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Pokai Bay

Grief and Judgment: A Father's Story

By David Pellegrin

George Pellegrin

That fall was a good time for my two sons—certainly better than a year earlier, when their mother and I had ended our marriage.

Now, George was in great spirits. He had just gotten accepted into the college of his choice, the University of Oregon, where he planned on starting in January. And his younger brother, Adam, had discovered what became the love of his life: football.

Then everything changed. Sometime in the darkness of the early morning hours of Sunday, November 24, my phone rang with a call from The Queen's Medical Center. Is George Pellegrin my son? Could I please come down to the emergency room? He was in a traffic accident, and his condition is grave.

During the short drive to the hospital, I prayed out loud that he would be all right. I remember rocking almost rhythmically into the steering wheel: “Please, God ... Let him be OK ... Please, God ...”

* * *

A female chaplain with a gentle, soothing manner met me at the emergency room entrance. She took me to a small waiting room and told me I would soon be able to see the doctor.

To this day I'm dumbfounded that, even with a chaplain on the scene, my mind still managed to block out any thought that my handsome, laid-back, loving rascal son could possibly be dead.

After a few minutes, the chaplain returned and took me into another room, where a doctor was sitting behind a small desk.

I don't remember how I responded when the doctor told me that George had died at the scene of the accident, but I remember clearly what the doctor said next: “If you want to see your son, you need to get control of yourself.”

I immediately straightened up and answered with a forced calmness that I was OK, that I wanted to see him.

He took me to still another room, where George was on a table. It's all a blur now, but I know I kissed him, and I tried to hold him. Then the chaplain reappeared to lead me back to the waiting room, ready to offer her expert comfort.

* * *

Only much later did I realize that, during those minutes I had been with George, the doctor had stood by and said ... nothing.

Of course, none of that even registered in the numbness of the weeks and months that followed. But sometime later I did begin to wonder, how would it have felt if the doctor had said something like, “I'm sorry” ... or had touched me on the arm or shoulder ... or had said George's name? As trivial as all this seemed, I was pretty sure of one thing: It would have helped.

I thought it was nice that hospitals have chaplains standing by to offer comfort. But I also thought that empathy and caring and compassion are not things that doctors should think they can delegate—to chaplains or nurses or anyone else.

I even wrote a letter to the University of Hawaii Medical School citing my experience and suggesting more training in this area for future doctors. My letter probably didn't make the slightest bit of difference, but it made me feel better at the time, thinking I might be fixing something.

* * *

When I got back to the waiting room, Adam and his mother had finally arrived. My look must have said it all, because she immediately started screaming hysterically, out of control.

Then Adam found the absolutely perfect words: He put his arms around her tightly and said softly, “Talk to George, Mom. He can hear you.”

It was still dark when I drove them home, with Adam sitting in the back seat. For the entire 30-minute drive, he leaned forward and kept a hand on each of his parents’ shoulders.

He was only 14, but he had switched roles and become the parent. He was trying to give comfort to his mother and father.

Now, some of you with other children have been there, and you know what happened after that.

When the deceased child's brother or sister starts taking care of you, you've pretty much lost control. I didn't know it yet, but, boy, had I ever lost control. For the next three years—for the rest of his time in high school—Adam didn't care what I had to say. There were no more true gestures of affection. Virtually no communication at all. He might not have thought that he had all the answers, but he knew that I didn't have any. It felt as though I was losing my second son, as well.

* * *

I hadn't even heard of The Compassionate Friends yet. Despite a newspaper article about George's death—he was riding a friend's motorcycle and skidded off the road less than a mile from the house—despite that article, no one from the Honolulu chapter ever contacted me.

(I want to point out in passing that our chapter has since worked on improving its outreach, just as I hope all chapters have, too.)

So before my involvement with TCF, I didn't know that Adam's behavior, as a surviving sibling, was not all that uncommon. Eventually, understanding that behavior was one of the things that TCF would help me with the most.

Still in my pre-TCF days, I coped as best I could. I went to see two different psychologists. I went to each one only once. It wasn't their fault. I was looking for tips. Surely these professionals had some “tricks of the trade” to pass on that would help me get back to the business of life. When tips were not forthcoming, when I saw that I couldn't fix my grief, I became impatient. This was something I would work out on my own.

* * *

My wife, Kathleen, had known George, but not well. He'd been living on the Mainland when we got together. Much later, she told me about the isolation she'd been feeling when George died. This was something I learned was not unusual when the biological parents are brought together by the death of a child.

During the next few years there were times Kathleen would feel excluded—“shut out,” as she put it—when I'd withdraw, unable to talk to her. Ultimately, it was her incredible patience and tolerance that served our relationship so well.

* * *

When I finally did hear about The Compassionate Friends, through an acquaintance, about six months later, I thought, “Why not? The two psychologists sure hadn't worked out.”

But one thing held me back: The meetings were held at a church.

My prayers during that drive to the emergency room had been to no avail. Was it because I didn't go to church? Was it because my prayers were essentially selfish ones, and after the fact? Had I somehow fallen short in the spiritual department?

All I did know was that I was just not up to being judged by a roomful of religious people.

It was a phone conversation with the chapter leader that finally got me to a meeting. She reassured me with what I later learned was one of the Seven Principles of TCF, Principle No. 3. It says that, “TCF reaches out to all bereaved parents across artificial barriers of religion, race, economic class or ethnic group.”

