The Stages of Grief

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I like to fancy myself an amateur expert on grief. (Is that an oxymoron? I know others who have had it worse than me so I can’t possibly be an expert expert.) My brother Jacob died in December of 2010 from a heart attack. Then my daughter Luna was diagnosed with Turner Syndrome and was delivered stillborn in November of 2012. Less than four months later, my sister Jen died from leukemia in March of 2013. Then just a couple weeks ago, my daddy died unexpectedly from a heart attack.

When you lose someone you love, you go through so many different feelings that you don’t know which way is up anymore. I don’t know anything about the stages of grief (including how many there are or what they are) but I do know that there is no rhyme or reason to how you are feeling from one day to the next. One moment to the next. They don’t happen in any order. They don’t stop once you’ve worked your way through them. You will keep feeling those things in one form or another for your whole life.

I still can’t really wrap my head around the fact that my dad is dead. In fact, I confess that sometimes I think Jen is really just at the hospital and she’ll be home soon. And on Sunday nights, I wait sometimes to hear Jake come up the basement stairs, his bags rubbing against the wall. That smells like denial to me. Some days it is very real to me and other days are easier to get through if I lie to myself a little.

It is impossible not to feel sad about the loss of a loved one. I get the most sad when I think about how my kids are going to miss out on these awesome people in their lives. Just last week, I was uncontrollably weepy because it was grandparents day at school and I knew Papa wouldn’t be there next year to visit Bo in kindergarten. (Not that he would – he was the type of guy who would rather take Bo on an adventure outside of school instead.) I get sad thinking about the friendship I know Jake would have had with Bo and the girly bond Jen would have had with my “I love pink and purple” two-year-old. Some days I just cry. A lot.

I think it is equally difficult not to feel guilty. I should have visited Jen in the hospital more. I should have checked on Jacob earlier the morning he died. I should have encouraged my dad to go to the doctor sooner. I should have told them all how much I love and admire them before they were gone. I shouldn’t have copped such a nasty attitude when my dad held my hand to pray before dinner the last time I saw him. How I wish I could feel his giant paw wrap around my hand again. I honestly never stop feeling guilty for every moment I thought of myself instead of thinking of them.

But my default emotion in life is anger. I am always angry at something. Angry that I didn’t see it coming. Angry that my time with them was so short. Angry at people who say the absolute wrong things in an attempt to comfort you. (Just so you know, losing your brother/baby/sister/father is NOT like losing your cat/dog/hamster/fish – no matter how close you guys are.) Angry that all this had to happen in so short a time. Angry at myself for being angry. Angry at other people for not being angry or not being angry enough. I could go on, but I think I would just be embarrassing myself.

Of course I have accepted what has happened to me. I am reminded that they are no longer alive every time I have to call everyone in the family. Or buy everyone a present at Christmas. Or save people seats. Or when I want to talk to someone and get advice. Or when I am sitting at a family gathering. Like for Easter this year, I will be sitting there thinking that the crowd is too small. The list is too short. And I accept it because it has changed my very soul to lose these people I love so much.

Like I said, I don’t know what the stages of grief even are, but these are things I feel on a daily basis. Sadness. Guilt. Anger. Denial. I should also mention that I feel afraid. Afraid of losing someone else. Afraid that I am next.

But you might be surprised to hear I also feel thankful. Jen and I memorized 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 with our Bible study girls years ago and it is the only verse that I still have memorized all this time later. “Rejoice always. Pray continually. In all things, give thanks for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Whenever I get to feeling sorry for myself, I stop myself and think about how blessed I am. Yes, how BLESSED I am. I would have nothing to mourn if I were not blessed in the first place. I have loved and lost more family than some people will ever have. Praise God that I had the privilege of having such an incredible, loving, faithful daddy and such brilliant, funny, talented siblings like Jen and Jake. If they weren’t so amazing, I would not be so sad. My sadness is a measure of their awesomeness. Praise God that I could carry my Luna those five months even if I never got to meet her.

