December 22, 2016

A Death Before a Celebration of Lights.

I write this on a beach while my heart lies broken at a grave blanketed with snow.

This year, I have found myself sifting through sympathy cards peppered with Christmas greetings and well wishes for 2017.

I want to extend words of understanding so that those who suffer with the death of their loved ones might read my words and feel consoled by a voice who is relatable to them in their darkest moments during this “Season of Lights.”

I wish to tell the world about my brother, Joe, who I loved greatly. I write this to those who feel the sting and pain of loss over the holidays this year. When every song chimes “Joy to the World,” and we can’t sing along. This is for us.

A Not So Thanksgiving…

This journey began when I woke up to a phone call from my father early Thanksgiving morning this year. His voice shook with emotion as he told me to rush home. My father, who is the strongest man I have ever known, had never shed a single tear in front of me my whole life. He is rock solid and steady like a compass. My heart sunk in that instant and I held back tears as I hung up the phone.

Somehow, I knew that this was about my brother, who had just returned home the previous week, and given us so much joy in his homecoming. Immediately, I gathered myself and drove home praying the whole way that my premonition was wrong. It wasn’t. As I walked through the front door, I saw my dad’s face twisted in pain and I looked into my mother’s swollen eyes. As my father embraced me, he told me what would completely change my life, my heart, and this season.

My 21-year-old brother, who we all loved dearly, had passed away late the previous evening in a car accident. In an instant, my world fell apart in my father’s arms. I screamed at him to stop and collapsed. My parents, aunt, boyfriend, and my last living, younger brother spent Thanksgiving dinner crying over sweet potatoes and turkey. A feast savored together as a family had suddenly turned bitter and empty. It is hard to feel grateful when death rips the joy from your heart. When gratefulness is the expectation of the season, it ushers in additional feelings of guilt and anger with it. Gratefulness and joy are not things you feel at all.

Our Joe…

My little brother Joe was the youngest and the center of our family. He was our glue. He had a unique, genuine, and soulful way of connecting with each one of us and the world around him. His childhood was full of a great amount of joy and he brought much of that to my parents, my brother, and myself. He excelled and was talented in many ways.

Joe won countless golfing competitions and even took his high school golf team to the state playoffs. Even more significant than these accolades, I wish the world would have felt the things he felt and mirrored what deep empathy he had for everything and everyone around him. This was his true legacy and his contribution to the world. The physical presence of our loved ones leave us, but the memories never do. Their goodness and love resides in our bones.

There are many things we may feel and experience while grieving during the holidays. I wish to shed light on a few of them and give those who read this as much comfort as I can with my words. Know that we have kindred spirits during these difficult days.

If We Feel Anger…

I want to be clear. We can be spiritual, be connected to the universe, a higher power, God, we can believe in the afterlife in our own way, and still feel the grips of grief, anger, and utter despair while we go through the waves of loss in this grieving process. It is called a process for a reason. There are many different moving parts, stages we feel (sometimes all at the same time), and we will not experience them the same as any other human being.

We are, after all, given a human experience and the uniqueness of our fingerprints to remind us of our individuality. We are free, and should give ourselves the liberty to feel all aspects of emotion without guilt or reservation. It makes us well rounded, strong, and gives us the ability to open up our minds to the greater understanding of this life for ourselves that surpasses previous knowledge we may have had.

If We Feel Like We Lack Faith…

I observed people stifling their anger and confusion following my brother’s death for fear it meant they didn’t have faith. It was as if believing and grieving couldn’t coexist. Anger doesn’t mean we don’t have faith. It means we are human beings in an earthly experience and losing someone we love in finality leaves us asking many hard questions. When we don’t have conclusive answers to those questions, it pisses us off. “Why did he have to die? What is the purpose of his death? He was only 21, how could this happen to us?” I might never, in this lifetime, get the answers to those questions for myself. That doesn’t make me question whether or not he is in a good place or if I doubt an afterlife. It makes me a sister who desperately loves her brother and who would rather have him here on Earth.

There is a huge void in the wake of his absence. It is like sustaining an injury to our bodies. Sometimes it doesn’t heal in a way that makes things the same as before—it just heals us into something different, something deeper. It evolves us as a human being, which doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It changes our perception of the world and ourselves. This is actually a beautiful process and a gift, though it doesn’t feel like it all of the time or even right now.

When We Feel Deep Pain…

When we experience grieving over the holidays, there is a unique pain that may overtake us. Usually, we are excited about the days that bring family together. They are the metaphorical glitter on our year. The exciting enchantment of the season may seem stolen from us. The happiness we expected to feel isn’t there and that is disappointing. It almost feels like a betrayal. It’s not selfish to feel this way, it is just part of this process.

It feels inappropriate for me to fully celebrate anything right now. After all, the kid I opened presents with for years and shared a home with isn’t here to open gifts with me anymore and never will be. Instead of picking out a present for Joe this year, I helped my parents pick out his casket. What’s so joyous about that occasion? I understand that level of grief. That bitterness is part of this process. Being bitter doesn’t make us ungrateful. It doesn’t make us unfaithful. It makes us human.

When We Feel Happiness…

It’s okay to also relish in the moments of happiness we do have without feeling guilty. Being happy doesn’t mean we are forgetting the person we lost. Feeling the waves of all emotions are integral to authentically moving through life without leaving ourselves behind, and grief is not an exception. We should encourage ourselves to embrace and understand that all emotions are a part of the grieving process and have their proper place.

I remember a week after Joe’s death laughing hysterically and stopping abruptly because I suddenly realized I hadn’t heard the sound of my own laughter in a long time. You know what? I really liked the sound of my own laugh. In a moment, the value of my own happiness grew and increased. After all, Joe made me laugh so many times throughout my life. His laugh was one of my favorite things to hear. So, maybe my laugh is a memorial for him in its own special way, because I’m sure he felt the same about the sound of my laughter as I did about his. Ultimately, he wanted me to be happy.

For Us…

For those of us who have lost dear family members and are grieving their absence, I want you to know that I understand this. We are not alone, because we grieve together. I want us all to give ourselves permission to feel anger, sadness, confusion, and even happiness. Please, feel those emotions as they come. Though the holidays may come with a bittersweet aftertaste, know that we can redefine this holiday as a full circle moment and unite life with death. We will feel joy again, just in more depth and with more complexity.

We will get there, together.




Author: Kaitlin Margaret Rady

Image: Courtesy of Author

Editor: Travis May

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