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.


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.

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.

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.

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.