She said that the meetings were actually held in a schoolroom, not the church proper, and that the Honolulu

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chapter included Buddhists, Jews, atheists and agnostics as well as Christians. She said that TCF did not take a position either for or against religion. And she said that I would not be judged.

* * *

In the years since my TCF involvement began, I've come to see these Seven Principles as something like our nation's Bill of Rights—something that protects the individual against the steamrollering force of the majority.

The late Art Peterson was a leading influence on the vision of TCF. He expounded on these principles in a national conference speech in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1987.

Concerning the third principle, he said, “What is wrong with inserting a simple prayer? Probably nothing, but the danger is that what begins as a well-intentioned effort can grow and grow until it sets one member against another. Except for the tragedy that unites us, we are a diverse group. Take care that we continue to respect each other's individuality and that we do nothing to cause dissension within our family.”

* * *

At the first chapter meeting I attended, one of the mothers said how nice it was to see me there, since, “Men grieve differently than women.”

Her remark was no doubt meant to help put me at ease. I hadn't said a thing so far, and I might have been intimidating in my silence.

But I was taken aback. What I was feeling after George's death was so absolute, so awful, how could it possibly come with any differences? Would you grieve differently for a son than for a daughter? For an adolescent than for an infant? Surely, grief was absolute for both mothers and fathers.

But over time I came to see the differences that the well-meaning mother had in mind.

First, neither I nor the other men who occasionally attended the chapter meetings talked much, if at all. The women talked freely, and, sometimes, it seemed, endlessly.

Second, I recognized that I was better than the mothers at compartmentalizing my grief. I knew that I was better at keeping a lid on it—socially and at work.

Third, my male friends seemed less comfortable talking about George, bringing up his name or even looking at his picture, than female friends. (Isn't that one positive thing all could learn? How easy it is to give a bereaved parent a good feeling by really looking at the child's photo? If only I could have learned this another way.)

Finally, the fourth way in which my grieving seemed to be different from the mothers’ was reflected in the words I used to describe it. I came to see how intensely I had judged myself. I was a failure as my son's protector, the father’s primary role.

* * *

The first TCF national conference that I thought about attending was in Chicago. Then a very strange thing happened. While I was considering whether or not to go, I had a vivid dream one night that I was actually there at the conference hotel, getting on an elevator filled with other bereaved parents.

They were all dressed in black, all looking very serious. As I entered the elevator I only came up to about their waists. They looked down at me with what could only be called contempt.

They had judged me, and I had literally shrunk, in my own eyes and in theirs.

I didn't go to Chicago that year.

* * *

Music can be a powerful force in grief. In my case, the one song that got to me more than any other is not a sad song at all. It’s a happy song, written by John Lennon to his infant son, Sean, called “Beautiful Boy.”

“Close your eyes, have no fear ...

“The monster's gone, he's on the run ...

“And your Daddy's here.”

Well, I wasn't there. In the only thing that really mattered in life, I just wasn't there. So much for happy songs.

* * *

Over the past several years the pain has been softened by the passage of time. And I have managed to get outside of myself with activities aimed at helping others.

For me it was increased involvement in The Compassionate Friends, an organization to which I owed so much. Once I started being a helper, my healing started. There would be no more dreams about being judged.

But it surely doesn't matter what the activity is. It could be coaching Little League ... or volunteering time for a charity.

Doing something—anything—to help others in the name of our child means our child made a difference and did not die in vain.

George stays with me in the way he continues to influence the choices I make, in how I try to live my life. He stays with me in the many memories I have. Most of them are happy ones, but a lot of them are not.

What’s different now is that the memories come when I sort of invite them, when I'm ready for them—very few sneak attacks anymore. I’ve accepted what happened. I didn’t “get over it,” but I did get used to it. I suppose you could call it a positive resolution.

It does not mean the grief is gone, and it does not mean closure. George's is a living presence, with all the good and bad that implies, and I want it to last forever. I have two sons.

* * *

Adam's high school years felt like one long, emotional dry spell. He was uncommunicative, withdrawn, quick to become impatient.

Adam had been hit at the age of 13 by the breakup of his parents’ marriage and then at 14 by the death of his older brother. It made for pain and anger I couldn't begin to understand.

He had teachers and coaches he could open up to in a way he could not with me. For them I was deeply grateful—but I still wished that, one day, Adam and I would achieve that openness between ourselves.

* * *

During George’s senior year, I had become aware of the huge significance of the high-school yearbook. It’s become a far bigger deal than it was during my high-school days.

Now, graduating seniors got their own space in the yearbook to pay tribute to their parents and teachers and friends, and to reflect on happy high-school memories.

As a graduating senior himself, what could Adam possibly write that would not be a downer? When his senior-class yearbook came out, and he left it lying on a living-room table, I opened it with trepidation.

To his brother, he wrote, “George: Leading me to the meaning of life alive and in death.”

To his mother, “Mom: My pillar of strength.”

And to me, he wrote, “Dad: Many good times to come.”

Whether he meant in my relationship with him, or in my life in general, he turned out to be so right. Once again, he had found the perfect words.

I can't think of a better message to leave you with than this:

There are ... many good times to come.