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.