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Grieving for Sean

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad
The kitchen altar at the McIlvaine-Newsad home.

Grief is a curious sensation.  To me it feels like a combination of hollowness and heaviness seeping into the cells of each and every muscle.   It sits across the tops of my shoulders and bleeds into the space behind my heart. 

The immensity of the sadness I feel right now reminds of the weight that women and children bear when hauling water in 5 gallon jerry cans dangling on the ends of the poles yoked across their shoulders. 

For years I have been preparing myself for the grief I know will come when my parents die.  All life comes to an end and death is part of life.  But nothing - and I mean nothing - could have prepared me for the freight train that hit me when I received a call that our dear friend Sean had taken his own life on his birthday. 

Somehow, in the back of my mind, I always knew that this day would come, but I had hoped beyond hope that I was wrong. 

I have known Sean for more than half of my life and he is part of my family.  Ours was a quiet bond.  Not many people know of the depth of our relationship.  Our friendship was also literally quiet.  We would often just sit with each other - not talking - just being.  We met as Peace Corps Volunteers in the Dominican Republic some twenty-five years ago.  We lived not far from each other in isolated mountain villages.  Sean would appear on his noisy motorbike and we would cook, and read, and drink cold beer together.  The best times were at night when everything was quiet.  No more merengue music blaring from the battery operated speakers of the bar down the street or moto-conchos sans mufflers bringing travelers and wares to the community.  Nights were quiet and filled with star gazing and laughter and peace.   

Credit Rich Egger
Heather McIlvaine-Newsad


Recently, even though Sean was not a morning person, we made it a habit to have breakfast together every few weeks.  That’s how I knew that he truly loved and cared for me.  He met me for breakfast at a time that seemed ungodly early to him.  Sometimes we would talk about our lives, but more often than not we would just share a meal and be. 

One of things that makes Sean’s departure so difficult is that he is one of the few people on the planet who was with me during one of the rawest and most transformational times in my life.  Stripped of the comfort and security of everyday life in the United States and pushed past our comfort zones, my time in the Dominican Republic with that particular group of people forms the basis of who I am as a person today.  To say that Sean was at the center of this is to be nothing more than brutally honest. 

As word of his passing spread, friends who I have not spoken to in years – and perhaps decades - appeared with words of sadness and kindness, love and gratitude for Sean and for the time we all spent together. 

As I grieve I do what people the world over have done for time on end – I turn to rituals that provide stability and meaning in my life.  When people think of mourning rituals, they think of public displays of bereavement like funerals, wearing black for a certain period of time, or religious customs like “sitting shiva” in Judaism. Though the substance of these rituals may vary—Catholic Latinos view crying at funerals as a sign of respect, Tibetan Buddhists see it as a disruption—public mourning rituals occur across nearly all cultures. 

But some rituals are private.  I once read of a woman who washed her late husband’s car at the same time every week.  She didn’t drive the car and it was never dirty.  This was this private act of mourning that allowed her to maintain a relationship with the man she loved even though he was gone.

We have a kitchen altar, which is unusual in modern American life.  It is a small grouping of candles (representing fire and transformation), flowers (symbolizing the earth and life and growth),  and statues of deities  (reminding us of our core culture values).    The kitchen is the heart of our home - the place from which all activity flows.   As Michael and the girls and I navigate the enormous challenges of modern life, the altar grounds us by constantly challenging us to consider what is the most important thing?   Our altar reminds, affirms and encourages us that our purpose in this life is to help others and not to hurt them.  Beginning each day by spending a few minutes remembering why I am here, helps ground me in a world I cannot control. 

As soon as Sean passed, I added his photo and more candles to our altar.  Although he is gone and we will not see each other in this life again, at least we can still share a moment of peace and quiet before the day begins.

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a Professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University. 

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio.  Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.