Thursday, September 15, 2011

What it means to be OK

Today (Sept 15th) is RUOK day in Australia. It's a day set aside to remind us to reach out to people who may be suffering from mental illness and ask, "Are you OK?"

I had planned to put up a post yesterday (to coincide with the 15th in Australia), but in the afternoon I received a phone call letting me know that my aunt in California had passed away. I was crushed.  Her death was not completely unexpected -- she was in her late 80's and her health was poor. And yes, I had lost my grandmother just four weeks earlier. But I was stunned because I found out that she had died on the 8th of September, but the nursing home where she resided had not been able to notify any family until yesterday, the 14th. The only number they had on hand was my brother's and he was out of the country, unreachable by cell.

My aunt lived a fairly isolated life. She had no kids and very few family members at all. My brother and I were probably her closest relatives. When she had to move out of her longtime home in Marin County, she refused to leave the area where she had spent her life, turning down offers to come live with me or my brother. As her health failed, so did her mind and she became increasingly senile and even combative.

This past year, my contact with her was minimal. I didn't know how to tell her about what was going on in my life. I didn't want to burden her. And further, I didn't want to face the questions of how my husband was doing, the kids, etc, and feel like I couldn't tell the truth. I would think to myself, "I need to call her." And then I would feel the discomfort and put it off another day.

Yesterday I sat stunned. The thought that she had died and no one in the family knew for six days. That her health had been failing to such an extent and we didn't know, didn't have a heads up to fly out, or call her at least and offer her comfort over the phone. What a sad and lonely way to die.

I thought about this in the context of RUOK day. She had not been okay, not for a long time. I didn't know how to deal with her stubbornness and occasional anger, symptoms of her mental demise. So I stayed away.

Of course, I was not okay either. I was dealing with the aftermath of abuse, the criminal case and PTSD. I was barely getting through each day. I struggle even now. But still, I will always regret that I didn't reach out when she needed it.

When I spoke with my sister-in-law yesterday, I told her that I wanted to be part of spreading her ashes at sea, a final act which she had requested in her will. For some reason, that was very important to me. I know she is gone and her ashes are simply that, but it's something I need to do. I want to make a trip to California and be a part of that final ceremonial act, a tribute of the love I have for her that I was not able to communicate in her last days.

If you take away anything from my story, take this. Don't wait until it feels right or comfortable to reach out to the people in your life who are suffering. When you lose someone, you don't ever get back the opportunity to do what you wished you had done. Something as simple as communicating your concern can make a difference. You can't always change the path someone walks, and you can't take away their illness, but your love and friendship can ease the pain. And that's a big part of what it means to be okay.

Compassion, comfort, empathy -- these things are priceless. They can save a life or they can ease an inevitable death.

Carol Jean Brumm
1934 - 2011

I will miss you my dear Carol. I always felt loved in your arms.


  1. I am so sorry to hear this, K. Truly heartbreaking.
    And you're right, we all wait til it's too late. Thank you for the reminder.
    I hope your aunt is at peace now xxx

  2. Sorry to hear this, hon. It's heartbreaking.

    But it is a good reminder to all, myself included. xxx

  3. I'm truly sorry for your loss...I am however grateful for this personal reminder. I have a nana in aged care who no longer remembers me and I have such a hard time visiting her (it just makes m cry for hours). She lives less than 2 hours away.

    I need to go see her as soon as possible and I don think I would have commited to this action if it weren't for reading your blog.

    Thank you x

  4. Sorry for your loss. This post was so heartbreaking, and so true of what you wrote.

  5. Oh Darling K, I'm so sorry for your loss. And I'm so sorry for the time it took for your Aunt's loved ones to be called. :( You're right, it is a sad thought.

    You're so right about reaching out NOW though. I have people I've wanted to catch up with, put it off, and then found it simply too late. They were gone.

    Much love to you.

  6. I'm so sorry for your loss, this just makes me feel so sad for so many reasons. Take care x

  7. I'm so sorry for the loss of your aunt. Even when it's expected it can be heartbreaking.

    Take care x

  8. I'm so sorry for your loss Kristen - I'm sure your Aunt is at peace now. I'm sure she'll know you're there to help make her last wish come true.

  9. A beautiful reminder about the importance of reaching out. Thank you. I hope your pain eases soon.

  10. What a beautiful last sentence.
    When I lost my dad (and now of course my mum) I was lucky enough not to have had many regrets. But one thing that did hit me, was how simple some things seemed now that they were gone. Things you couldn't find the right words for, and often skirted round or ignored altogether. The words seem so simple then. "I know you're having a hard time. You now I love you and that I am here". For some reason as a human being your instinct is to solve, and when the problem is too big, you clam up. I wish I'd just told my dad I understood how difficult life had become for him. Just that.

    I'm sorry for our loss hun, and understand the need to do things in the right way to mark her passing.


  11. So sorry to hear of your aunt's death. But such wise words in your post. Thank you.

  12. I hope you get to spread those ashes, K.

    And B OK. You will B. You R. x

  13. So sorry for your loss honey.
    And you're right... never wait.
    Also one thing I've learned is that the very people who would be shocked or concerned about crap in your life, are also the wisest and most understanding.
    I hope you get some closure. xo

  14. So very sad... But you pay service to her in this post, not only with that divine picture but the message you convey. I'll be sure to remind myself of this story often x

  15. That's so sad.
    Moreso, the gap between her death and your knowledge of it.
    Living on the other side of the world from my entire family, I have experienced similar and was doubly heartbroken. Firstly by the news and loss, but secondly because she was buried before I even knew to grieve.
    It just feels so wrong.
    So, so sorry.
    Your trip to California will be just what your heart needs.

  16. I'm so sorry for your loss. I've felt that same discomfort, I've even avoided phone calls with loved ones because I feel like it's just going to be too hard, too uncomfortable or too upsetting. Thank you for the reminder that it may be the last chance we get xx

  17. Thank you everyone for your lovely comments and your condolences. x

  18. So sorry for your loss. That pang of regret must be so hard to deal with on top of the other challenges you've been facing. I hope you are okay.

    And thank you. This is exactly the message we need to be reminding ourselves on RUOK day and everyday.

  19. Sorry to hear about your Aunt. I hope you will be able to set her free in peace.
    Thanks for the reminder not to put off that phone call...
    Hugs to you!

  20. Aw, very sweet. I hope you get to go out and be part of the spreading of the ashes. She is now in a place where she knows your love for her and your thoughts about her. At least, I believe that.

  21. Sorry to hear about your aunt, but so happy to hear from you! I somehow lost touch after you moved to Australia! I need to read your blog posts to catch up! I'm following you again; don't know how we got disconnected! Looks like you're doing amazingly well from you bio! Hugs!

  22. I'm so sorry love. Thank you for sharing this story - it's very timely for me xx


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