When does grief become memory?

The other day I needed to move some old files out of the cabinet drawer into a box.  When I opened the box, I discovered an old book that had been among my mother’s effects when she died.  At the time I had just flipped quickly through its pages to see that it was an old reference book, covering subjects from basic math to business law to how to write an advertisement.  In length and width it was just a little bigger than a 3×5 index card, and about 3/4 inch thick.  The front cover is broken; the spine is torn. By its age I figured it had belonged to my mother’s father so I didn’t just recycle it and stuck it in a box.

This time, however, I opened the front cover to find my grandfather’s name “R.J. Witterwell” handprinted on the inside with the date “June 1, 1910.”  The title page says it’s The Business Man’s Pocketbook: A Handbook of Reference for Business Men by International Correspondence Schools, Scranton, PA.  Even more exciting than my grandfather’s name was to find a ticket (1.5 by 3.5 in.) printed on blue paperboard.  It was a ticket for a reserved seat at the “Witterwell Brothers’ Grand Concert Tour.”  This is the only physical evidence I’ve seen of what I remember my mother telling me to the effect that my grandfather’s father had been a musician.

In June, 1910 my grandfather would have been about 27, moving along in his rise, according to family legend, from office boy to vice-president of Coulter & McKenzie Machine Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  My grandfather had been born Raphael Pierre to a family from Belgium who had Anglicized their name to “Witterwell.”  (So far I have not been able to find the original name.)  In that era he must have felt that “Raphael Pierre” sounded too ethnic, so my grandfather went by “Raymond J.” during his working years.

My grandfather and his wife, Mae, adopted my mother a few years after they lost their 12 year old son to polio.  I am named after him:  Kenneth Witterwell.  (If I was a drinker, I could win many bar bets on what the W in Kenneth W. Daly stands for.)  My grandparents were angry at how they felt they and their son were treated by the local Catholic priest so they left the church of Rome and raised my mother as a Protestant.

After my grandmother died, my grandfather came to live with us and moved with us to a new bigger house in 1951.  He lived with us until he died in April 1959.  My father’s parents had died before I was born so Grandpa Witterwell was the only grandfather I knew.  My brother James was born in 1951 a few months after we moved and he became Grandpa’s favorite.  My memories of those years include:

  • Sitting in the den, which was Grandpa’s space, with his chair, his TV, his wood cigar box, his cigars, his TV Guide and Saturday Evening Post.  50 years later I still like the smell of cigar smoke because it reminds me of Grandpa.
  • Watching the Friday night boxing matches with Grandpa.  He would always root for the white boxer over the black, or the boxer in the white trunks if both were the same color.  In his defense, I will say that he was an inveterate Brooklyn Dodger fan and he always said good things about Jackie Robinson.
  • Listening in distress to my grandfather and my father fighting on Tuesday nights over whether we were going to watch Milton Berle or Bishop Fulton J. Sheen.  These fights usually ended with Grandpa stomping upstairs to bed muttering that he had bought the TV.

My grandparents had been living in their own house when my grandmother died.  I do not remember attending her wake or funeral.  Grandpa Witterwell was the first person with whom I was living as he was dying.  We all knew or were told that he was failing.  I remember the children gathering in the den in the evening to be with him as he watched TV.  We wanted to be with him because we were told and sensed, as well as children can, that such opportunities would end soon.  On the day he died, I went off to high school feeling that the end was near.  He was staying more and more in bed.  Totally not like him.  When I came home that afternoon, my mother was sitting in his den with his sisters.  It was my first real experience of surviving family members coming together.  Even my Auntie May (my paternal grandfather’s second wife) came.  She and Grandpa were known for their barbed exchanges, but she came too.

I was sad after Grandpa died, and missed him.  But I did not know what mourning was until I almost passed out as they were closing my father’s coffin.  Mourning is much more intense and usually more short-lived than grieving. It is hard to say when my feelings for my grandfather changed from grieving to fondly remembering.  I think I was still grieving for him when I was a freshman in college.  I was in a Dominican seminary.  When we all joined the Third Order of St. Dominic (a lay group), I took the name “Raphael Peter Mary” after him.   Today I remember him fondly and feel joy when I find some forgotten reminder of him.  This is the opposite of the feelings I discussed concerning clearing out the personal possessions of a loved one.

This post is appropriate for today, the birthday of my sister Mary Teresa, who died in 2007.  I am still grieving for her.  That’s why I have to keep the Sudoku books she gave me at the bottom of a box in back of a closet upstairs.  Seeing relics of her life does not bring back fond memories yet, just pain.



  1. “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.
    At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.
    There are moments, most unexpectedly, when something inside me tries to assure me that I don’t really mind so much, not so very much, after all. Love is not the whole of a man’s life. I was happy before I ever met H. I’ve plenty of what are called ‘resources’. People get over these things. Come, I shan’t do so badly. One is ashamed to listen to this voice but it seems for a little to be making out a good case. Then comes a sudden jab of red-hot memory and all this ‘commonsense’ vanishes like an ant in the mouth of a furnace.”
    A Grief Observed. C. S. Lewis (1961)

  2. Consolation comes from the Latin for being with someone who is alone. This works in various ways. In my case, taking care of Anne Mei kept me going.

  3. Comment by Maude Wolfe 7 hours ago

    Is memory not the catalyst for grief? Without memory, how would we know the loss? In my way of thinking grief is a physiological response; mourning seems more encompassing. One may grieve for a short time when the loss is less acute but we can be trapped in mourning for a very long time as we adjust to the significant changes in our lives.
    I spent years in mourning, haunted by memories. Mementos were comforting some days but intensely painful others – sometimes a roller coaster ride of wild extremes within the same day – or night. Some nights were particularly dreadful – memories, yes, often came unbidden as I was falling asleep but also the permutations in my head in regard to the circumstances and events of my now very different life could be just as disturbing and overwhelming. And, I was easily confused about how to take good care of myself even though I was trying very hard to embrace this process of grieving and mourning by the most skillful means I could muster.
    What made a difference for me was very caring people. Mostly, it wasn’t people I knew well. Some remained strangers; others, good friends now. The common denominator among them is the ability to be with someone who is heart-broken and raw without the compulsion to fix it, to judge it or ignore it. With their support, I could face it unflinchingly for longer periods of time without crumbling under the weight of it, without a frenetic energy that depleted and damaged my efforts to accept and settle in.
    May all who are grieving, mourning know the comfort of being lovingly held until they are healed.
    Yes, a good post, Ken.

  4. Comment by Terry Firma 2 hours ago

    Thanks for this Ken. I found it moving.
    I have always thought there is a difference between the way we grieve and the way we mourn. The way we mourn seems to me to be about our behaviour, what we do, in response to the loss of a loved one whereas grieving is personal and emotional so there aren’t really any guidelines on how to do it. We just have to wing it!
    A good post Ken.

  5. Comment by Bronco 10 hours ago

    With immediate effect. It is because there is no death of the consciousness, which is the driving force of the ego. As the physical body falls to Earth, mind consciousness becomes the universal mind from whence it came. There is no losing, should there be so then the one who went into transition would eventually be forgotten. However, we find that the love for them intensifies as time goes by, they are impossible to lose, even if we wanted to forget we never could. Wherever we are, wherever we go, they will be there to inseparably so…

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