And reflecting on the ones I have lost also makes me reflect on those I still have. My humble, strong, gracious mother. My beautiful, smart and funny children. My gorgeous genius of a husband. My loving, creative and sensitive sister Jes. My brothers. Jimbo – the teddy bear at heart who would prefer for everyone to think he’s heartless. Joe – the honorable, hard-working leader. Rico – the soft hearted one who is fiercely proud of his family. Jack – the selfless, giving and honest one. My nephews Alex (the deep, thoughtful, big-hearted one) and William (the fearless goofball). Chris who taught me how to serve the ones I love. Eeen who showed me how to take myself less seriously. Erica who loves others so completely and openly. Em-E who is the epitome of patience and loyalty. Bean and Jeff who make Christ such a focus in their family. Gene and Mer who give so much of themselves to others. Mama and Pop Korn who are hands down the most generous people I know. I really wish I could go on and list everyone, but I would never be able to stop. The rest of my extended family. My coworkers. My friends. My students. My Bible study girls and church family. Seriously, how can I not feel blessed?! And I am thankful.

Even when I am sad, I am thankful. Angry? Thankful. Guilty and thankful. In denial, but thankful. In all things I am thankful. When Jake died, I would try to pray, but the only thing that I could say was “Thank you, God, for everything. I don’t deserve anything.” That gets me through even my hardest days.

But today is Easter. Easter is the day I celebrate the ultimate “thank you for everything – I don’t deserve anything.” Not only does Christ save me from a lifetime of sin, but He makes it possible for me to see Jake, Luna, Jen and my daddy again. As if heaven couldn’t get any better! Today I celebrate Christ’s triumph over death and I celebrate it extra because His triumph over death has already given me hope for the future.

We asked Bo what Easter means for our loved ones who are already dead and he said, “It means they get to rise from the dead. And me too.” Two minutes later, he came back distraught because he wanted us to understand that he knew he had to die first before he could rise from the dead. How I wish everyone had that perspective of death. As a stepping stone to resurrection. So today I remember that. In order to rise, we must first die.

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More Magical than Santa Claus

My dad was more magical to me than Santa Claus. I know it’s April but the magic of Christmas never goes away. It fades a little but children hope and wait for Christmas all year. There is a magic and a tingle of anticipation that comes with Christmas that comes at no other time and because of that, so many children are in love with Santa Claus. He is the epitome of generosity, warmth, kindness and joy. He exudes peace and hope and love. He makes you smile just to think of him. That is not Santa Claus – that is my dad.

There was something otherworldly about him. I knew – I mean KNEW – that my dad loved me more than he loved himself. Even when I was in trouble I still knew. And I knew that more than just loving me, my dad even LIKED me. My siblings will absolutely agree – he felt that way about all of us. He was willing to sacrifice absolutely anything for us. As I write this, I get the feeling that everyone feels like that about their father, but I am not really doing it justice. He appeared to be an ordinary man but this was simply his alter ego. Underneath that facade of normality was a man of incredible strength, faith, love and talent. My dad was extraordinary in his love for us. My dad was an extraordinary man. I am sad that I won’t be able to make you see just how extraordinary in the time I have.
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My father provided for all nine of us a stable, loving, secure home. Never once did we feel anything but love. We struggled with money and yet, I never felt starved or needy. My dad worked his tail off, getting up at 4 and coming home past 7. Decades of working a job that he was very good at and with people he loved, but a job that he hated. Winters where he would leave when it was dark and come home after the sun went down – never seeing the light of day. He gave up his dreams of illustrating as a profession so that he could be sure to provide for the children he loved. Did I mention he worked an hour away from home? But even though he worked so many hours a day, we never felt deprived because his time at home with us was so special.

