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Death has gradual effect on family

Column/Ken Meltsner

It comes in three stages. The first takes seconds or minutes. The last two may take the rest of your life.

Knowledge: You can find out about death without any problem. You can walk over to your girlfriend's room and be told your mother just called: "Your grandmother just died." The knowledge hits you, but it just spreads all over and leaves you cold. It doesn't hurt. You can't feel.

I felt worse when I came out one morning and saw my car broken into. The glass was scattered over the sidewalk, glittering in the sun. That was real. A voice over a phone from the other side of the continent isn't real. I had hoped it was a sick joke.

My sister said she didn't feel it either when she found out. She calmly made plane reservations and called me to check on how I was doing. She kept her feelings on ice until she could get home.

I ran around for a few days and registered my car.

The knowledge of death is like those little notes that the Dean's Office sends out when a student dies. "John Doe is dead; please update your records." Even The Tech's little black-bordered obituaries can't give anything more than the facts. Anything past simple knowledge has to come from within.

Belief: At some point, you begin to thaw out. You should try going to McDonald's and remembering you used to always go there with your grandma. But it wouldn't do to break down in public. You keep the temperature down.

Eventually, the thaw has to come. I put it off for a whole week. I had things to do, and I couldn't afford it right then. But I couldn't afford not to.

I had always been told the kaddish was said for the survivors. You had to remind yourself that God was merciful and just. I knew that, but I was still shocked by how much it hurt when I finally grieved for my grandmother.

I don't usually cry. In my grief, I could not stop. I now understand why people tear their clothes or go on benders. The pain is great, when one finally realizes someone is no more.

My grandmother was an eternal part of my life. She was there before I came into this world. I still can't conceive of a world without her. She had her faults and our relationship was rocky at times, but she was always there.

When my dog died, it took me months before I felt comfortable not being home at the time for his walks. I don't know if I'll ever feel comfortable in a world without my grandmother. I've found myself ordering McDonald's Apple Pies lately. I hadn't eaten one for years. It reminds me of the times I used to go out with my grandmother.

Acceptance: You have to work toward accepting the now-ended relationship. You have to remember that the deceased was not blameless in all the disputes, and that guilt can only accrue during life. The books have to be closed.

I'm finding this part the toughest. My grandmother and I were not on best of terms. I have to remember that I did love her, that I did remember birthdays and special events, that I did try to cope with her petty eccentricities -- and that she loved me.

My father sent me a business card that I printed for her back in high school. She still had them, even though the business fell through. My mother tells me she still had my Science Fair medal. I've asked for it back; it's doubly special now.

Her death has made me ache to spend more time with my parents and grandparents. The most frightening part of these last few weeks is the realization no one is immortal, and some day I'll have to make the calls and not just receive them. Until then, I'll try to keep better contact. It's tough, but you have to share the good times so you can get through the bad.

I used to romanticize death. The books I read often hinged on "heroic sacrifices" and "tragic deaths." That's the problem with a literary background: It doesn't prepare you for the ordinary, everyday tragedies. My first thought after I stopped crying was that this experience would help improve my writing, which seemed like a cold-hearted thought at the time.

I realized later death was simply a part of life of which I had been blissfully unaware. I regret the education, but part of life has to be an awareness of the end of life.

I no longer believe death itself is noble or honorable. Death just is, and the honorable and noble part comes from the survivors, as an attempt to justify an occurrence which is essentially unjustifiable.

The most one can hope is that the good lives on after the life is ended. My father said it best in his hope that my grandmother's virtues would be passed down, through him, to my sisters and me. In this way, she would live on as long as she was remembered.

I wrote this column to share my experiences. Purely on a selfish basis, I have felt better to write it. The act of writing comforts me. Even if this column were not to see print, I would feel better having done it.

In print, it continues the dialogue on death as part of MIT life. There have been too many black-bordered boxes, too many Dean's Office letters lately, and if MIT is to be a community, we have to share the pain of our losses. We used to speak of the MIT family; it's sad that this has had to become the Institute Community.

Perhaps the trend can be reversed. A family has to share both the good and the bad. Death is common to us all, and by sharing my loss, I hope to lessen such pain for all of us.