Crying is good for you

I’ve had a lot of tears the past month, seemingly out of the blue.

I cry every time I watch the moms on The Voice. They’re either clutching their hands or someone else’s and you can just tell they’re holding their kid’s whole heart in theirs and wishing every good thing for them. And when they cry tears of proud joy when their kid gets a judge to turn around? Then I’m officially a goner. Oh, and Grey’s Anatomy- I’m a season behind, watching it on Netflix, but shaeeessh- can we just talk about Maggie’s mom? In short, I’ve probably cried a few times a week for the past 4 or 5 weeks. And that is frequent for me.

A co-worker who knows me well and saw me falling apart asked if it was the anniversary of my brother’s death. I said, nope, just a random day! But I was missing my brother. And it’s weird to me how some days I don’t even think of my brother, and some days I think about him all day long. I feel guilty when I realize it’s been a few days since I consciously thought of him. Especially when other people, decades further along in their grief say they think of their loved one (brother, spouse, etc.) every day.

I have to imagine if I had died and my brother had lived, he would have some days where he didn’t think of me and I would know that didn’t mean he loved me any less. Maybe he just was going forward in his life. I hope that’s what I’m doing.

I had two really big sobbing fits over missing my brother in the past month, no three. One was on my birthday when I realized he wasn’t there to give me a hard time for celebrating my birthday for too long. He called it Missika, an 8 day festival of lights. Another was just a day I was thinking about how much I was enjoying our niece Charlotte and how wonderful she is, and I was sad he wasn’t here for each minute. Then most recently I just missed him so I scrolled through his facebook and at first I was smiling and happy to see his face, watch his videos, and hear his voice. But by the time Andy found me I was a puddle of tears and I physically ached with how much I wished he was still here.

So I tell myself the same thing I tell my friends when they apologize for crying; tears are healing.

There are studies that found chemicals released in tears actually help humans heal. Our tears can reduce pain, lower stress, remove toxins from our body and help us to self-soothe faster than an anti-depressant. It’s actually pretty cool. Especially for someone who’s become a professional crier over the past 4 years. I like knowing there are benefits to feeling like you’re falling apart.

My mom says I never cried so easily until I came home from Kenya. Apparently, Africa broke my heart for the first time. But my brother’s death broke my heart wide open and left it raw and bleeding. It feels pretty stitched up these days. Just a leak every now and then.

This back and forth thing with grief is so unpredictable. I’m feeling mostly fine most of the time with plenty of joy, happiness and silliness sprinkled in like any other normal life. And then SURPRISE the rug is pulled out and I’m flat on my face weeping like the grief is fresh and new again.

Most grief moments still catch me totally off guard. And I still find myself grateful to have known Justin, to have loved him and to still be missing him so much, two years later. All the grief is worth it, for all the time I got to call him my brother.


Touch the hem of His robe

Today in church we read Matthew 14. The message honed in on the story of Peter getting out of the boat to walk on water. I was caught up in what happened just after that when Jesus got to the other side.

34 When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret. 35 And when the men of that place recognized Jesus, they sent word to all the surrounding country. People brought all their sick to him 36 and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.

When my brother was sick I was praying all. the. time. Little bits of bible verses would come to mind and I would pray them for my brother. This passage reminded me of a similar story of the woman who had been bleeding for years. It’s found in Matthew 9, Luke 8 and Mark 5 where we get the longest account.

The story tells that crowds of people were pushing around Jesus and this woman thought to herself, if I can just touch his robe, I’ll get well. She got herself through the crowd and touched Jesus’ clothes. Instantly she felt the blood dry up (message version) and knew she had been healed completely. Jesus knew something had happened to and asked who touched him. The disciples were like, um… we’re in a crowd. Literally, everyone is touching you.

31 His disciples said, “What are you talking about? With this crowd pushing and jostling you, you’re asking, ‘Who touched me?’ Dozens have touched you!”

