What to Say When Someone Dies, and They Were Not a Very Nice Person

I had an odd experience last week, when I found out a relative had died (via Facebook, ironically).

I use the term “relative” loosely. Technically this person and I would appear together on a family genealogy page. However, the word “relative” implies there was some sort of relationship, which in this case there was not. I had seen this person fewer than five times in my entire life. I could have passed him on the street and not recognized him.

This distance was by design. My parents kept their children far away from this particular person, both physically and emotionally, on purpose. The reason was simple — he was not a nice guy. The levels of his not-niceness I don’t truly understand, even now as an adult. I only know they did it to protect us, and I am grateful.

It’s an odd feeling to know someone has died who has some ties to you, yet also know many people don’t mourn his passing. In fact, I’d go as far to say there was a great deal of relief that he is gone. Not the typical relief when someone passes after a long and painful illness. That’s relief at the end of suffering. This type of relief had more to do with the overall sentiment that the world is a better place without him. That’s a sad statement on his life.

The truth is his passing had only a miniscule effect on my own life as I contemplated what it meant to live a life where your death is considered a blessing. Realistically, it was a blip on my radar screen.

Yet I also had a very real logistical problem. I had to send a card to people who did know him and who lives were more directly affected. In particular, I had to find an appropriately worded card that expressed sympathy without too much fluff and nonsense. Then, even more challenging, I had to write something appropriate in it.

Here’s where I stumbled, because I couldn’t say anything that I would normally write in a sympathy card. “I’m sorry for your loss” — that old standby — didn’t apply because there wasn’t really a loss at all and nobody was sorry. Neither did “Hold the good memories close” — because there weren’t any good memories. What about my standard Facebook response at the announcement of bad news: “Thinking of you.” Well, that might work, but it didn’t really capture the true sentiment.

I search and search the Internet for the right words. Long story short: the Internet failed me.

Am I the only person who has ever been in this situation? I find it hard to believe. There’s plenty of not-nice people out there, and they must die at some point.

So after nearly a week of thinking and searching and pulling out some hair, I came up with this one, which I share with you in hopes you can call on it when you need it:

“You’ve dealt with a difficult situation with courage and grace. Thinking of you.”

May you never really need to use it.

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Christmas Eve

Christmas EveChristmas Eve 1989 was our first without our mother. The tree was up. The presents were wrapped. But there was a deep sense of melancholy in the house. Nothing felt the same.

I was 17, and I didn’t expect things to feel the same. Nothing had felt the same for the past seven months. Our entire lives had been turned upside down, and we were still trying to find our way through the chaos. Christmas was no different.

My sister and I had long stopped believing in Santa Claus. And, indeed, there was only one thing we wished for that Christmas — one thing that could never been found under a tree.

We wanted our mother back.

We missed her at Christmas more than ever. Because she was the center of our family celebrations, just like she was the center of our world. Everything felt wrong without her. Not just because she wasn’t there. It was the little things we never realized she did.

I spotted one such thing on my way down the stairs on Christmas Eve. I could see our three stockings hanging over the fireplace — one less than last year. Two of the three were already fat with secrets. The third hung limp. My father filled our stockings, but he didn’t bother to fill his own. I realized that he had probably hadn’t filled his own stocking for at least 21 years. It was one of the little things we never noticed.

“Come here,” I called to my sister, my voice urgent.

“What?” she replied, already annoyed at my tone.

“Look!” I pointed. “We’ve got to fix that.”

She stared at the limp stocking for a moment. She looked back at me with her mouth slightly open.

“Let’s go,” she said.

I grabbed the car keys and shouted at my dad that we’d be back. We headed out at 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve, desperate to find a store that was open.

How could we not have thought about this? And, indeed, at the same time, how could we have known? It mattered more that we fixed it. We were on a mission. This was one small thing we could make — well, not right. But not as wrong.

It was not going to be easy. We lived in a small town. It was late. Shopping was limited at the best of times. On Christmas Eve at 9 p.m. in the 1980s, everything was closed. Kmart. Albertsons. Vons. Thriftys. Sav-On. Everything, it seemed, except the mini-mart at the gas station.

