Grief Anniversary, year 2

Two years ago on May 13th, my brother died. As the days got closer to May 13th this year I cried more often, remembering the days before he died. 1 year ago our family got together on the anniversary of his death for breakfast. This year we were invited to a birthday party on my husband’s side of the family. I planned to attend while knowing if I needed to bail on the day of, that would be fine too.

Just a few hours before the party when I couldn’t stop crying, my husband suggested I opt out of the party. The next thing he suggested was a nap. It was the first thing I said yes to all day. I was in a weird mood, like a brain fog and every question he asked me I answered with, “I don’t know.”

The morning started out not too abnormal. After crying in the bathroom I tried to put a sentence together for Andy and all I could think to say was, “I used to have a brother and I don’t have one anymore.”  It’s a weird thing my brain does. I imagine what I would do if he was still here. Things I would text him that I find while out in the store. Questions I would ask him about family. I imagine we’d be hanging out more often than we did. Which I don’t even know is accurate, but in my pretend fantasy, we do.

A friend came over for a walk. We picked lilacs from the neighbor’s yard and rearranged our living room furniture.  I don’t know why rearranging furniture is good for the soul, but it is for me.

After she left, my husband and I divided some hosta in the front yard. We gave some to a new neighbor we met that morning and the rest we replanted.  We planted some basil and then I didn’t know what to do next.

My mind got a little twisty and I couldn’t seem to shake the repeating thought of, “my brother’s gone, my brother’s gone.”

May 13th is hard. His birthday is way better. On that day we’ve gathered with family and celebrated the day he came into this world. The day he left this world is so much more somber. I hope to eventually treat the day differently. Several hours into the day I called my mom and she said she kept telling herself it was Saturday instead of focusing on the date. What a simple strategy. I tried it and it worked well enough for me to get in the car to go to a family birthday on my husband’s side of the family.

As May 13th approched, my friends came closer. The first messages I received were from a friend in Washington DC, followed by friends in Kenya and St Louis Park the day before my brother’s anniversary. Then Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nebraska and Oregon. Family and framily from Corcoran, St Michael, Maple Grove and Chanhassen rounded out the messages. Each person simply checking in, acknowledging the day and remembering with me.

Each message meant a lot because each person took time to remember, and then they did the hard part, they acted. The got out their phone and sent a message.

Maybe it’s because words are a big deal to me, but it meant a lot.

It meant a lot that all these people who have their own lives, they stopped to acknowledge and remember something important that happened in mine two years ago.


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.


Other People’s Loss

It’s hard to know what someone needs when they’re grieving. Mostly because as  a general rule, we humans are pretty bad at mind reading.

The earliest memory I have of being with someone I loved, who was losing someone they loved, was when one of my best friend’s dad was dying. We were college students and I was driving her to the VA hospital to visit her dad. On our first visit he was alert and cracking jokes. On our second visit just a few days later, he had slipped into a coma and was non-responsive.

After one hospital visit we were driving home and just as a side note, I am horrible with directions. This is substantiated by the fact that I still manage to get lost in the town we live in and I’ve lived here for six years. Add in if I’m having a conversation with someone while driving, either in person or on the phone– and I’m toast.

Sure enough, we missed our exit out of the cities. My friend spotted some lights in the distance and I suggested we drive towards them and maybe we’d find our way home. Did you know that Mystic Lake Casino shines spotlights into the sky at night? Neither did we.

We found ourselves at the casino, both under lifestyle agreements we had signed at different local christian colleges that forbid gambling. But when your friend’s dad is dying and you find yourself led to a casino from lights in the sky, is there any other option? We hit the nickel slots. Hey, we were cheap college students. And when we hadn’t played long enough to lose it all, we walked away with plastic cups full of nickels.

My friend’s dad died a few days later, in between Christmas and New Years.

It’s been years and I don’t remember much about my friend’s grief. I just have a few memories poking through about that time.

The rest of our friends drove up to Winnipeg to celebrate New Years Eve and we stayed home together. I remember we watched an entire season of Real World on tv that night. We each had our own couch. We barely moved. We entertained ourselves with our own commentary on the train wreck we were witnessing. Tivo and dvr hadn’t been invented yet which means we also watched hours of commercials. We wondered aloud if it was possible to get bed sores from our high level of inactivity.

I have a few memories about the funeral. My friend’s dad served in Vietnam and it was the first military service I remember attending. I remember they fired the shots and played taps. I really appreciate this tradition and think it is one of the most beautiful and honoring things to witness. 

I also remember my friend and I, along with my brother, making jokes one night about her dad’s ashes being sealed in tupperware. Before this sounds callous let’s remember a couple things. First, we all had a sense of humor. Next, we didn’t know how to be sensitive about grief. So, being the age we were, we did our best Robin Williams impressions of the Genie from Aladdin saying, “Blurp, still good!” over and over again until my friend laughed so hard she nearly peed her pants.

