Seven Losses in Seven Months: Finding Peace in Butterflies
I’ve been slogging along in a head fog for the last couple of days, unable to get anything accomplished. My mom and I just returned from Minnesota this week where we said goodbye to her younger sister, her best friend and my beloved Aunt Loey. This was a significant loss. Her death makes my mom the last—and oldest—surviving sibling in her immediate family. She’s no longer the middle child. She’s the only child. It’s a strange place to be in your early 80s, when there’s nobody to turn to for family history questions or to ask, “Do you remember that time…” She’s it. And I imagine that brings her to an uncomfortable closeness to her own mortality.
So here we are, grieving, again. The last six months have been hell. We’ve lost six family members in Minnesota since November, including my dear Aunt Loey, two cousins who succumbed to Covid, another two from cancer, and one of old age. The day before my aunt’s funeral, my mom and I got word that our 101-year-old cousin was diagnosed with a mass in her chest with one week to live. The morning of our funeral home visitation for Aunt Loey, my mom and I rushed to Gerda’s hospital bed to say goodbye. The tears we cried that day were for both women, and all those we’ve lost—seven relatives in seven months by the time sweet Gerda finishes her earthly journey. That’s one relative a month since November. It’s simply staggering and unbelievable.
How is one expected to navigate so much loss in a short time, especially those who are so close to us in spirit? It’s almost too much to take. And we can’t think only of our losses, we have to think of those whose loss is greater, for those who are left to reassemble their lives.
Aunt Loey holding me as a toddler, circa 1973.
Uncle Maynard, 76, has to learn how to cook, manage a household, and take care of himself without his best friend of 48 years. Their sons, my cousins, lost their mother, their confidante; who will they call? My paternal cousin Robin, just three weeks into mourning the loss of her husband, had to deal with the loss of her mother with whom she had a complicated, messy relationship. Our cousin Gene and his wife Elaine, although in their 90s, were the last of my mom’s cousins in her generation on her mother’s side. I think of my mother who will never get another weekly call from her sister as she steps into the role of matriarch and conservator of family history. Oh, how we will miss them all on our trips to Minnesota. It just won’t be the same without them.
Loey’s funeral was held in Grace Lutheran Church where she and my mom grew up in Dawson, Minn. It was a beautiful funeral with a formal service, hymns and prayer. The pastor spoke of the symbolism of the monarch butterflies Loey raised with adoring care. The butterflies, he said, began as caterpillars, blossomed as butterflies, and laid their eggs amongst the milkweed to continue their life cycle. Butterflies represent the beauty of death and rebirth. If you follow Christian theology, the rebirth is a representation of eternal life. For others, it's simply the acceptance of the tenuous circle of life.
The Rebecca Legacy: Aunt Loey holding my Rebekkah circa 2002.
As in most of our recent family funerals since the death of my father, I prepared the eulogy. I spoke of Loey’s humor, sass (yes, that ubiquitous sass that runs in the women in our family), and love for her family. And I spoke of our connection through her middle name, Rebecca. I had named my daughter Bekkah after her and my great-grandmother Rebbekka (nee Rebecca). I mourned the loss of the Rebecca’s, the familial triumvirate I’d created in my mind. After the funeral, three members of our extended family approached me saying, “MY middle name is Rebecca!” It seems my great-grandmother had a wider span of influence than I could have ever imagined. This is my solace, my balm, that the Rebecca’s live on, like those monarch butterflies Loey loved so much.
I know that Loey was ready to go. Her second bout of cancer riddled her spine with pain. I believe the stroke spared her much misery, but those left behind weren’t ready to let her go. We wanted her for just a little bit longer, for another phone call, another laugh, another hug, another sassy remark. I know she’s in a better place. My faith tells me she’s in heaven. My heart tells me she’s still with us. Every time I see a monarch butterfly, I will feel her near, and I’ll know the others we've lost are probably fluttering right along with her.
But man, the loss still hurts.