Jesus is persistent and says he felt power go out of him. The woman knows she has to fess up so she tells her whole story while she kneels at his feet.

And this is the best part. When Jesus responds he tells her “Daughter, you took a risk of faith, and now you’re healed and whole. Live well, live blessed! Be healed of your plague.” (Matthew 5:34)

Often when I would pray for my brother to be healed I would reference this story in my prayers. I would tell/ask God, hey— just let him touch the hem of your robe and be healed. Just a tiny piece of your power. Could you direct it to his body and heal him?

Going back to the verses we read today from Matthew 14.

34 When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret. 35 And when the men of that place recognized Jesus, they sent word to all the surrounding country. People brought all their sick to him 36 and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.

Reading it brought to mind all those prayers I had prayed. Prayers left unanswered for who knows why. Or maybe they were answered and my brother lived much longer than was originally intended. I have no idea, but I like that possibility.

Okay, back to these verses ^^

I love that all the surrounding areas were like, “Hey- Jesus is in town, bring all the sick to be healed!” And I imagined what it would be like if Jesus’ time on earth coincided with my little life right now. Jesus being in town, or just getting to the other side of a lake would be big news. I would have bought two airline tickets so fast to get my brother to wherever Jesus was. Just to push him through the crowds to touch the edge of His clothes so he could be healed.

When my brother died two years ago I yelled/prayed to God to remind Him that I was asking for my brother to be healed here, not in heaven!

So what do I do with these thoughts now? Knowing Justin could be sitting with Jesus this moment? Heck, maybe he has touched the hem of His robe!

Image courtesy of: Hem of his garment, "Faith that Touches" sermon at

The truth is- I don’t know what to do with these thoughts. And to be honest they don’t come with as much frequency as they used to. So when they do, I just write them down to make note of them. To remember.

The only thing I can think to say is what my dad said just the other day. “It’s weird that he’s not here.”

Six short words. But it sums up all my feelings too.


Shifting Memories

“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go” ~ Jamie Anderson

The way I talk about my brother’s death has changed over the months and years. When people ask if his death was sudden I used to say yes. Then somewhere along the way, I said, well, others probably saw it coming but it was a surprise to me. Later I added an explanation, “I was too close to see it coming. I didn’t want to accept the possibility, so it was sudden to me.”

Then this morning, facebook showed me a reminder that 2 years ago on this date, 2 weeks before my brother died, we were looking into PCAs to help during the day and my brother was eating more than he had been. We were planning for his strength to increase.

I didn’t make up my surprise. I don’t need to justify the timing of events. It was sudden.

There was a big shift in a short period of time from– okay- this is the next step to get some strength to- oh shit- there is nothing else to do.

I read that post this morning and then I got out of bed. I walked to my closet, held onto the door for support, and I wept.

Sometimes a memory brings all the weight of the loss right to the surface. And there’s nowhere for the love to go but through my eyes.

Does Grief Have a Timeline?

This morning as I was backing my car out of the driveway a song was just starting on the radio. It was a song that reminded me of Justin because he had said something about it once. “I almost stopped believin’ once, and I bet Journey was pissed!” So I smiled, laughed at the memory of how funny my brother was, and .02 seconds later I was full on ugly crying. I cried through the entire song, up the hill, through the stop lights and into a new town, until it ended. I hadn’t had a long cry like that over Justin in quite a while.

So I started thinking, it’s been over a year and the missing him waves can be just as strong as it was the moment he was no longer in this world.

A friend’s dad recently died and he describes the void in the world as a hole he lives with where his dad used to be. I saw an author say those feelings are the cost of loving deeply, and I think that’s true too. If there wasn’t such great love there, there wouldn’t be such great pain and grief without them.

Facebook memories reminded me this morning that a year ago, a friend posted a picture on my page of an hourglass that said, “There is no timeline with grief, take all the time you need.” I like that. I don’t know if I’ll ever be “done” grieving and I definitely don’t think grief is something to “get over” or “move on” from.