When I was thinking back about this time in my friend’s life I wondered if I was supportive enough, or there for her enough. I hope so. It’s strange- because it would be ten more years before that co-worker would have to tell me it’s important to go to a funeral. But in my early twenties, I didn’t question it at all.

When my brother’s close friend died at 17, we all showed up. When my friend’s dad died, all of us were there. We went because these deaths affected the people we loved. It made me wonder what happened in the next ten years that I started to feel like attending a funeral was out of place, or in the way of family who was mourning. What changed?

Probably me.

Maybe there weren’t a lot of deaths around me during that time. Maybe the ones that did happen I was numb to. Or worse, maybe I didn’t notice them because I hadn’t lost someone that close to me yet. That last thought sickens me a bit, but it could very well be true. Maybe it’s like that thing where you get a car and suddenly you see your same car on the road everywhere. Your awareness for it has been heightened. It’s not that everyone suddenly went out and bought the same car as you, those cars were always there, you just couldn’t see them before.

Since my brother died, I swear I see others loss in extreme 3D. I cry when my friends lose someone they love. It’s entirely possible that I feel too much. Maybe that’s part of what got broken when my brother died.

I’ve heard that when someone you love has died, your heart gets ripped open and it’s raw and bleeding. And slowly it gets stitched back together, a little different than before. And that sounds about right to me. Maybe I have a little piece flapping around that isn’t stitched back yet, and it leaves me a bit more sensitive.

I don’t know what’s best for people when they’re grieving because every person grieves differently. But I still think it’s important to see them and show up.

Even if it’s just to lay around on the couch together and watch mtv.

Being Mortal and Living Soft


I’m reading the book Being Mortal by Atul Gawande and it’s fascinating. It’s about growing older, allowing people to maintain independence and dignity as they age, while giving opportunities to continue to live.

He’s done a crap ton of research and the stories he shares are captivating. My favorite so far is from a woman who had a near death experience at age 21. Before the car accident she had spent her time thinking about finding the right person to spend her life with and what she was going to do next in life. After the accident, her perspective changed to not caring about those things at all, she just wanted to spend more time with loved ones because she was so grateful to be alive.

She wondered if how we choose to spend our time depends on how much time we think we have left in life. So she did studies.

Her theory was that “When horizons are measured in decades, which might as well be infinity to human beings, you most desire all that stuff at the top of Maslow’s pyramid- achievement, creativity…. But as your horizons contract- when you see the future ahead of you as finite and uncertain- your focus shifts to the here and now, to everyday pleasures and the people closest to you.”

I watched this happen to my brother. My dad described him as “soft” the closer he came to the end of his life. And I think that is the best word for it. Little things that used to get him riled up, he barely flinched at, in fact, he took a couple opportunities to chastise my mom when we would get worked up over things. He waved his hand and told us, “It doesn’t matter” and “you need to let that go.”

On the anniversary of his death this year, I was laying in bed staring at the ceiling and talking out loud. It was part prayer, part thoughts. I was trying to determine what Justin had taught me that was the most valuable. And I realized it was this- this softness that my dad talked about. How could I learn to live like that?

I saw the shift in my uncle TJ too, as he realized the days he had were a gift, not a guarantee. Almost nothing ruffled him. It was the littlest things that made him the happiest. Spending time with people he loved was his favorite, and my brother’s too.

I feel like I get the spending time with people I love part, but I am terrible at the not letting little things (that truly don’t matter) irritate me part.

In the studies this woman did, she saw this shift in perspective based on people’s age. The younger ones valued time with people they thought could teach them something new and they valued building new relationships. The older ones valued time with people they were emotionally close to. And when they studied people who were sick with a terminal disease, whether they were young or old, they all responded the way of the older people. And to further verify her findings, when the older people in the study were told that a new development would allow them to live 20 extra years, they all shifted their responses to value the things of the younger people.

Then, they studied people in different cultures just after a big event occurred where lots of people died. For the US, it was following 9/11. “In each case the results were consistent. When, as researchers put it, “life’s fragility is primed,” people’s goals and motives in their everyday lives shift completely. It’s perspective, not age, that matters most.”

Death can have that effect on us as humans. For me, my brother’s death was a total wake up call and a shift in perspective. I realized that if he could die, anyone could. And yes, I realize how stupid this sounds because in reality- we will all die at some point. Side note: My uncle used to tell the story of the doctor telling him he was dying. He quickly quipped, “So are you!”

One thing my brother’s death did was normalize conversations about death. Andy asked me just a few weeks after my brother died, what I would do if he died. I told him I’d sell the house, I’d take a break from work to grieve and I’d probably travel. When I asked him the same question he had the same answers, plus he specified he’d visit my friends and ask them to tell him stories about me. I told him his idea was sweeter than mine and now I’d want to do that too, for him.

Once we acknowledged how easily one of us could die, it caused us to narrow in on some of our dreams and figure out what do we want to do before we die. But even more so, how do we want to live?

