Aunt Helene

Posted on: August 25th, 2017 by

Helene's 50th

Many in the online community got the news a week ago, August 18. My precious Aunt Helene died earlier that day. While her health was diminishing slowly, her sudden death came as a huge surprise to us. I am having such a difficult time coping, and I have never felt such searing, raw emotional pain.

I carry this unbearable grief with me because she was more than my aunt to my brother and me: she was our parent, too. I do not say this flippantly. I loved her as a daughter loves a mother, and I told her so, and she told me she loved me as a daughter.

My Aunt Helene had no biological children. She had my brother and me. And we had her. Of all the people in life who could’ve been our third parent, we were so fortunate to have her in our lives. She was one of the most amazing people ever to grace this Earth. It’s so difficult to capture the essence that is my aunt — I won’t say that was my aunt — because she forever exists in my forever-broken heart.

Helene and me years ago.

Helene and me years ago.

So I figured I’d take a break from crying and the weariness that accompanies deep grief to list many random things — a mere microcosm of the infinite things — that made my aunt so wonderful, beautiful, special, and endearing to me. She was funny, sweet, kind, insightful, intelligent, and loving. She was a petite, thin woman. Despite her diminutive size, she had the greatest heart I’ve ever known, and she loved unconditionally.

The following are just some of the experiences I remember, mostly between her and me. They are not listed in any order of importance.

1. She was the first one who ever polished my nails and taught me how much fun that could be. Girly activities were the norm as I was growing up.
2. She taught me the importance of self-esteem and self-respect; she had such a huge influence over me that I can easily say she made me the person I am today.
3. She was a great listener. She always inquired and listened as to how my brother’s and my lives were going. She knew everything about us and took great joy in us.
4. When I was a child, she and I had frequent sleepovers at my grandma’s (my aunt’s mother’s) house and we stayed in the same pull-out couch-bed, watching TV, laughing, and having fun.
5. In her younger days, Helene was a world traveler; she always got us souvenirs. She constantly thought of us. We were the light of her life.
6. Born, raised, and living in Manhattan, NY, Helene was trendy. She LOVED the city, and nothing surprised her. She was accepting of all people. And she was never a snob about living in a trendy part of town, (even if it was a rent-controlled public housing apartment). She wore cute clothes, and I always admired her flair for fashion.
7. We loved our walks to Greenwich Village, just to experience this part of the city over and over again.
8. When I was married and had no money, she bought me lots of cute work outfits and casual clothes. She was by no means rich, but she made sure what money she did have was spent on me and that I was well-dressed. She rarely spent money on herself, but when it came to me, money was no object.
9. She called everyone “hon” and “doll,” and I treasured when she addressed me in this way.
10. Everyone loved her, except my ex-husband. Helene told him off privately, as she saw he was neglecting me. She told him, “Beth doesn’t look good, and I don’t like it. You’d better get a job and start working.” Bravo, Aunt Helene.
11. She loved spicy food. She’d add Tabasco sauce to already-spicy dishes, and she’d love it, even when her face turned quite red.
12. She knew a woman from work who was about to become homeless. My aunt took her and her teenage daughter into her apartment so they would have a home until they got back on their feet.
13. Helene allowed her friend’s adult daughter to live with her for years so she could get back on her feet.
14. She attended my very first book launch (I had an essay published in an anthology in 2007), and she was so proud of me.
15. To get physically ready for the said book launch, she and I put on makeup and dressed to the nines at her apartment with an Alicia Keys CD playing in the background. I will never forget that wonderful evening and how important she made me feel.
16. I wanted to buy an autograph pen for that book launch, so she took me to a cool pen place in her neighborhood. She proudly told the salesman, “This is my niece, the author, and we are looking for a pen so she could do a book signing,” and in the next breath, to indicate it should be reasonably priced, she continued, “But she’s not that kind of author, so we don’t want to go too expensive, hon.” I still have that pen, still sign books with it, and I treasure it.