But I like the language about moving forward, in spite of the grief, continuing to live around this hole where our person used to be, acknowledging their life and the sadness of their absence for as long as we need to.

Even if it’s as long as we live.


The year of firsts

A year ago yesterday my brother went to heaven. Somehow we made it through what so many refer to “the year of firsts.” Each first without him was hard, Thanksgiving and Christmas especially. But so was 4th of July, Easter, his birthday, my birthday, mother’s day, father’s day. I had been with him for almost all of those the year before. And we celebrated most of those days together for over 30 years in a row.

So the holidays and special days were hard without him, but so were random Tuesdays, Saturdays, and any old day that I thought of him and wished he was still here, which was most days in the past year. I remember the first day I didn’t think of my brother until it was almost the end of the day and I was like, “Oh my gosh, it happened, a day came where I didn’t think of him” and I burst into tears. But then I realized, oh, I guess today is not that day because I am thinking of how I didn’t think of him. Grief is weird.

I was trying to wrap my head around the fact that he has been gone for a whole year. I told my mom that it seems like yesterday that he was still here. Mom gently pointed out that we had 33 years with him, and only one without, so it seems natural to remember all the time with him instead.

And honestly? I prefer it that way. I like that I can look back on memories and remember him full of life, funny, telling stories, making people laugh. Or on holidays I can remember different things we did together. Mother’s day was a tough one this year because it was the last holiday before he died.

My mom decided to call this mother’s day simply, “Sunday” and that made it a lot easier to handle. We got together to tell stories, laugh and cry a little bit.

My favorite Mother’s day memory was when Justin and I were teenagers. My mom is and was a very good mom to us. And she almost never swore in front of us, so when she did, it was memorable. Our parents divorce was fresh and emotions were high. The custody rules were for us to visit my dad every other weekend. It so happened that one fell on Mother’s day weekend. My mom was expressing her frustration saying, “He got you on Christmas Eve, (and some other holiday I’ve since forgotten)… and now he gets you on Mother’s F@%#ING Day?!” My brother and I stood there in stunned silence. It was clearly a rhetorical question.

And that Mother’s Day, my brother decided to make a joke out of the awkward moment. We made mom cards that year saying, “Happy Mother’s F@%#ing Day” that morphed into “Mother’s King Day” over the years, complete with us drawing tiny crowns in the cards.

This story still makes me smile years later and I know my brother’s creativity made mom grin too. I’ll have to remember this on next year’s mother’s day.

I’m so thankful to have had him as my brother. He was a very good one that could always make me laugh, even on command. Last night I told Andy a dumb joke that Justin used to tell that still makes me smile- probably because I can hear his voice doing a goofy accent with it in my head.

What’s brown, and sounds like a bell?



Love you, Gus.

I’ll take all the therapy for $600, Alex

I took some time to write on real paper instead of a keyboard this week. I don’t know why it makes such a difference to get thoughts out of my head this way. Maybe the physical act of putting pen to paper frees up mental energy or space or something. As a side bonus, it’s cheap therapy! Though I just emailed my counselor to go back for another session after a two month hiatus, so who am I kidding- I’ll take allll the therapy!

My first time in a counselor’s office was when my parents were divorcing. I don’t remember much except that my counselor asked a lot of questions and I didn’t feel comfortable to answer/share with her. I also remember feeling extremely jealous when I asked my brother what he and his counselor talked about and he said, “We play checkers.” What!? I wanted to play checkers and not have to talk! I felt like I was getting the raw end of the deal.

My next time with a counselor would be another fifteenish years later. It would be the first time I was diagnosed with depression. I liked this woman instantly. She took time to clarify the different types of depression. One kind is where the depression is brought on by a situation and with a good support system (fam/friends) and some counseling, you can get out of this little pit. Another kind of depression is a little deeper in the pit and someone could need some medicine for a while. And the third kind needs medicine on a long-term basis for a chemical imbalance. As she described these, I could think of family and friends who have been in each spot. At the time, it hadn’t occurred to me that I was depressed.

