Expecting a Death Notice

With the death of Muhammad Ali, many people are grieving and rightly so. I came across an article today asking “Is 2016 the year of celebrity death?”

That headline took me aback. I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps because it wrongly (in my opinion) ascribes more significance to the death of celebrities. Perhaps because it seems as though the most significant thing this author is grieving is the death or people who were not directly a part of her life. Sure they had influenced her, but they never babysat her. They never played games with her. They never built memories and shared experiences together.

The author shared the following tweet:

Every time I see a celeb trend, I expect a death notice. 2016, this is what you’ve done to me.              -@zantetsuken76

My initial response was eye rolling. Then I had to check myself… people’s emotional connection to celebrities can vary in significance.

I came to the realization that I rolled my eyes because I have been expecting a death notice since I was 13.

I’m a fatalist. I’m a pessimist. I assume the worst outcome is the most likely and it can’t be overcome. In the past I have often visualized myself in scenarios where members of my family, friends, or coworkers die to mentally test myself in how I would respond. Would I have the courage to stop a gunman? Would I have the discipline to work multiple jobs to help take care of my brothers? What would it feel like to help my roommate’s parents sort though his possessions?

Morbid, I know. But that’s apparently one of the ways my mind needed to cope with my mom’s death.

Phone calls at weird hours were assumed to be bad news, so when my dad called after 11:00pm on a week night, I assumed it was bad news.

It was. And as shocking as it was to hear that my brother had died, it was almost like I expected it. I had rehearsed so many of these scenes in my head, it was not the punch in the gut like I assumed it would be. It was much slower than that, taking months or years to really sink in. The result of expecting death is that when death comes, you are so emotionally prepared for it that you don’t emote anything.

I envy people who do not have an expectation of death. And I long to repossess that innocence.

My Normal is Not Normal

During work this week, I got a call from an unlisted number. This was the voicemail:

Hi Jeremy, it’s Jackie calling. I have some updated information for you, however the information is not urgent and I am going to send a letter to you today. If you don’t wish to wait for the letter our toll free number here is [866 number]. You can give us a call. Thank you. Bye.

I only know a small handful of Jackie’s, none of whom would assume that I would remember them out of context or have non-urgent information to mail me. I shared and unsuccessfully brainstormed with my coworkers.

So, I googled the 866 number and found out that is was from Victim Services in Canada. (They were calling to update me on Jesse. Since I am a registered victim, I have the legal right to information about him while he is serving his sentence including what programs he is enrolled in and what facility he is currently being held in.)

When I shared my joyous discovery with my teammate (it wasn’t a manipulative sales call of phishing scam! Yay!), I was reminded of something I often forget: My normal is not remotely close to most people’s normal. What for me was just an “I figured out who called” moment became an “I can’t believe all you’ve been through” moment. And that is fine.

The major plot points in my life are shocking to most people. They respond accordingly. It’s not necessarily wrong… most people respond with love, care, concern, disbelief. I just forget. When I insert joy or humor into my life’s tragedies it takes people by surprise… and probably makes them uncomfortable.

When my brother first passed away, I didn’t know what emotions to process and in what order. I was just kind of floating through life for a few days. Some time during that first week, my friend Britni texted me,

    👕👖💼👞 <<funeral outfit

and it was probably the best text I had gotten in months. I died laughing. Shortly thereafter, we discussed in depth about how I needed to eat my feelings and then go shopping for stretchy pants. (Brit, if you read this, we still need to get us some stretchy pants!)

Brit’s family has gone through their share of tragedy. Her ‘normal’ is a lot closer to mine. She’s not afraid to enter into that space and bring some humor with her.

All of this to say, don’t be afraid when someone’s ‘normal’ looks different than yours. I’m guilty of it too. Just because their life seems darker or more tragic does not mean that they don’t need and appreciate a well placed joke. Obviously be careful… make sure you have a level of trust. But it can be isolating to feel like all of my big important stories are off-limits.

In friendships, one of my most significant markers of being true friends with someone is when they make a “Your Mom” joke. I get really proud of them and give them a hug or high five. It shows me they know me and they’re not afraid of my story.

[My friend Dr. Melissa Mork specializes in meeting humor with grief. If you want to know more, contact her through her website. She is wonderful.]

Jealous of Life

In downtown Minneapolis there is a park. Along the street is a large granite sign bearing the name “Cancer Survivors Park.” For years it made me angry, and sometimes still does.

My heart experiences a dichotomy. On one hand, there is the big picture where I’m glad people are still alive and have their parents and kids. I’m going to delve into the other side. It may get dark and cynical.

