NOTIONS: Good grief, my mailbox runneth over with love

April 4, 2005

One night last week, after dining out with friends, I walked through the cold March mist to my mailbox. I expected more medical bills for failed cancer treatments, another batch of sympathy cards and some catalogs trying to sell my late wife clothing she no longer needs.

Instead, after trudging back to the house and sorting through the pile of promotional material, I found the letter from the vulture.

The vulture's first sentence consoled me on the loss of my "loved one, Pamela Klein." Then he launched into his buzzardly business:

He understood I might be "facing serious decisions requiring some personal assistance."

He said that "often times, property must be sold in order to pay taxes, satisfy outstanding liabilities and pay legitimate heirs."

He said he understood that "property in Indianapolis" might be "available for purchase."

He said he'd "make a reasonable offer" and "do what is best for [me] and the estate."

Pam and I built this "property" from the ground up. It's lined with photographs of our lives, family and friends. It's filled with memories of birthday gatherings for kids and grandparents, Scrabble games at the dining room table and candlelit romance 'neath a slowly swirling ceiling fan.

Cancer may have claimed my bride, Mr. Vulture, but this is one "property" that won't succumb to your malignant machinations.

The day after the vulture's descent, I received a heartbreaking missive from a neighbor whose husband died years ago-a woman who, after lots of loneliness, is now engaged to be married.

In her letter, she said grief is a personal journey. She said almost everyone she knows who's lost a spouse "manages the emotional trauma in their own way." "Some fill it with work," she said, "Others are stunned into inactivity. Some medicate. Others exercise.

"I look across the green of our little neighborhood," she said, "and check to see if your lights are on ... or off ... and wish I could do something that would make a difference."

Well, neighbor, you did-by watching over me, and by sharing your story of love and grief. And while the pain in my gut isn't diminished after reading what you've suffered and survived, I know now that what I'm feeling is fairly normal for a 40-something fellow who's lost his love and his way.

There are hundreds of cards and e-mails stacked on the desk in my basement. All but the vulture's are humbling and heartfelt.

Some come from folks who just sign their names and let Hallmark do the talking.

Some say they're hard-pressed to find the right words. (That's OK; there aren't any.)

Many say that all my memories will one day be wonderful treasures. (I hope so, because right now, my memories hurt like hell.)

Besides cards, letters and e-mails, some folks have sent "how-to" books about grieving. One colleague sent a collection of quotations about heartbreak. Another sent a funny book, hoping to make me giggle.

At lunch one day, a friend gave me a jazz CD with powerful tunes about love. My brother sent a favorite DVD in hopes of distracting me. Some friends from grade school delivered wind chimes, so I can hear my love's spirit sailing on the breeze.

I didn't know this until now, but some people save quotes and poems that touched them deeply when dealing with death.

One friend sent an e-mail that changed my perspective: "Pam has gone to a better place," he said, "where, in God's time, we'll see her again in a few minutes."

Another friend sent a picture of a threemasted ship. An accompanying verse spoke of my sadness as the ship sailed away. On the opposite shore, however, excited voices exclaimed "Here she comes!" "And that," said the author, "is dying."

I'm grateful for the songs, poems, books and stories.

I crave the concerts, lunches, dinners, plays, movies and other distractions.

I cherish the gentle humor of my friend, the Jewish copywriter, who wrote on resurrection weekend to say, "Easter. Not my thing, but from what I'm told, a reminder that through all adversity, you will rise again."

And I'm thankful for the understanding of a new friend who urged me to take time for "the silence, the tears, the not wanting to be with others and the 'Please, please, someone hold me.'"

A reader of this column wrote the other day. He said we've never met. But he said that my stories about Pam, our boys and our love have touched him deeply.

He said, "Thank you for sharing so openly about your life and the strength of your family and especially Pam ... you cause me to always go back and kiss my two children and my wife every night at bedtime. This is not enough, but I am learning how quickly it can all be taken away."

It's love like that, shared among men and women, children and strangers, that keeps my buzzards at bay.

Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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