My Letter

January 10, 2019

Dear Readers,

Death colored my life decades before I was actually born.

My maternal grandmother died under mysterious circumstances at the age of 31, found in the family garage with the car on & the door closed - like that scene with Audrey Hepburn in "Sabrina," except she wasn't discovered in time, and so I never got to know her.

She had two little daughters, one of whom was my birth mother. This one event however changed the lives of subsequent generations. My grandfather remarried my step-grandmother, a young divorcé who had two young daughters as well. A stepfamily was formed, forged by grief, necessity, and hope.

Two decades later I was born to the eldest of the tragically half-orphaned daughters. Through my birth mother's divorce, mental illness and, I believe, grief, and the stigmatization of all of these - especially in those days - I was formally adopted by my grandfather & step-grandmother, a few days shy of my fifth birthday. My birth mother, her sister and two step-sisters all became my older sisters.

The death of my grandmother was never openly discussed, but it was ever-present nonetheless. In fact, no death seemed to be openly acknowledged & discussed...

My earliest memory of the experience of death was when I was about 5 or 6 years old. One of my brothers-in-law had found a couple of very tiny baby bunnies @ the construction site where he worked @ the time. They had been abandoned by their mother. My family tried to feed & care for them, but they were just too young to be on their own. They eventually died, and we buried them in a shoe box in the back yard. I didn't understand what happened to them, and it really wasn't explained to me in a way that made sense.

My great-grandmother died when I was about seven. Not much was explained then, either. Also, all family pets that had reached their life span simply disappeared and were not discussed - just replaced by new pets.

When I was nine years old, Mom asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Other kids might have said something like teacher, astronaut, ballerina or President. I said "mortician." I remembered the term from the funeral home for my grandmother. It made sense in context. My Dad had been laid off from his engineering job, and I'd heard people say that the only certainties in life were death and taxes. So, mortician.

Also, I was fascinated by death - this big, mysterious, never-discussed taboo thing - and with what happens to us at end of life. With roadkill, with sick people and animals, with suicides and all the different ways people & animals can die. "What happens to them?" was an endless curiosity. In high school, my best friend and I used to talk about the different ways people could die, accidentally or on purpose.

When I was a teenager, my Dad was diagnosed with cancer, and it eventually metastasized to his brain and bones. This radically changed his personality. He had been an authoritative man, a brilliant engineer who had worked on jet engines and rockets, as well as an athlete. He became confused, highly emotional, and would cry at anything. He died during my junior year of college, when I was 20 years old.

This indirectly led me to seek out the hospice field when I was in graduate school and it became time for my clinical internship. I've since worked with many different hospices, directly & indirectly, & two funeral homes, as a social worker, bereavement counselor & grief educator, as well as start two private counseling practices focused on older adults and grief & loss.

I've seen a lot of people @ end of life and after death over the years. It gives a different sort of perspective.

We live in a very death-denying time and society here in the US. Most people do not talk about death & dying nearly as much, and sometimes I forget that it is not a normal part of everyday conversations for them. Yet it is a reality for literally everyone.

I do not believe that relationships end at death. Instead, they change in form - from physical form to an emotional and spiritual one. They are like inertia or relationship "echoes." And these change over time and life-stage development as well.

People have shared with me countless stories of dreams and other signs from their deceased loved ones, guiding their life path. I've experienced these as well... In a dream, my Dad encouraged me to start my current grief & loss counseling practice on a particular date. It turned out to be the anniversary of his death. Because I had a different date of death in mind, I found this out after the fact.

My Mom had waited to tell me the news because I was in college and it was midterms at the time. I found out the real date in conversation with her after I started the practice.

Every death, every grief experience is as unique as a fingerprint, though there may be commonalities. Because every relationship and life is different. Through our relationships, we are forever shaped and changed. This is the legacy of those we have lost, and our role (whether we are conscious of it or not) is to carry it on.


Amber N. Stanley

Amber N. Stanley, Psychotherapist & Coach

This letter is part of the Death Letter Project - North Carolina, a means to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, NC.


Michael Palko