I see the park and I wonder why they get to celebrate life. I am jealous. I am angry. Are they flaunting their survival in my face?

At church today, the sermon came from a professor who had been diagnosed and treated for cancer. As he narrated his story leading up to the results from the biopsy, I was in. I was grieving with him and his wife. I was making connections to my parents. He had me and he had the authority to teach me about rejoicing in suffering… because he had suffered.

And then the results of the biopsy were non-Hodgkins lymphoma, or, to use his oncologist’s words, “The boring kind.” My initial response was, “What authority do you have to teach me? You had the boring kind of cancer and you’ve recovered.” I tuned out. It took a lot of fight to remember that even “boring” cancer is still cancer and can be fatal. He and his wife still had to grapple with life and death. He still had to do chemo and be told that it was ineffective. He still thinks in terms of remission, not cured.

In college, my good friend’s dad had some serious sudden medical problems. I remember praying for his dad and then preparing for the worst. I’m a pessimist. It’s what I do. I was ready to be there when he got the call that surgery didn’t go well. I was ready to enter into his grief using mine as a guide. Then his dad recovered. I was glad that my friend was spared grief, but I was disappointed.

We are in a club that no one wants to be members of. The cost of membership is high and terrible. But we (or I) want desperately to not be the only members because to be the lone member of this club is a terrifying, confusing, and isolating experience. And trying to find other members can be equally terrifying, confusing, and isolating.

To this day, I am grateful that my friend still has both of his parents. I am glad that our preacher this morning is alive to love his wife and kids well. Truly I am.

But I am jealous. I am lonely. This is the dark side of my heart. This is the dark side of my grief.

 

Grit Through Grace

Grit – firmness of mind or spirit :  unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger.              -Merriam-Webster Dictionary

In thinking about what to write today, I tried just sitting and seeing where my mind would settle. I ended up with song lyrics that were hardly meaningful enough to discuss, but throughout the day the idea of Grit has come back to me.

Today, a friend shared a TED talk with me about grit, specifically in setting goals. I am terrible at that. I easily and quickly fall in to the trap of “I failed so I shouldn’t try any longer.” But as I thought about it more, I have realized that I am not grit-less. My grit just hasn’t shown up like others has.

I have lost two members of my immediate family. My mother, slowly, when I was 13, and my brother, suddenly, when I was 24. My life has twice changed dramatically and tragically and I am still here to write about it. I have gritted my way through grief to keep going to school and work. I have gritted my way through being a victim to offer forgiveness. It is hard for me to objectively look at my life and say this (and if it weren’t for others who have known all of the ins and outs of my life I probably still wouldn’t), but by the grace of God I have survived a lot. But just because I didn’t collapse doesn’t mean it was easy and pretty. It also doesn’t mean it was healthy.

From roughly grades 7-9, I probably spent more nights laying in bed wishing I was dead than alive. Being around friends raised my spirits, but at night, alone, all of the hollowness of life crashed in on me. I would often cry myself to sleep. I would often imagine running away or faking my death. I would often imagine writing letters of rebuke as a way to get my revenge on people that I perceived had wronged me. I even remember on many occasions thinking that I wanted to end my life but did not have the courage to.

From the depths of my heart, I believe that if God has not intervened, I would not be alive today.

While those years were the worst of it, those feelings have returned every so often over the last 12 years. I have yet to succumb to them. I have grown in the way I handle them. I have learned that I cannot survive my own feelings alone. And as much as I forget that, and try to withdraw from the people I love, I have grown in trust. I have grown in trusting that God has bestowed me with the grace and the grit to make it to the next day (and I have grown in surrounding me with people who will tell me this when I need to hear it).

Even as I write this, I am reminding myself that this is true.

I may not be good at setting or achieving goals. But I have yet to be crushed by the weight of grief, depression, and anxiety. I’m going to call that grit and own it so I can confidently continue to stand under that weight… by the grace of God.

The Unimaginable

There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is suffering too terrible to name.
You hold your child as tight as you can
And push away the unimaginable.

-It’s Quiet Uptown, Hamilton

Like much of America, I have become enamored with the Broadway musical Hamilton. Initially, the draw was fun, upbeat, and unique music. As I got to know the soundtrack, I fell in love with one particular section of the musical.

Philip Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton’s son, was defending his father’s honor in a duel and was killed. The song that follows Alexander and Eliza’s grief and reconciliation as a couple (he had previously had an affair) is one of the most insightful songs that I have heard about grief, suffering, and forgiveness.