Thrilled when we saw the lights and the customers at the pumps, we headed for the aisles of candy, nuts and snacks. We piled things on the counter — Corn Nuts, Necco Wafers, Tootsie Rolls, candy canes and little treats we knew our father liked.

Pleased with ourselves, we smiled at each other when Dad saw his stocking the next morning. He probably had more junk food in that thing than he could eat all year.

We still felt the presence of loss more than anything else that day. I can’t remember a single gift I got or anything we did. But I do remember that mini-mart and the smell of gasoline and the little thrill I got when I saw the tub of Corn Nuts, 3 for $1.

And I remember laughing with my sister. And my father’s look of surprise. And a stocking so full, it couldn’t hang from the mantel.

And that made a truly terrible Christmas just a little bit more bearable.

For those of you who are experiencing loss this Christmas, I wish you one small moment like this one.

And a bag of Corn Nuts from the gas station too.

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Letting Things Go

Christmas Time is here.

Christmas stress is here.

Christmas time is here.

It’s been a stressful December for me. The combination of a late Thanksgiving, a heavy dose of denial and a freak snowstorm that kept me housebound for seven days has left me with too much to do and not enough time to do in it.

Approximately 1.75 million blog posts on the Internet would tell me that the way to deal with this type of stress is to exercise, eat vegetables and let things go. It’s been tough to exercise (see snowstorm reference above) and the vegetables have been in short supply (ditto).

So letting things go seems to be the only option I have left. The question is, however, what do I give up? We’ve already stopped buying presents for everyone except immediate family. This year I also skipped the school holiday food drive and the 4th grade Christmas party. My house is not clean. The decorations are minimal. I didn’t buy a gingerbread house, and I gave up the idea of kid holiday crafts that are cute enough to give away.

It seems that once you’ve already cut back on obligations, there’s not much left to let go of.

Because there’s a lot of things you just can’t let go of. Kids need fed. Laundry must be done. Dogs need to be walked. Groceries must be bought. I would say houses must be cleaned, but that seems to be inaccurate in my case.

Which leads me to the conclusion that an exhausted working mother reading blog posts about how to “let things go” is not unlike a drowning person looking up the best way to do the butterfly stroke.

It’s a solution for the wrong problem.

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It’s Only My Life-Long Goal

When the Bough Breaks by Denise Brauer and Michelle Brauer

When the Bough Breaks by Denise Brauer and Michelle Brauer

My sister and I wrote a memoir about our family’s struggle with mental illness. I’ve been trying to compose this post in my head for months now. Nothing sounds right. Nothing captures what I’m really trying to say. I want to be witty, yet poignant. I want to explain exactly what this means to me without sounding boastful or braggy.

I’ve got nothing.

So I’m going to say it — I’ve published a book. A book I’ve poured more than 20 years of my life into making — a memoir about my mother, her illness and its effect on our family.

And it’s for sale on Amazon.com.

I’ve got more to say about this, but right now this is all I’m capable of. Check it out here:

When the Bough Breaks: A Memoir about One Family’s Struggle with Mental Illness

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11:28 Minute Miles

Today I ran for the first time since the kids went back to school. When I planned the run, I was feeling very positive about it. But when 9 a.m. arrived, I was not very excited.

It’s been a long summer, and my exercise routine has fallen victim to child care issues and work schedules. I’ve done a few videos and ran intervals at the track. But my endurance is not what it used to be.

So after the first mile, I really, really wanted to stop. It was hot. I was having trouble keeping my head in the game.

I wanted to give up.

I made myself go to the bridge, the point at which I’m 2/3 of the way done. Once I got there, I felt better. I felt like I could keep going. And I finished my 3 miles and felt good that it was over.

Then I looked at my phone app. It said 11:28 min/miles. I gasped aloud. That’s the fastest I’ve ever run. And the point where I wanted to quit? I was doing a 10:52 minute mile.

I almost gave up the fastest time I’ve had yet.

And I’m so glad I just kept going.

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My Personal Media Diet

A month ago I opened a bill from my local newspaper to discover the yearly subscription had increased to just over $200. Something about seeing the number two in front of the zeros made me pause. I’ve been a long-time newspaper subscriber, and I believe in the importance of local media. I went to journalism school, so they pounded the importance of a free press into my brain. But something happened when I opened my checkbook to pay the bill. I thought to myself, “Is getting the newspaper delivered to my door really worth $200?”