As we talked a little more, she put me squarely in the first one. Situational Depression. This type is usually brought on by some sort of life change that is typically unwanted and sometimes traumatic. Anything from a job loss, to death of a family member or close friend, to divorce, retirement, etc. Something that jolts you from your regular routine/daily life. In looking at that list, mine was far less traumatic. But there I was, in a funk.

The counselor had me write out all the losses I had experienced in my life. After I gave her the list she looked at me over the top of her glasses and said, “And this is the first time you’ve ever been depressed?” I told her I guessed so. She said that was amazing. (My husband says I have too much self-esteem, but when these are your true stories, can you even help it? ;))

Our conversation reminded me of the stress tests we had to take as teens in school. You would get points based on the life changes, points for changing houses, schools, for parents separating, divorcing, pet dying, etc. The year that all of those things happened at once? Justin and I scored off the charts and we still weren’t depressed. In our family we used denial and humor as coping mechanisms, and for the most part, it worked.

My counselor and I worked through stuff over the next few months and then she told me I had graduated and didn’t need to see her anymore. I was kind of sad, it was fun to work through things and test out what I was learning. I didn’t see another counselor again for years.

One morning I sent an email to a new counselor asking if she had any openings because I thought I might need to talk to someone soon. Later that night, my brother died.

Having been diagnosed with depression once, I can say I was probably depressed for some period of time after Justin died. Or maybe I still am? It’s hard to tell when there is a string of days that are really good and then a couple emotional ones and then good ones again that can last for weeks. Or maybe this is just grief? But this wondering is all hindsight in looking back nearly a year later. I didn’t notice depression symptoms this time around right away. For a long time I was in the shock and numb stage. Probably longer than I realized.

I saw this new counselor each week for a while, then every two weeks, then every three and in February I just didn’t make another appointment. But yesterday I did. With my brother’s deathiversary right around the corner, I figured it probably doesn’t hurt to have an extra set of ears and insight. Also, I’ve had a few extra emotions lately.

I’m sure most of it has to do with coming up on one year without my brother. I was trying to explain it to my mom the other day. I said, “I remember everything so clearly like it was yesterday.” She asked if I meant the day he died. I said, well, I’ll probably always remember that- but I meant him being alive, being here on this planet with us. My mom so simply pointed out that we had a lot more time with him than without him, so it is natural that we remember more the time he was with us. And honestly, I prefer it that way.

I’m grateful for the 33 years I got to have him as a brother. Now I get to grin and laugh as I read old messages from him. And I still talk to him on occasion, even if it’s as brief to say aloud, “Hi, Gus” when I think of him. Recently my dad asked me to imagine my brother’s reaction to something. When I did, I saw a clear picture of him laughing with his head in his hands, shaking his head back and forth and telling me, “I can’t believe you did that!” and maybe he called me stupid too. We laughed together and my dad said that sounded about right.

I think the next couple weeks will be tough, but if our family motto is anything- it can get us through this. “Always leave them laughing.” Always leave your audience wanting more.


(If my brother was here right now he’d wink and say, “See what I did there?”)

8 days of celebration

Last month was my brother’s birthday. My mom tells birthday stories of me and Justin when we were little. She says I used to give Justin gifts on my birthday so he would feel included in opening presents. As he got older he coined the phrase (stolen from Hanukkah), “Missika” to represent my birthday week because to him the celebration went on and on, like an eight day festival of lights, he’d say.

This year as his birthday neared, I knew I wanted to do something to honor Justin, and an 8 day celebration of life seemed the most obvious. It was fun to think of some of the things he really enjoyed and finding ways to incorporate them into “Gussika.”

Justin was  a big coffee lover. He worked in lots of coffee shops over the years. He preferred his own coffee with several shots of espresso. He told Andy that three or four shots was typical for him, six if it was going to be a long day.  I knew coffee had to be part of his birthday week somehow.

