grief

A Letter to My Student: Dear J (4th grade)

(Over the holidays, and maybe beyond, I want to write candid letters to students I have had. Some I have taught for a day, some for a year. These are things I wish I could have or would have said to them. An arbitrary initial has been chosen to ensure privacy. The grade is when I taught them. )

Dear J,

When I had you in my class, I was young. I was new at this teaching thing and I stumbled through it poorly. You were young. You were new at this being a human thing and you stumbled through it without much help from me. Being on this side of things, I see how I dropped the ball with you.

I am sorry. It was easy for me to feel empathy with students who were visibly falling apart in front of me. You hid it and I didn’t press in. I gave them more grace than I gave you because I assumed you were just trying to push buttons or cause problems.

Now I know better. Partly because I know you better. You needed me more than I realized. You even called me out on that when you were in 4th grade. That is hard to do. It took courage. I was very proud of you. I wish I had been a better man and role model for you.

I am very grateful you reached out to me later and shared with me that your mom was dying. Here we are, months later, and you are entering your first Christmas without your mom. I have not checked in with you like I should have, and I am sorry.

Here’s what I know: this is going to be hard. You are going to want to be tough and prove that you are man enough to make it through. You’re not. None of us are. People are not made to ‘get over it.’ We are made to love people and unfortunately we lose those people and it hurts like hell. We are made to grieve. To get angry, and cry, and yell, and curl up in a ball. Sometimes to feel nothing, or laugh, or move on, or remember.

My prayer for you is that you find hope in the midst of your grief, that you feel man enough to cry when you need to, and that you become the kind of man your mom wanted you to be. And when you fail, as you will because you’re human, I pray that you will reach out to me, or someone like me… someone who cares about you. Tell us what is hard. And then let us walk with you as you figure out this mess we call life.

Love,

Your former teacher, Mr. Johnson

Baptism

I’m writing this in church because I can’t focus. And maybe writing this down will help.

Tonight, a young man was baptized. As he was entering the baptismal, a boy and an older man walked up on stage. I assumed they were younger brother and father. Immediately emotions were stirred thinking of my brother.

At our church, prior to each baptism, a video interview is played so we get a glimpse of who the baptized person is and of their story. The young man talked about how his life had some hard things happen when he was around 8 and 9. Stuff that was hard enough, he perceived God as being evil.

Taylor was 8 when mom was diagnosed with cancer, 10 when she died.

Beyond that, there was no other meaningful connection to the person now standing in the water, but I had become emotionally connected to him and his story.

Moments of grief pop up at strange times, cause strange connections, and distract you in strange ways.

Now, maybe sharing this will allow me to focus.

Stranger Things

It’s been awhile… so I’m back with this:

I have, like many people, watched and loved Stranger Things. I have, like many people, had a hard time with how Winona Ryder played her character… at first.

Spoilers may happen below. But I will try to keep it subtle.

In the first episode or two, the frenzied panic of Joyce Byers irked me. Then, a hard truth sunk in. If anyone has the right to be frenzied and panicked, it is a parent whose child is missing. All the more if local law enforcement, who is responsible for finding said child, seems apathetic.

I pictured my dad. His son was dead, a hard reality but one with more clarity than a missing child where time may be of the essence. The police were actively on the case from the start. They were very empathetic and supportive to my parents. There was a chunk of time during which they could not give us details because the investigation was sensitive, but it wasn’t due to apathy. They found the man who killed my brother, he confessed, and is currently in prison. All along my dad experienced various stages of anger and frustration. “Why aren’t they doing more?” “Why are they lowering his sentence?” “Why…” He does not normally have a nervous disposition. He does not normally react in anger when things get hard. But this was different. This was his child.

Joyce lives life with the nervous disposition of a poor, single mother of two. Even through the flashbacks, we see a glimpse of the fact that her life is stressful and that she doesn’t always handle it well. Throw on top of that the events in the first episode. It is perfectly believable that she would have a complete breakdown in desperation of seeing her boy again.

I late came across this article. Riddled with more spoilers, but with a good analysis of the women in the show, including Joyce.

Sometimes it makes us uncomfortable when Hollywood bypasses calculated grief to show the authentic grief of a parent in distress.

Violin

A few months ago, my grandma gave me her violin. She learned to play on it as a girl. She taught my mom to play on it. Mom tried to teach me.

When I was younger, I didn’t appreciate music and musical skills like I do now. Now that I am an adult with responsibilities and no free time, I have decided to take on the task of learning a new instrument. Earlier today, my friend helped me get the fingerboard taped and the strings adjusted so I could start.

She shared something that fascinated me. Violins take on the sound of the person that plays them. The way I make the strings resonate will be different than anyone else. And as those unique vibrations move through the wood, it will, over time, change the way the violin plays.

This evening I sat looking at the violin. I was having a rough day, so I was emotional, but I wasn’t dwelling on anything in particular. I just held it the way you might hold a bottle of wine to read the label, and looked.

It’s well loved. It’s been in existence for nearly 100 years and has been played by many hands in that time. You can tell by looking at the body. And then a thought struck me. In a way, my grandma and my mom are both in this violin. Their playing uniquely changed it. As I learn to play, I am sharing in something special with both of them. And it is likely the last significant thing I will share with my mom this side of heaven.

Now, to start actually playing…

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.]

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