It’s titled It’s Quiet Uptown and you can listen to it here.

As I listened to this song, I could picture my dad, myself and the rest of my family trying to process and survive sudden grief.

It’s quiet uptown, I never liked the quiet before.

When Taylor died, I could feel it change me. Not just my perspective on the world or my value of people, but how I interacted with everything. Like Hamilton, I noticed myself doing or feeling things that were uncharacteristic. For months, I could not be without my cell phone for fear that I might miss important news. I often feel anxious and trapped in work, at home, or in relationships. To this day, I cannot fall asleep without music playing.

There are moments that the words don’t reach
There’s a grace too powerful to name…
Forgiveness, can you imagine?

My journey in grief has left my life in a whirlwind that I have yet to sort out… a bundle of depression and anxiety that makes me want nothing more than to just pretend that it is over. The one thing that has been unwaveringly clear to me is that I need to forgive Jesse, the man who murdered my brother. I can’t explain the need or the clarity. It is unimaginable. The best I can do is say that I have been forgiven by God of so much. Who am I to withhold forgiveness from Jesse? It is an incredibly powerful grace. I, with Jesse, say, “Can you imagine?” Neither of us understand it. Both of us are grateful for it. I don’t know what that will look like. The process has started. The words have been shared. And now we move forward. Together hopefully.

The Hamiltons move uptown
And learn to live with the unimaginable.

And hopefully, we are better people having learned to live with the unimaginable.

The Gift of Time

I have decided rather than narrate through my life, I will share vignettes that come to mind. They may or may not be chronological. Fortunately, today we start at the beginning.

When my mom was first diagnosed with cancer, I was a homeschooled 5th grader. I had been in public school up to that point, but my brother was being homeschooled and I thought it sounded like fun.

Grandma and Grandpa had been in town for Christmas and they decided to stay longer. Just because. At least that’s how it was communicated to us. It was sometime that winter that my mom found the lump in her breast. It was sometime in January when they told us.

It was so long ago, and I was so young, that I don’t remember what my exact reaction was. But being the emotionally irrational child that I was, the thing that really made me upset was that I had to go back to school (as an adult, I now understand that I was dumping all of my emotions onto this one specific change in my life, but at the time, I just didn’t want to go back).

I was reenrolled at Holladay Elementary in Richard Steen’s 5th grade class. He had been my sister’s teacher so I knew a little about him. From what I knew, one thing Mr. Steen highly valued in his classroom was timeliness.

When I came into the school, Mr. Steen pulled me aside and offered, “Anytime you need to go speak with the counselor, you may do that.” He was willing to give up his time.

During math on my first day, we reviewed long division. I had not yet made it to long division. I was overwhelmed, put my head on my desk and cried. I sat like that until the entire class went to lunch, then Mr. Steen sat with me one on one to teach me long division. He gave me his time.

(As a side note, I was so excited to have learned how to divide and find the answer with decimals that I would often create problems for myself to solve while listening to the lesson)

A few years ago, my sister and I had the chance to visit Holladay again. Mr. Steen came out of a staff meeting to say hello and began to cry. All those years he had kept a copy of mom’s obituary next to his desk to remember her by.

16 years later, Mr. Steen’s gift of time to me still stands out as an important moment of kindness. He probably has no idea.

 

We Start Here…

 

Fourteen years ago my mother died from breast cancer.

Three years ago my brother was murdered.

One year ago I began to write letters to his murderer.

I don’t deal with my emotions.

These are the premises behind this blog. My family and I are walking in territory that few have walked. Hopefully, our club will stay small, but it is ignorant to assume there will not be new members joining our ranks. My hope is that our story can be of some help, comfort, or inspiration for another who is dealing with loss. I could easily wait a few years and endeavor to write something poignant and reflective. But, as I need help actually sorting out what I feel now, and as new things unfold constantly, it is more meaningful and helpful (to me) to begin this process now. I could keep a journal, but as an extrovert, why not capitalize on sharing my innermost thoughts with the world?

I began today because I just finished watching Dear Zachary on Netflix. It is a heartbreaking story that is worth a watch only when you have plenty of tissues (I did) and someone to hug (I did not).

I ended that film with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the confession from my brother’s murderer. He never tried to disown his actions.

I am also again in awe of the strength of my parents, especially my dad. These are things I will expand on down the line.

Until then, don’t take memories for granted. Having you family over for dinner, being in their weddings, or even texting them is a gift you may not have tomorrow.

And as I type this, I am Facebooking a former student of mine whose mom just passed away minutes ago. Please pray for him and his family.

-Jeremy