Justin also loved giving things away to people. When he was in Indiana having his last treatment, he was able to give a hungry man his barely touched dinner. He talked about how much it meant to him to still be able to give to someone when he was relying on others himself. The idea to gift someone’s cup of coffee came pretty quickly in a way to honor two things Justin loved: coffee and treating others. I talked to him about it in the car on the way to the coffee shop and I think he would have loved this, conspiring for good.

I also wanted to watch a movie he liked. This was tricky to narrow down the options because there were so many. As a teen he’d watch anything with Jim Carey or Mike Myers. Before that,there were classics like Princess Bride, Monty Python and Spaceballs. I finally settled on Spaceballs having not seen it for at least a decade or two. I laughed at the best lines and imagined Justin quoting the movie with me. It was a bad habit we had from watching the same movies over and over again. Though for him, he only had to watch it once to be able to recite the entire thing. His memory was ridiculous.

Justin loved so many different foods this was a hard one to pick too. Andy and I agreed we definitely wanted to have bacon cheeseburgers on his birthday. From there though, the options were many: bacon, waffles with chocolate chips, eggs benedict with homemade hollandaise, cheesey hashbrowns, beef stroganoff, cheesecake, brownies, etc. I finally landed on double stuff oreos dipped in milk. I had them twice that week.

Music was another thing Justin loved. For a while he was obsessed with the song, “Shoulders” by for King and Country.  He would tell me to blast it to get the full effect. He also liked, “Soul on Fire” by Third Day and it was played by one of his best friends at his celebration of life service while his two year old daughter danced in the front row. Another song was played there that I had never heard before but have come to love. It’s “Good Good Father” by Chris Tomlin. I can’t hear any of these without thinking of Justin. When I turned the radio on during his birthday week, each of these songs was playing for three mornings in a row. I smiled each time.

Justin also loved being outdoors, doing some sort of extreme sport like ice biking in the winter or wake boarding in the summer. Motorcycles, four wheelers, jet skiing, basically anything with a motor, he was interested in it. I have a lack of athleticism but was planning to go snow tubing with our nephews, Andy and his sister. The weather changed that day and our plans were cancelled. So I just stood outside looking at the stars for a bit. Not what I had originally planned, but it was nice and peaceful and I thought of my brother.

On his actual birthday, my sister-in-law emailed a bunch of family and some of his best friends and with just a few hours notice, twenty-one people showed up to celebrate the day Justin was born. My heart swelled a bit looking around the huge table. Even in his absence his presence was felt because each person was there because they loved Justin. He brought all of us together that night. I looked around at the plates and almost everyone had a cheeseburger of some sort. It was a sweet way to celebrate the day that Justin was given life.

I don’t know how heaven works, but I hope he was able to peer over the edge for a minute to see all of us there, honoring the day he was born.

I didn’t do something specific on each of the 8 days before his birthday like I intended. But I did learn how easy it is to do something small to remember and feel close to someone when they’re not here. And that’s a pretty great gift.

My brother, the wordsmith

My brother was a skilled user of words. Okay, fine, that’s the exact definition of a wordsmith- but I’m not the one with the impressive language skills, he was. Justin loved words so much that when an opportunity came up to take a vocabulary class in high school- he jumped at it.

The first story I remember about Justin’s abnormal vocabulary was when he was somewhere around the age of two. My uncle would show him off like some people show off a cute puppy. For full effect, he would gather a crowd around before asking, “Now Justin, what’s that thing called when you can see something out of the corner of your eye?” Two year old Justin, who could barely pronounce the words, would proudly exclaim, “peripheral vision!”

Once he took the vocab class in high school, he was off and running. Justin took a lot of joy in knowing the meaning of words that others didn’t. He would drop impecunious into conversation just as easily as circumambulate (two words he taught me that mean ‘having little money’ and to ‘walk all the way around something’, respectively). He had an incredible memory and only had to hear something once to remember it and repeat it for the rest of his life.

