What I Learned From Losing Four Loved Ones Within Five Years

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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 really 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 5.5 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 60 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.

Hurt 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...

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.

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.

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

Follow Gisela Hausmann on Twitter: @Naked_Determina