to know my cousins better and family visits started being fun.
In February of 2009, a devastating thing happened. While vacationing in Jamaica with friends, my uncle unexpectedly died. He was waterskiing, felt pains in his chest and signalled to come ashore. One of the friends with them was a firefighter and did CPR, after he fell unconscious, for twenty minutes but couldn’t save him.
I remember when my mother got the call from my aunt. She mouthed to me, “Uncle Bobby died.” My first reaction: I laughed. I thought she was joking. When she didn’t laugh along with me, that’s when I knew it was real. My next reaction: shock. I just sat there, not knowing what to do. After she hung up the phone, she told me what happened. I couldn’t believe it.
That night, I couldn’t sleep with all the thoughts running through my mind. My cousin Leann wasn’t going to have a father to give her away at her wedding. My cousin Ryan would deal with this on his birthday, of all days. And I couldn’t fathom how my aunt was dealing with this, in Jamaica, alone. The thought of it broke my heart. Not only did her husband die in a foreign country, but she also had to deal with getting the body home. It just wasn’t fair.
My aunt had to tell her children. How do you tell someone something like this over the phone? Everything sounds so cold and distant. They weren’t able to comfort each other. It was hard for me to imagine what they were going through because, after all, I still had my dad.
When my uncle’s body finally made it back to Canada after a series of unfortunate mistakes in Jamaica, we had the wake and funeral. I learned about myself that day. I can’t handle people dealing with their grief. Of course it makes everyone uncomfortable, but I just want to run away from it. As soon as I saw my cousin Leann, I couldn’t even handle hugging her. What do you say in a situation like that? Every possible thing you could say to someone seems so insignificant. “I’m sorry” never feels like enough.
Something else that death does is it makes you feel guilty for having things that others don’t. When I think it through, I think part of the reason I couldn’t face my cousins was because I still have my dad. I don’t know why I felt guilty for having a dad. I guess it was because my cousins didn’t have one anymore and just seeing mine made them cry.
After my uncle died, I was afraid our families would become estranged. I was just getting to know my extended family better and this terrible thing happened. I realized that I didn’t know very much about my uncle, but through my aunt and cousins, I learned a lot about him.
It was a strange thing experiencing two such drastically different deaths. We had accepted what was happening with Poppa, but we had no way of preparing for my uncle’s death.
Death can do one of two things. It can either tear people apart or it can bring them together. Fortunately for my family, it brought us closer together. Whenever we see each other, the food is great, the conversation flows, and there’s a warm glow to being with family. My uncle’s devastating death brought our families together.
That’s the thing about death. We learn about ourselves in more ways than one. I need to face the heaviness of death, and take comfort in spending time with the family I have left, and know that sometimes, there’s just nothing you can say but “I’m sorry.”