One of my favorite memories where Justin’s imagination and love of words came together was one winter in elementary school. We had a large sledding hill in the back yard and he made up a creative game called, “Hi, Jack- bye!” or it could also be known as, “Hijack, bye!” through a little wordplay. Justin loved a good pun.

The rules were simple.

If you were on a sled going down the hill, you were, “Jack.” If you were, “it” your job was to run and jump onto the moving sled once Jack was midway down the hill and hijack their ride. First, you had to greet them with, “Hi, Jack” then you had to try to shove them off their sled while yelling, “Bye!” If you were successful, you rode their stolen sled the rest of the way down the hill like a boss while Jack watched on from the middle of the hill.

It still makes me laugh to think about it. It was a physical game and it usually ended with someone in tears, what with all the snow, ice, running and wrestling on a moving sled kind of stuff.

I’m glad I was able to grow up with a brother who came up with such fun things for us to do. Love and miss you, Gus.

The people before me

When I am in a new situation I don’t know much about, my default mode is research. I dive into books, articles, anything I can get my hands on to learn more. And when possible, I love to learn from people who have been through the same or similar situations.

One person  who had a death in her immediate family told me that people stopped asking how she was doing after six months. She didn’t know if they were tired of asking, or if they thought she should be further along in her grief by that point. She wished people still asked how she was doing with missing her loved ones.

Another friend described her experience following her Mom’s death. The people she thought would be there for her, weren’t. And the people she least expected showed up out of nowhere and were amazing, present and helpful.

Others talked about shifts in family dynamics after a death in their family that were truly heartbreaking.

In a weird way, I’m grateful for the people who went before me in grief. It sounds terrible to say that, because I would rather they never had to go through the loss and I wish their loved ones were still here. I guess what I’m actually grateful for is that they were willing to share with me what their experience was like. To give me a glimpse of what I might find in my own grief.

Many people sent cards after Justin died and I have read and saved every. single. one. There was a card with a handwritten letter inside that I can’t stop thinking about, even nine months later. A friend shared about what she noticed and appreciated in Justin’s life through reading his CaringBridge for almost two years (she had never met him). She also talked about things she learned in the three years since her granddaughter died. When she talked about her grief, I treasured each word, because I knew I was hearing from someone who had suffered a deep loss and was still working through it.

One thing in my friend’s letter stood out. She wrote that she was sure Justin and her granddaughter had already met in heaven. She said maybe Justin had already given her granddaughter a motorcycle ride. It was such a simple sentence, but I haven’t been able to get the idea out of my head. And I don’t want to.

I can picture Justin in my mind, laughing and racing down the streets in heaven, maybe even with a couple kids in tow.

It’s hope found in small things like this, that help redeem a bit of the hurt in loss.


When I started writing, I figured it would be mostly current events in my not so interesting life. But recently, every time I sit down to write, words upon words about my brother come out. I decided that’s okay. At some point I will naturally talk about him a little less, and that will be okay too.

But for now, he’s often on my mind.

When he is especially on my heart and mind, I wear my “Team Justin” bracelet from his benefit two years ago. When I want to be slightly more discreet about it, I wear two bracelets my friends gave me after he died. One has a motorcycle charm, and the other a personalized name of, “Gus”, my brother’s nickname from when he was young.

When we were teens my brother and I gave each other the nickname, “Fatty” and greeted each other with, “Hey, Fatty” for years. Soon after Justin died, I just wanted to see his handwriting again. So I pulled down a box of letters from my closet and found a card he had mailed to me in 2003. He had listed, “Fatty” as his return address. I smiled and laughed as I read it because he always sent me the most inappropriate cards. I loved it.

About a year ago he asked me to stop using that nickname for him. I asked him if Gus was okay. He replied, “that works.” And so I switched. My friends took note of it when they decided to give me something to wear when I’m missing Justin.

Sometimes people’s thoughtfulness is overwhelming in a good way.