When an Aunt Loses Her Niece
has an M.A. in Teaching English as a Second Language and has completed all the coursework for a Ph.D. in American Literature
Meredith Heath, aunt to nephews A, B, and C, erstwhile graduate student, and coffee master extraordinaire, writes about her feelings of loss during a period of transition in the lives of her nephews. An avid aunt for nearly six years and surrogate aunt to countless (no, really) other nieces and nephews, Meredith spends much of her free time with “the babies.” When not playing with the little ones or serving a hot cup o’ Joe at the local coffee shop, Meredith can be found researching family history, reading texts from the literary canon she missed during ten years of college, and wrangling ideas about how to return to graduate school without paying for tuition.
Flashes of childhood memories and brief snippets of time spent together are all that I can recall of my two older cousins from years long gone. Familial circumstances were such that we had little opportunity to socialize as children, so by the time we were young adults, we had no established relationships. Our interaction was limited to Thanksgiving and Christmas and occasionally Mother’s Day with our grandmother. Case in point: we were so isolated when we were young that we called our mutual grandparents by different names. Still do. No confusion there.
So when my oldest cousin Adrienne died in 2005 while eight months pregnant at the age of 24, I was saddened but not grief-stricken. Her story was a tragedy: a front-end collision with another vehicle speeding down a country road. Adrienne was airlifted to the local trauma hospital. Her son Tanner was delivered stillborn from the impact of the wreck—Adrienne’s own struggle reaching its conclusion only hours later. She was buried on my sister’s birthday that year. These details were—and are—tokens of sadness for me, but more so for others in her life, who knew her better, loved her more intimately—her mom, her dad, and her step-mother, her brother for whom she hung the moon, her grandparents, her husband, her daughter and step-daughter, and finally, my mom.
Because our family hadn’t spent much time with my cousins within the context of my memory, I had forgotten that before my mom was “Mommy,” she was “Aunt Do,” a variation of her childhood nickname “Debbie Do.” Adrienne was around for nearly two years before her brother and I arrived on the scene, and in the years since her untimely passing, my mom has revealed how her heart positively leapt with joy when she heard Adrienne call out to her, “Aunt Do!” My mom said that it gladdened her heart more than ever before until I, as her oldest, first cried out, “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” down the hallway at our own home.
When Adrienne died, I didn’t understand my mom’s grief. I myself had nightmares for months after the funeral, images driven by my overactive imagination and the brief glimpse I had of her and Tanner in the casket, both disfigured by the accident. But the tears and sorrow? We weren’t close. I didn’t understand. Thankfully, Mom recognized her personal grief well enough to join a recovery group offered by a local church, and she found solace in knowing that she had to heal on her own schedule and in her own way. As time passed, I began to realize the type of relationship my mom and Adrienne truly had.
There was a time when Adrienne lit my mother’s world. As an adult, she would come to our house or call, needing my mom’s comfort or advice. Despite the sometimes sporadic nature of their contact, my mom loved Adrienne deeply. I might have been her first child to deliver, but Adrienne was her first baby to love.
Today, my mom says that Adrienne’s daughter looks just like her. I don’t see it. I don’t remember. But Mom does. And in the years since I too became an aunt, I get it. I don’t have children yet either, but hearing “Aunt Sissy” melts my heart. Sometimes, you really do have to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes to understand the gravity of her pain, and while I haven’t experienced a loss as great as hers, I can imagine its impact. Even now, though, the mere mention of Adrienne’s name still brings immediate tears to Mom’s eyes and a catch in her voice.
I get it now, Mom. I really do. Before you were mine, you were hers, and no one else could have filled Aunt Do’s shoes quite like you.
Published: November 20, 2012