The worst and the best of times

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 26, 2002

All of us go through bad times. Families are hit hard by tragedies great and small. When trouble comes, it doesn't seem small.

My husband's family is going through such a time. On January 11 my father-in-law, Thomas E. McGinty (Mac to most people in Greenville) passed away after a lengthy illness. He had long been a familiar face around town as he drove a bus for the Mental Health Center. Knowing that Mac's time was short, his brother, Bill, came from Georgia to visit.

While in Greenville, Bill suffered a massive heart attack that he did not survive. Bill passed away the day before Mac left us. The remaining surviving sibling, a sister, came for the services. It was the first time I'd met her.

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Today I learned by E-mail that her health is perilous as she faces extensive surgery with unknown prognosis. It is indeed a time of trial within the family. It seems today that no amount of fixing can make it whole again.

We all know that such times will come. We attempt to prepare ourselves for grief and loss. But when they actually come, it is sometimes hard to remember all the bits of wisdom gleaned from reading the experts or from listening to the wise ones who have so many answers.

We are left alone with the reality of loss and with the effect it has on those around us.

Some years ago, I worked in a hospice to recruit and train volunteers who made themselves available to the families of terminally ill patients who chose to die at home rather than in a hospital setting. In such situations, even the simplest tasks like mowing grass, buying groceries or getting a haircut are next to impossible for the caregivers. The family member for whom they are caring requires every bit of time and energy that can be mustered. That was where my volunteer staff stepped in to provide relief and help. Even an hour away from home is a godsend to a caregiver. It was in that setting that I learned that in times of impending death of a loved one and then in the actual passing, families will display their very best intent and their strongest unity. And that same family may well display just as much dissention and avarice. Death oftentimes brings out both the best and the worst in those left behind.

We've all heard tales about greed, disclosure of past wrongs, and a myriad of other hurts that befell a family after the passing of the family matriarch or patriarch. It seems family members then feel free to air grievances kept quiet for so many years. Should this happen? Only those involved can answer.

Each family has its individual operational framework, and the members all should know how to behave within it. Some wrongs must be righted. Some hurts must be healed. Some voices must be heard. Changes must take place. It's part of the healing and regrouping necessary after a member is gone. And it is a very individual and personal process within each family unit. My family would not function like yours, nor should it. No two families behave the same.

I read somewhere recently that pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. Although this idea was not formulated as a reference to death, it seems most appropriate here. Cannot the pain coming from the death of someone you cherish lead you to a greater understanding of your family and of yourself? Can you not see more clearly the value of each member and of the family unit itself? It is that understanding of value that leads to reconciliation between estranged family members, to the tightening of the unit. It also as readily defines just who the unit members actually are.

People do not necessarily become true family members out of bloodlines or marriages. Sometimes the most loyal family member has no actual relation to the other members except for love, caring and a willingness to work toward the common good of the group. Those are rather meaningful parameters for inclusion in the family unit. In a perfect world every family member would follow those parameters. Unfortunately, that's not the case. The darker side of human nature colors family groups just as it does all relationships. But those, whether kin or not, who act outside the betterment of the family unit only strengthen the unit as it pulls together against the negative force. And that is as it should be. That's how families work.

When you try to make sense of all this, to understand the significance of the changes that take place, it is almost overpowering. It's hard to find reasons for the pain and justification for the actions. Perhaps author, Eileen Goudge, puts it best when she writes, "Terrible things happen. If they don't kill us, they make us stronger."

For comments, email staff writer Carolyn McGinty at