My goal is not to depress you or to force you to endure an insufferable journey through dark and dismal events. By revisiting the deep and muck-filled trenches of my own grief, I hope to help you understand how I could write accurately about the dark valleys and deep crevices of heartbreak and how the passage through these pitch-black places can be very slow and painstaking. When you experience loss, your story doesn’t feel like it has a silver lining or a bright side. Heartbreak convinces you that the sun will definitely not come out tomorrow.
In April of 1982, twelve years after the murder of my grandfather, I received the horrible news that my twenty-seven-year-old cousin was shot and killed. Her name was Terri. She was a beautiful, kind, and playfully devious person. Her blond hair, thin smile and sparkling eyes lit up a room and drew you in. She and her twin sister Tina were two of my favorite cousins. I had about forty cousins on my mom’s side of the family. In that wild and raucous crowd of loud Greek and Italian extroverts, Tina and Terri brought laughter, friendship and safety from the intimidating pack of mostly older kids in the family.
But now, Terri was dead. The details were chilling. My aunt, Terri’s mother, went to her daughter’s apartment after getting no answer to numerous phone calls. The door to the apartment was ajar. When my aunt walked in, she found Terri and her fiancé in a pool of blood. Both were shot in the face at close range. The circumstances took my breath away.
Rumors swirled around about what happened. Was it a robbery? Did it have to do with drugs? The killer was long gone and never found. He may still be out there with my cousin’s blood on his hands and her last living expression floating somewhere in his calloused conscience.
But what haunted me most was thinking about how my sweet and precious cousin felt during the final one-hundred beats of her heart. Was she trembling in fear as the murderer held the gun in front of her eyes? Did she watch in shock and dread as her fiancé was killed? Did she suffer convulsing physical and emotional pain after the gun exploded into her flesh?
When my grandfather was killed, I became acquainted with hate. When my cousin died, I was shaken by something much worse: a lingering fear and dread. How did she feel in those final moments? What was she thinking? Why did she have to endure such horror? The grief of her unjust and cruel suffering haunted me. Living through her last thoughts and feelings in my imagination pushed me to the brink of emotional endurance. I knew I couldn’t dwell in that place for long. But the force that put me there wasn’t providing a way out.
When heartbreak shows up, it demands complete submission. It wants all of the attention. And while it deserves most of it for a time, grief can never be allowed to become the sole occupant of the limelight. Even grief has to share.
Learning how to break the tyrannical domination of heartbreak would be a personal practice crucial to my survival—especially because my experience of grief was not simply a result of tragic deaths. For me, heartbreak was a daily reality. But in the middle of that constant tumult I was given a lion-tamer’s whip that kept grief from devouring me.
That story comes next…