17. She had a unique, fun, and colorful way of speaking, saying “fabu” for fabulous and “No can do, hon” if she felt she couldn’t do something.
18. She loved taking pictures — of everything. When I gave my brother a special baseball, a post on which I will share at another time, my aunt took a zillion shots of the baseball, me presenting the baseball to my brother, and then my brother looking at it. Kind of goofy, but she was always fun.
19. She doted on her grand nephews and niece and was loved by them in return. She got to watch 19-year-old Ben grow up into a wonderful adult. When Ben was a baby, she marveled at his growing vocabulary, obsessively listing each new word he said. When he was a kid, each time he would visit (which was often), she would hide a small present for him in the same drawer, one that was part of a clock. She loved four-year-old Daniel and waxed poetic about him. She loved 9-year-old Ari and encouraged her in ballet.
20. Helene was horribly afraid of cats. She’d say, “When I look at a cat, hon, I see a lion.” And she surely did. I had a cat when I was a kid, and Helene would come over and immediately cling to the walls when my cat appeared.
21. Despite her feelings toward cats, she empathized wholly and completely and sincerely when my cat Cosette died.
22. I went through chemotherapy and radiation physically alone, but I now realize I was never alone. Helene called me constantly to see how I was and to give me advice. She survived breast cancer, so she knew how to help me. Even if she never had had breast cancer, she would’ve known how to help me.
23. Whatever was important to me and my brother and our children was important to her.
24. She helped me get through my divorce by keeping me busy and making me feel special and loved. She was astonished at how I seemed to blossom so quickly from being released from a horrific marriage. “Well, doll,” she said to me repeatedly and proudly, “since you got divorced, you did a 360-degree turn from where you were.”
25. When I was getting diagnosed with breast cancer and called her up suffocatingly crying, telling her I was convinced I would die, she always managed to calm me down by telling me I would be OK. She convinced me to reach out to the American Cancer Society and Gilda’s Club Chicago. While my parents rejected me and refused to talk about cancer, Helene held onto me emotionally and listened to my fears.
26. She supported my adopting a child and gave rave reviews about me to a social worker at my adoption agency, attesting to my fitness to be a mother. Apparently, the social worker was impressed with all her praise about me.
27. When I was dealing with the effects of chemotherapy, Helene gave me one of the best, most thoughtful gifts: a professional massage. After eating Chinese food together for lunch before the scheduled massage, I got really sick and was in pain, so I no longer wanted the massage. Helene coaxed me to go through with it anyway, even for five minutes rather than the hour she paid for. When the masseuse worked on me, I felt the pain leave my body. Post-massage, when I entered the waiting room where my aunt was, she said, “You were so pale before, doll, but now you have color!”
28. She loved all her friends. And she loved all my friends, and she knew all about them through me. She even got to meet a few. And they loved her too.
29. When I had a scare five years post mastectomy and an MRI indicated a mass in the same breast that had had cancer once before, my aunt flew in to stay with me a few days in Chicago — putting her fear of cats aside to be at my side. Her love for me transcended her fear of cats.
30. She cried to a good friend when I was wheeled into the room where the lumpectomy/biopsy procedure would take place on the mass found in my MRI. Though she stayed happy in front of me, she told my friend, “This fuckin cancer!” and sobbed. A few days later, my aunt literally jumped for joy when the doctor told me the mass was benign.
31. She loved jewelry soooo much! Her favorite TV channel? Anything featuring jewelry. Her reason was simple: “Jewelry makes me happy. There’s no war, bloodshed, or sadness with a jewelry channel.”
32. I got my ears pierced as an adult. My pro-jewelry aunt was trying to convince me to get it done for as long as I can remember. When I finally decided to get my ears pierced, she accompanied me. After the piercing, she gave me a kiss and a lollypop usually given to kids. We giggled.
33. When my cat threw up a furball while I was recovering from my bilateral mastectomy and DIEP flap reconstruction, Helene — the hater of all things feline — cleaned it up, as I couldn’t yet bend. She mumbled under her breath “That sonofabitch!” but I smiled, thinking the whole scene funny.
34. When a good friend visited me as I laid in bed recovering, I related to her how Helene cleaned up Cosette’s furball, and then I started laughing hysterically. I couldn’t stop. Although I was laughing at an unpleasant predicament involving my aunt, Helene later told me she felt happy hearing me laugh for the first time in a long time.
35. When I had my bilateral mastectomy and DIEP flap reconstruction, Helene and my brother flew out to be with me. My brother and aunt were there during my hospital stay, and they took great pains to paint and to set up my future baby’s room. Helene stayed for five weeks, living with me and my cat! She got used to Cosette, but she always felt trepidation around her. And she had to endure that cold Chicago winter, and the snowstorm that took place the night before my surgery. The winds were brutal, causing my aunt to say, “What is this place, doll?” She was much more acclimated to the more moderate-but-still-cold climes of Manhattan.