Oftentimes, the newspaper lay unread for days by my couch – the victim of a working mom’s busy life. More than once, picking up the newspaper to scan the day’s events felt more like another chore, along with wrestling two children out of bed to get them to school on time and folding yesterday’s pile of laundry. I am living in the rush hour of life. I do not need another obligation, another thing on my “To Do” list.

So I did something radical. I stopped my 21-year subscription.

When I did it, part of me wondered if the newspaper would look at my account and say, “Oh, don’t go! Come back! We love you. We’ll miss you. We’ll give you a huge discount if you stay.” And, I admit, I would have been tempted. Because I believe in local newspapers. I really do.

They did offer me a $10 discount when I called to cancel. And I went, “Meh.”

I thought I would be sad. I thought I would miss the smell of ink on paper. I thought I’d be lost without the comics and the editorials and Dear Abby and movie reviews.

But I haven’t. I’ve scanned a few headlines on my phone. I’ve read a few more blogs. I’ve got more room in my recycling bin. But I haven’t really missed getting the news delivered to my front door.

On one level, this disturbs me. Because if a die-hard newsy chick like me can break her newspaper habit so quickly, it shows me the business model of newspapers today is severely flawed.

What does that mean? I haven’t figured it out yet. But I’m pretty sure it’s not good for my friends in the newspaper business. Or, for that matter, the media in general.

There’s been another effect that I didn’t anticipate. I’m a lot less anxious without my newspaper. It turns out that the short snippets about crime, child abuse, drownings, car accidents and animal mistreatment were affecting me in a way I didn’t completely understand. It turns out that ignorance is bliss sometimes.

It’s not that I want to be uninformed. But the truth is even though I love media, the state of media today is so corrupt by the need to sell advertising or fulfill an agenda, many of the stories are poorly done and half-assed. It is very Culture of Fear. And I am happier and calmer and less anxious without it.

As a former journalist, I understand the pressures of media writing and “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality. I also worked for trade journals, and I understand the role advertising plays in what you read on the page. More than once, we published what the owners of the magazine wanted us to print. The influence of people with a lot of money and power is not insignificant. And I think it’s getting a lot worse.

There must be a middle ground between staying informed about important issues and not falling prey to the fallacies of today’s media. I’m not sure what it is yet. But I’m looking for it.

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So I Ran a 10K. I Know, Right?

I Ran My First 10KToday I ran a 10K.

I have the sore muscles to prove it.

When I started running almost a year ago, I never thought I could run for 6.2 miles. (Actually, my GPS says we did 6.48 miles, and I think it is smarter than the race organizers. But I digress.)

In the beginning, I barely could jog for 90 seconds, much less more than a hour. When I ran my first 5K last autumn, I was so proud of myself. And a little shocked too.

Fast forward another nine months, and I doubled that distance. A real 10K on a challenging course in July (there’s a big hill and a very long, boring part in the middle where we had to weave in-between the walkers in a separate race). It was not an easy race. My friend’s husband asked us if we had fun after we finished. We agreed, “fun” would not be the word we would have chosen.

I’ll be honest, it was hard. I wanted it to end. Even after all the training, there were several places where I just wanted to stop. But I didn’t. I ran the whole way, every step.

After we finished, I was numb with shock. I couldn’t believe I had done it. It was surreal. I wasn’t triumphant or excited or relieved, which you think I would have been, considering.

Honestly, I found it was a little disturbing. Because I learned a huge lesson when I crossed the finish line. Which is I am capable of more than I think I am. And if I can run a 10K, something I never thought I could do in million years, what else can I do? How else have I been holding myself back?

I’m in a rut in my life — a middle-aged slump caused by a huge amount of pressure and stress from multiple areas of my life. It is not easy being a 41-year-old mother of two with a small business. There’s not much I can do about many of the circumstances of my life, and most of it I wouldn’t change if I could.

But after the race this morning, I thought about the other things I’ve told myself I can’t do my whole life. And I realized, maybe I was wrong about a lot of those things.

Because I ran a 10K today. And I am not making that up.

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