If I want to be a softer person who lets things go, doesn’t read into stuff, and learns not to fill in the blanks for things that may or may not be true– how do I practically start to do that now?

It’s a great question- and one I’ve been asking myself. I’ve been applying a “practice things until they become a habit” idea to a couple different areas of my life and I’m giving it a whirl in this one too. I remind myself it’s okay to be a work in progress. When I start to feel stress, anger, or frustration, there are things I can practice to help things bug me less, or (ideally) not at all!

Taking a minute to take a few deep breaths to focus on that instead of the issue is a good place to start. Resisting the urge to jump to conclusions (I can’t say this without thinking of Office Space) and read other people’s minds is a good place to start. Repeating “not my monkeys, not my circus” to remind myself that other people’s stuff is not my stuff- is a good place to start. Going on a walk outside in the fresh air to process while moving is a good place to start.

I don’t want to wait until I’m staring death in the face to be a softer person. It’s just going to take some practice.

Just making sure of you

“Pooh?” whispered Piglet. “Yes, Piglet” said Pooh. “Oh, nothing” said Piglet. “I was just making sure of you.”

The morning after my brother died, a friend gave me a card with this conversation on it. She also brought over a homemade meal, made our bed and stayed to fold the laundry. The words are such a sweet sentiment. My friend was making sure I was still there, that I would be alright. She was gently checking in.

This past week of the first year anniversary of my brother’s death several people have checked in. Many via text, phone calls or facebook and I appreciate each one. One friend asked if she could bring a meal over. So last week we ate broccoli cheddar soup, muffins and salad on a rainy night.

Another friend sent me a picture of a box addressed to me and said, “I know this must be a a bit of a tough week for you, so I wanted to attempt to “brighten” it up for you. I managed to put a care package together and tried to mail it to you so you would receive “a box of sunshine” on Friday. However, the USPS denied it (cause who knew you couldn’t send baby bottles of alcohol in the mail? Not me.).

I laughed and then promptly cried at her thoughtfulness. It is a really good feeling to be thought of, to be remembered. It’s pretty hard to feel alone when others are remembering with you.

Community is one of God’s best ideas.

Thanks friends, I feel loved.

Showing up in grief

Just after my brother died, a new friend that I had known for a few months kept showing up. Literally. She would drop by the house again and again. I was so grateful. I had little desire to go anywhere or do anything, so someone stopping in unannounced was perfect.

I imagine I was terrible company. I would sit motionless and watch in silence as my friend took my dirty dishes to the sink and watered the plants I was neglecting. And then she’d sit down across from me on the couch and ask me about my brother.

While I was useless in most every other way, that was one thing I was good at doing. I could tell story after story, because in those first fresh days of grief, Justin was the only topic I could think about, and consequently, talk about. I knew in my head it was probably too much for others to handle, but I couldn’t seem to stop talking.

One day my friend asked me what it was like when he died. No one had asked me that before. And my apologies to my friends who didn’t ask, but I told you anyway. She asked with such a simple innocence that it didn’t seem out of line, or something inappropriate to talk about. It seemed honest, true and real. I am so grateful for her gift of presence and for not shying away from asking questions.

A few weeks later, another friend drove in from out of town to spend a weekend with me while Andy was on a getaway with his parents. He deserved it, by the way. Andy was amazing during the first part of heavy grieving. I could hardly stop crying to go to work (and even now 10 months later I still cry at work sometimes, yay grief!). He did all the cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, he really did everything. I was kind of aware of how much he was doing and how little I was, but I couldn’t seem to get up the energy to actually do anything that would help or contribute.

I was a real treat.

So, when Andy had the chance to get away to the mountains (his happy place) for a few days,  I encouraged him right out the door.

I think he felt okay going because he knew my friend was coming to town. And this was our weekend: My friend cooked our meals and cleaned the house. We took long walks outside by day and watched Netflix and laughed by night. I went into purge mode and found things we weren’t using and listed them online. We sold random things to people as they stopped by the house to buy them all weekend long.

One time we sat in bed and she asked me about the eight days in between knowing Justin was going to die, and his death. I recounted each moment of each day from beginning to end. When I got to the very last part, she was quietly sobbing. My friend kept apologizing for crying. I told her there was no reason to apologize.

In a strange way, her tears were validating for me. It gave permission to acknowledge that the whole situation was shitty, and was not how we had hoped it would end.

By the time my friend left to go back home, our freezer was loaded with homemade muffins and rhubarb crisp, our house was a little less cluttered, and my heart was full.

My friends taught me how important it is to show up when people are hurting. To physically drive to their house and sit there with them to be present in their grief. Words aren’t even necessary. In some cases, no words are preferred.

After I saw this modeled by my friends and I noticed how much it helped me, I realized I’m terrible at this. I want to be better at showing up for friends and family who are hurting.

I guess this is one good thing I’m learning from grief.