When I was finally home from the hospital, Helene changed my dressings regularly, helped me measure fluid from and empty those horrible Jackson-Pratt drains, accompanied me to my doctors’ appointments, bathed me, lotioned me up, and put me to bed. After she bathed me one night, I cried, saying to her, “I can’t even take care of myself. How am I going to take care of a baby?” And she answered quickly and optimistically, “By the time you get your baby, you will be in much better shape.” And she was right.

To this day, we never told my parents about this intense surgery or Helene staying to take care of me. They historically have not been supportive with my health issues, and they would not have helped me through this crisis. It’s a shame, but it’s true. Besides, Helene was my confidante, the keeper of all my secrets.

So this list gives you a taste of what Helene was like. I cannot believe she’s gone. And though I have pictures, I’m afraid I’ll one day forget what she looked like. I will miss her infectious laugh and the various expressions on her face. I will miss her kind green eyes and so wish to hear her voice, particularly when she would greet me on the phone and say, “Hi Beth!” with all of her enthusiasm, even when she was not feeling her best. I will miss picking up the phone or telling her in person the latest things going on in my life and all about Ari.

The other day I stumbled upon several voicemails from Helene.

Amazingly, I had saved them.

I miss her so much, and the grief is never-ending. My heart is torn apart. I know I am lucky to have had her in my life for so long, but I selfishly and greedily want her around for many more years.

Helene in dress

The pain and loss I feel is unbearable and immeasurable.

Back to crying.

How have you dealt with grief?

Feel free to share how you lost a special someone in your life.

What do you recommend to help me better cope with the loss of my beloved aunt?

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

16 Responses to Aunt Helene

  1. Eileen had this to say about that:

    Just beautiful, Beth. I never met your dear aunt, but I love her too just from reading this. She really was a mother to you. Just “fabu.” xoxo

  2. Loretta Divita had this to say about that:

    My parents were so young when they had my sister and i that I have told people we all grew up together. They took us everywhere. Only once did they leave us with a babysitter. I remember how my dad would come home from work on a saturday and have my sister, mom, and I dress up so he could take us to downtown Chicago for dinner and a movie. I still tell people about our family date night which I loved. A few years before they died, I became obsessed with the fact that they would not always be around and I would not be able to hear their voices, so I would call them constantly every week. My dad complained that I was calling too much. So I stopped calling for a few weeks. My dad had mom call me to find out why I stopped calling. They wanted to know if everything was all right with me. They missed my calls. I never missed a call after that. My mom had that Irish sense of the devil in her. She loved to laugh and dance.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Lori,

      It’s clear your parents loved you and your family very much. These are wonderful memories you’ve tapped into, and such memories are precious. I laughed when I read the description of your mom. She sounds terrific!

  3. Wendy K Doherty had this to say about that:

    Great article! I fell in love with Aunt Helene just reading it. I am so sorry for your loss. She left an indelible imprint on your heart that will always remain.

