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30 years is not such a long time.

Thirty years ago, when I was 8 years old, my aunt (my dad’s younger sister) took her own life. She was in the process of divorcing her husband (Let’s call him Stuart.) at the time. Stuart came to the funeral, but no one in my family has had any contact with him since that day.

For over 5 years, I’ve been playing with the idea of contacting Stuart. I wanted to hear his experience of her death and find out how his life has gone since then. My aunt and Stuart were only in their twenties at the time of my aunt’s death, the same age that I was when my first marriage ended. Then, 2 years ago, when my grandma moved, she gave me boxes and boxes full of family memorabilia, including the guest book from the funeral and the death certificate, among other things, which served to increase my interest even more.

I hesitated for such a long time because I know that some in my family would not approve, or might even be shocked. That’s a lousy excuse, of course, but when I’m afraid to do something, I’ll grab what justification I can find.

Last week, I found Stuart. The search wasn’t difficult and I struck oil on my first try. I sent a note, apologizing for bothering him if he wasn’t the right person, and apologizing for the shock if he was.

God bless the man. Here I go, surprising the hell out of him, and he was so very kind to me. I sent him that first message about 9 in the evening his time and heard from him just about an hour later. He probably sat down to check his messages one last time before going to bed, and what does he find? A ghost in his computer, a representative of the family that turned his world inside out. I asked some questions, and he answered them so graciously and honestly I was blown out of my socks.

I had no expectations, but I was surprised nevertheless. Strangely enough, I hadn’t really anticipated the emotional impact this would have on me. Mostly, I was just curious, though I also wanted to make a connection, to bridge that gap. I thought that, as a representative of my family, I had a duty. I always hated the way some people in my family treated him; even as a child I knew that whatever he did, however lousy a husband he might have been, he could not have caused her to do what she did. As an adult, now a dozen years older than they were when they divorced, I understand how very young they were.

But I didn’t expect it to bring up my own pain, because I didn’t know there was that much pain still to be felt! To be honest, there was never a great deal of grief for my aunt, not for me. I was only 8 and we had moved cross country 3 1/2 years before her death, so she wasn’t a big presence in my life. For me, the pain is around two things. The first is the trauma of the aftermath. We flew across the country and stayed at my grandparents’ house for 10 days, and it was a horror, indescribably awful and nothing of which a child could make any sense.

The second wound I carry is the fallout of my dad’s grief and self-blame and my mom’s anger. It took over our lives for the next 6 or 7 years, and has continued to affect us all. It has even affected my children, through my fear.

So, color me stunned. I’m glad I didn’t know how much it would hurt, though, or else I might not have done it and I’m very glad I did. Stuart thanked me for contacting him, and apologized to me for his role in my aunt’s death. I was never angry at him, but it felt good to hear that, nevertheless. I apologized to him for my family’s treatment of him and it felt good to do that.

I hope that there will be much, much more communication between me and Stuart. It hurts so much to turn and look at this piece of my life, but healing, too.

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