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Stories I ponder: My mother and her sister

Lynne Baab • Friday September 22 2017

Stories I ponder: My mother and her sister

My mother had three brothers, and throughout her childhood she longed and prayed for a sister. The miracle happened when Mom was 11.

The year was 1935, and Missouri was still gripped with the effects of the Depression. Mom lived on a farm, and her parents worked very hard and still struggled financially. My grandmother was extremely busy with cooking, sewing, growing vegetables, canning, and raising chickens. Mom did a lot of the daily care of her beloved baby sister, Marianne.

When Marianne was 16 months old, she got sick with a fever. She began to have seizures and suddenly died.

In the first days after her death, at the funeral, and then in the weeks after the funeral, my mother heard over and over from her relatives and her parents’ friends: “You’ve got to be strong for your mother now.” Or, “You’ve got to help your mother in this hard time.”

Not one person said, “You must be sad, and that’s the right thing to feel.” Or, “This is a big loss for you.” No one, not her parents, none of her many relatives who lived nearby, gave her a hug and said, “Go ahead and cry, honey. You loved Marianne so much. You’ve lost someone so precious.”

So Mom toughed it out, helped her mother like a good daughter, and kept her sadness about Marianne inside.

In my childhood, I heard about Marianne often. I didn’t know anything about grief or the grief process, but it was evident to me that my mother was still sad about the loss of Marianne. When I was in my early twenties, and Mom was in her late forties, she started volunteering with hospice.

In her town at that time, hospice sent teams into the homes of dying patients. Each team had a doctor, a nurse, a social worker and a volunteer. Mom trained to be one of those volunteers. She often sat with patients while caregivers got out of the house, and other times she visited with caregivers. After the patient died, she followed up with the family members.

The hospice volunteers were frequently invited to attend seminars about death, dying, grief and mourning. Those seminars provided Mom with the chance to grieve the loss of Marianne. Mom served with hospice for more than two decades, and as those years passed, I could hear a difference in the way Mom talked about Marianne and her death.

Now, when Mom talks about Marianne, her grief is about the fact that she and her mother never mourned together about Marianne’s loss, that they never cried together. She grieves that her family didn’t talk about Marianne very much after she died, didn’t share what they missed about her.

We know so much more about grief now. We know sharing grief is so much better than enduring silently alone. We know feelings of grief are intense, which is normal and healthy. We know the feelings need to be felt, not shoved aside. We know how important it is to talk about loved ones after they die.

My mom’s story illustrates all those important points, and shows that it’s never too late to grieve.  

Her story also illustrates the significance of where we choose to serve. I get so upset when congregations expect accountants to keep the church books and school teachers to teach Sunday school. Our choices about where to volunteer at church or in the community give us an opportunity to explore areas of our life that haven’t been developed as much as our work skills.

Maybe the accountant needs to serve on the church grounds crew. Maybe the childless man or woman needs to serve in children’s ministries. Maybe there’s unfinished business inside a person that can be explored through a place of ministry, like my mom experienced. Maybe serving in an unexpected way will bring healing, and that particular ministry will be energizing because of that healing that’s happening. That was certainly the case for Mom.

Do you have grief that has never been expressed? Do you have unfinished business for which you have found resolution many years after the event? Have you experienced healing as you’ve served in some way? It’s never too late to grieve and never too late to find healing.

(Next week: We are essential and superfluous. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. Photo: My mom in 1976, shortly after she began volunteering with hospice.)

If you’d like to ponder more about how to feel feelings without being overwhelmed with negative thoughts, you might enjoy a series of posts I wrote earlier this year on "My new spiritual practice: Separating thoughts from feelings." The first post is here, and it’s followed by four more posts that develop the idea further.

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