I suffered a huge loss when I was seven years old, and I bottled my grief for 71 years. I would never want anyone else to wait that long. I recently shared my story at the Grief Share Group at Willow Brook at Delaware Run, and I hope others will learn from my experience to talk about their grief and seek support.
Let me take you back to a day in 1934. I am seven years old. I have my family, three sisters and two brothers. My father operates a little country bank in Virginia. My oldest brother is his assistant. My oldest sister is 17 and has to get back to college. Easter break is over. My brother drives her back, and my mother and another one of my sisters decide to go, too.
I am in class in 1st grade, and someone walks into the room and speaks to my teacher. The teacher lets out a loud scream and runs out of the room. Everything is quiet. It seems like a long time, but it’s probably just a minute or two before another person comes in and says, “Jimmy Mattox, I want you to go to the principal’s office.”
And there’s my sister, waiting for me, and the principal says, “I’m taking you home.” It turns out he doesn’t take us home; he takes us to our neighbor’s house.
My father is sitting on the front porch with my oldest brother on his lap, and both of them crying. My sister and I run across the lawn. My father pushes my brother off and takes us up on his lap. He informs us that there has been an automobile accident. My brother, my mother, and two oldest sisters have all been killed.
This is quite a situation. My oldest brother was my father’s assistant in the bank so not only did he lose his family, he lost his assistant. The next day, there is a big funeral with over 1,000 people. The funeral is held the day after they died because in the accident, the car caught on fire, and they all burned up. They couldn’t preserve the bodies, so they needed to bury them.
Two days later, I try to talk to my sister about the accident. She is two years older than me. She says, “Shhh. Daddy will hear us, and he’ll start crying again.” So that was a message to me, don’t talk about it.
And I didn’t, not for 71 years. By then my father had died, and I had found his newspaper clippings about the accident, and the sign-up sheet for people who came to the funeral. It was pretty emotional reading that, but I didn’t talk about it. Then one day I was in the church office, and a lady asked me about my family.
I started to tell their story when suddenly the vision of my Dad sitting on that front porch crying hit me. I broke down and cried like a baby. In fact, I cried so loud, the people in the next office came in wanting to know what was going on.
Once I told that story, everything became more natural. I still tear up a little bit, but this is something I don’t intentionally hold onto. So my advice is: Don’t hold it back. Express your feelings, talk about it.
Now I’m 91. It’s been 13 years since I broke down. My life, I’m just wondering how I would have been different had I released this pain a long time ago. Once I had expressed it, then I was able to talk about it.
Residents Corner is a place where residents of Willow Brook Christian Communities can share their writing, art work, feelings and ideas. We welcome submissions.
Willow Brook hosts monthly Grief Share groups at its Delaware campuses, Willow Brook at Delaware Run and Willow Brook Christian Village. They are open to all residents. We also have a full-time chaplain on campus who recently held a grief support workshop.