  4. Kathi had this to say about that:

    Oh, Beth, this just made me cry so much for you. I think if I hadn’t had my Aunt Mary in my life growing up, and for some very important events in my adult life, I would not have been the same person. I’m so glad you had Helene. She sounds like such a gloriously loving human being. What a fantastic example she set! Honestly, she could have given lessons in love. I can only imagine how much your heart aches, and my heart aches for you, dear friend. Sending you so much love and comfort. And thank you for sharing your priceless and exemplary memories of her with all of us. xoxo

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      We had such similar experiences with fantastic aunts. Your Aunt Mary clearly was an important influence in your life, and aren’t we lucky to have had our wonderful aunts in our lives?

      I so appreciate your kind, soothing words. My heart is broken, it’s true, but I know that time will help. I feel that love and comfort right through my computer screen. :) Thank you for your friendship.

  5. Nancy Stordahl had this to say about that:

    Hi Beth,
    I love how much you loved your aunt. This tribute is so lovely. Thank you for sharing about this wonderful person who had such an impact on your life. What a great list. Your memories will forever remain treasures for your heart. I am sorry for your family’s loss. As far as how to deal with grief…just let yourself feel it. Cry. Talk about her. Write about your feelings. And do whatever else feels right to you, maybe do a painting of her. And don’t let anyone rush you through any of it. The hurt lasts forever, but so does the love. xo

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Nancy,

      Thank you for your beautiful comment. I have been letting myself feel it, and you’re right: I won’t allow anyone to rush me through the pain. Your idea of doing a painting of my aunt is a great suggestion. I never thought of doing that! As of late, I’ve been talking to her. Every night as I’m ready to go to sleep, I tell her how my day has been. She would certainly have wanted to know.

      Love is a powerful emotion, and thank you for reminding me that love lasts forever too. It certainly does.

  6. Marie Ennis-O'Connor (@JBBC) had this to say about that:

    Oh Beth, I am so sorry for your loss. You brought your beloved aunt to life for all of us who read this. How lucky you were to have such an incredibe person play such an important part in your life. Sending loving thoughts your way xxxxxxxxxx

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Thank you, Marie. You are so spot-on when you say how lucky I was to have Aunt Helene in my life.

      I was indeed so lucky, and I am lucky that my aunt and I were so close. Thank you for your loving comment.

  7. Lisa DeFerrari had this to say about that:

    Beth, what a beautiful tribute to your Aunt Helene! Thank you for sharing the many wonderful memories you have of her. What an amazing person she was. I’m so very sorry for you loss. xo

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Thank you, Lisa. I so appreciate your condolences. Yes, she was so special to me and to anyone whose path she crossed. I will always treasure our great times together, and I will always love her.

  8. 1010ParkPlace had this to say about that:

    Your Aunt was a loving, funny, thoughtful woman, and you were both blessed to have one another. Grief and heartbreak like that… There is no easy way through it. I found that out when James died, soon to be seven years ago, Christmas Day. When I asked a friend, who’s husband had also died, how long this awful pain lasted, she said eventually you get through it and learn to walk along side of it. She was right. This, to, shall pass. I think this kind of pain is related to how much we loved and were loved by them. Helene’s death didn’t take away her love for you. It will always be with you. I haven’t given you anything helpful because you must walk this journey. There are no easy shortcuts other than to talk about and remember her as often as you need. I’m sorry my friend. xoxox, Brenda

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Brenda,

      You did, indeed, give me something helpful: a great perspective on grief. I will eventually “learn to walk along side of’ the pain and grief. That was very well-said.

      I remember your writings about James, and I was heart-broken for you. You are right: I “must walk this journey.” Your comment has made me put my grief into perspective. I’m not alone in this emotion of deep pain and grief. Everyone walks this path.

      Thank you for your insightful comment.


Add Your Comment, Feedback or Opinion Here

Your email is safe here. It will not be published or shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>