Last week, April 14th marked eleven years since my brother Jeffrey passed away. Each year that has come and gone has taught me grief cannot be calculated, expected or pushed around. Grief comes and goes as it pleases and rarely gives you any kind of notice as to how she might arrive.
Some times she rolls in like a wave, moving in perfect rhythm to your favorite sad song. Some times she floats in like a whisper, causing you to close your eyes and reverently remember. Other times she bangs and crashes in like a drunken and unwelcome relative who holds little respect for your boundaries. You feel overwhelmed by her abrasive presence and, although part of you wishes to accept her, you really just want her to get the hell out. Whatever way grief chooses to arrive, I’ve learned to open the door widely and create an open space for whatever expression she needs. I’ve learned not to judge her but to honor her voice for the importance it holds.
Last year, on the ten year anniversary of my brother’s death, the drunken and unwelcome relative version of Grief visited me. The whole day, my soul felt raw and ached in all the deep places. All the memories of my brother and that dreaded day he died washed over me anew and fresh. My insides felt bruised and tender as if the blow had just happened. I spent the whole day doing all the self-care things I needed to do: I called family and reminisced all the old stories; I allowed the tears to flow – whenever/however; I enjoyed a cold glass of chardonnay in the sun with my sister while we remembered together; I read beautiful poetry and Bible verses that bring me comfort. Grief needed a spacious place and so I consented.
This year was much different. This year Grief was more like a quiet whisper. Throughout the day, she quietly and softly tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Do you remember?” And I did. I remembered his green eyes, radiant smile and the contours of his hands. I remembered how he was the master of laughter in our home. I remembered how I looked up to him for comfort and protection whenever my parents weren’t near by. I remembered the first parent-less ride in the car he took Kara, Brent and I on after he got his license on his sixteenth birthday.
As Grief gently yet persistently asked me to remember, I also remembered the harder moments. I remembered all the years filled with heated discussions and tense arguments he had with my parents about the trouble he was getting into at school. I remember what it felt like to sense I couldn’t trust what he said to me… I didn’t know what was true. I remember seeing his insecurity and the need for affirmation buried deep in his emerald green eyes. I remember the very first time I ever stepped into a prison to visit him. I remember his tear streaked face as he confessed his heart-break to me over years of self-destructive decisions. Yes Grief… I remember.
After so much time, the one thing my mom and I talked about over the phone this year on his anniversary is the sadness you feel when life goes on and the people in your life no longer remember him. It’s not sad because they should remember him, but because you wish they could remember him. Beyond our family, his memory fades because so many of the people in our life now never even knew him. It’s a part of our lives that very few people still share. And so we just hold a space for Grief to occupy that reality.
Today I am mindful of these beautiful words by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross:
“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.”
Even though Grief still visits me, and always will, this year I find myself especially grateful and thankful for my brother’s life. I personally experienced so much pain because of my brother’s story – every single one of us in our family did. From that pain, my own story took deeply painful twists and turns I could never have foreseen: an eating disorder, an abusive relationship, a wandering and shame-filled identity for years and years. During those seasons in my life, I felt deeply saddened by how my brother’s life negatively impacted mine. But with time and healing, I’ve found beauty in the process God allows us to walk through. Yes, I still experience Grief over the loss of my brother and the pain my brother experienced in his life on this earth. But I also hold a deep well of gratitude for the gifts my brother’s life and death has brought me, even in the midst of a broken reality:
He gifted me with a thirst for quirky humor and soulful laughter when I would have taken life much too seriously all on my own.
He gifted me with a longing and ability to be able to look past our skin-deep exteriors and see the gold and the beauty that lies within each person.
He gifted me with a compassion for those who are wounded, silenced, stuck, over-looked, numb, pretending and feel like they’ll never be enough.
He gifted me with a real-life picture of how God is truly ABLE to redeem our scattered and torn apart lives here on earth.
He gifted me with the chance to see exactly how beautiful, strong and resilient God made me to be.
This is the treasure. This is gold. I’m holding these gifts close to my heart and I’m thanking Grief for visiting me. I’m thankful for the chance to be able to see a glimmer of how God moves us through Grief to get to the Gold.
If Grief is visiting you or someone you know, I hope you can be encouraged and reminded today that our only job is to open the door widely to her and see where she might be pointing us towards the Gold.
From my heart to yours,