As a very little girl, I would ask my dad to give me a kiss before he left for work in the morning, sometimes leaving notes on his pillow. I lived for those kisses. And when he came home in the evening, I would race my brothers to the front door, grab a hold of his legs and scream “MY daddy!!!!” When we were sick, we would curl up against him and ask him to put his giant paw on our heads or bellies because he gave off so much body heat. He was such a hot-box that in the hospital Monday morning – even more than an hour after he had been declared dead, his body was still warm. I snuggled his cheek to feel the scratch of his whiskers and rubbed the scar on his neck and it felt like he had just come inside on a cold day.

My heart aches. It aches to think that my children are going to grow up without him. They only had a few short years (months in Joe’s case) to get as many bear hugs and scruffly kisses as they could. Bo recently discovered the classic monster movies and the two of them spent hours watching them. Bo would ask a million questions and Papa was more than happy to answer each and every one. Bo’s greatest regret right now is that they never got to watch Dracula together.

My dad got to babysit all three of my kids on his own a couple weeks ago and even though they put him through the ringer, (I mean, when he asked Maggie to clean up the soup she spilled, she got mad and promptly peed on the floor. He made her clean that up too), he was delighted to hear them ask when he was going to watch them again. He cuddled and soothed crying babies and reminded me every chance he got how blessed I was no matter how grumpy, demanding or difficult my children were. He has donned big bad wolf masks for story time, lovingly passed down stories of his family and childhood and even waxed philosophical with my two and four year olds with questions like “Is Frankenstein’s monster the real villain or Frankenstein the scientist?” Every one of his grandchildren was in love with him and he was in love with them. Boy did that man love children.

So many memories. Things I don’t want to forget. Things I am afraid I will forget. Like my dad hiding behind the curtain in the delivery room so he could be the first to hold his first granddaughter. Or the time Patrick asked him for permission to marry me and he got up and mowed the lawn without saying a word. The time I called him to catch a mouse in my house and he insisted on trapping it and releasing it on the outskirts of town. The way he stubbornly mispronounced words. How I could feel my children relax in my arms at the sound of his voice. His very particular way of sketching something. His unique parenting technique of “evenly distributing the yeses and the no’s.” The way he would call us “stink weed” and his silent, open mouth laugh when something was really funny. His love pats. His giant bear hugs. His smell. His voice.

But there is one thing I will never forget. I cannot forget. His unwavering faith in Christ. I can’t forget this because my parents – both of them – have etched this into my very being. Even as a child, when I was afraid of the end of the world and pretty much everything else, my father taught me to trust wholeheartedly in God’s plan. This was not the naive lesson taught by a man who had never had to struggle in life – this was the advice of a man seemingly mistreated by life. A rocky childhood. Losing a sister at an early age. The SIDS death of an infant son which he blamed himself for. Standing by while his 16-year-old son has a heart attack and then 9 years later, losing that son to another heart attack. Losing his mother and stepfather in the same year. Holding me up through the diagnosis and stillbirth of my daughter Luna. Treating my sister’s multiple miscarriages with pinto beans and cornbread. Supporting his oldest child through her struggle with leukemia for a decade and then sitting by her bedside, holding her hand when she silently slipped away. Until the very end, my father held firm in his faith – never once questioning the wisdom, love and kindness of the God he served. Always trusting in God’s plan. When life became difficult, he stepped closer to God instead of turning away. Perhaps more than anything, this is what made my dad so magical. More than anything, this is what I will remember.

I am sad to lose him, so as my mother taught me, I need something to be thankful for. I am thankful for the grace of God to give me a mother and father that would equip me to survive this life I have been given. I am thankful for every magical moment and every mystical second of my life with my father. I am thankful for the bits and pieces of himself that he left in each of his children and grandchildren – like how he left his face on Alex. I am thankful for the sacrifices he made for us. I am thankful for his hugs. And I am even more thankful that he taught me the faith that allows me to know that I will also spend eternity with him. Now if only he had taught me about patience…

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