I remember as a child my father always telling us that our PawPaw had a hard time around the Holidays because he had lost his brothers. I thought this was sad, but I didn’t appreciate the gravity of this statement until walking that same road became part of my story.
I had one sister (Kari) and we were 15 months apart in age. One of our high school nicknames was “The B-twins” (Balchunas) because we were stuck to each other like glue. When she went off to college, I spent most of my senior year weekends visiting her at her UGA freshmen dorm. We knew college would separate us for a while, but we always planned for a future that involved embracing each other’s husband as our own brothers, living close enough to each other to raise our families together, celebrate holidays and every occasion together, laugh and cry together. After we raised our kids together, we would grow old together, laughing and loving and maybe go on the mission field together with our husbands.
Careers and geography introduced temporary obstacles, but after my daughter was born we knew it was time to redouble our prayer and vigilance, watching for the Lord to open the door and put our long-awaited hopes into action. Shortly thereafter, He provided! Tim’s CEO was incredibly understanding and allowed us to relocate to NC. We purchased a house in Charlotte that was bigger than my family needed, because Kari and I (and our husbands) loved the idea of living in the same house … at least until our babies were in school and we had gotten through the dog years of infants and toddlers. We purchased furniture that would suit our ideas of communal living: a 14-person dining room table for the many holidays and celebrations to come; a sectional sofa big enough that at least 7 adults could sit on it together comfortably; even a bunk bed with a trundle for our daughter, dreaming of the “cousin sleepovers” that would happen on any given night. Kari and I were both pregnant shortly after we came to NC, and this was another dream we had talked about from the time we were kids: our kids growing up the same ages, being close together for their whole lives. The perfect life was taking shape right before our eyes. In those first 2 1/2 months Tim and I lived in Charlotte, Kari and I had lunch together almost every day, planning the future.
Then one Saturday morning after she had spent the night at our house, her alarm kept on going off in the guest room where she had slept. With my two year old daughter on my hip, we found my sister and her baby had passed away in the middle of the night: the adult-onset epilepsy-like disorder that doctors up and down the East Coast struggled to pinpoint and treat had stopped her heart. My world was shattered, my hopes and dreams of the future instantly vanished. I remember thinking the Bible says life is but a breath, it goes so quickly. But looking at the next 50+ years without my closest person through my entire life was unbearable and seemed like anything but a breath.
10 years have passed now, all in the exact same thought and feeling. I can still remember the feeling of the last goodnight kiss and hug and “I love you” that we had in her bedroom doorway that night. We had already hugged, but something told me to go back in and tell her I loved her and give her another hug and kiss. That moment seems like both yesterday and a lifetime ago, all at the same time. We still have that sectional, that dining room set, that bunk bed … and while they from time to time contribute to the hospitality we strive to extend toward others we love, their original purpose lingers not so far off in the backs of our minds.
Plodding through the Holidays… Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Her Birthday in February and the Anniversary of her death on March 31st. Every year I try my best to put on a happy face and exude excitement for my kids’ sake. Establishing and keeping holiday traditions for our little family is so important to the memories they’re building for their lives. But there is always that tug in my mind and my heart, saying that we were supposed to be doing all this together as one big happy family. The tree decorating, the cookie baking, the shopping, and the wrapping. Visits to Santa and school Christmas shows, all surrounded by family. My kids were supposed to have cousins to grow up with and an Aunt that would come to their performances, celebrate their successes and counsel them when they felt like “they couldn’t tell Mom.” It’s a season where I cry when I’m in bed, driving the car or when the kids are at school, because even after 10 years I grieve all those moments and plans that were supposed to be.
How do you overcome the shattered dreams that come from a life cut short? One day at a time, one foot in front of the other. Prayer and remembrance, keeping her memory alive, through stories, eating foods she liked, placing seasonal arrangements at her garden where her and her baby’s bodies rest. Remembering the encouraging words she would speak to me, and the way she touched so many people’s lives. I love seeing things that my children do or say or expression that were hers – the magic of God’s genetic design preserves some little bits of her personality, her looks, her essence, and those little touches come out, turning ordinary moments into special, bittersweet gasps of treasured memories. I realize after 10 years my grief is selfish and self-indulgent, but no less real and alive. Because the grief has replaced the hopes and dreams so deeply engrained in my heart and mind. No matter how hard I try or how hard I work at this, death is something I can’t change.
The only answer I have is live a life of thankfulness for what I do have and what I did have. Cherish the people I love, knowing that tomorrow is not promised. Do my best to visit grief, cry and be sad, but don’t let myself make grief the house that I live in. Living in a house named grief not only will it not bring her back but it will block me from experiencing the goodness and the joy I do have in my life.
So this Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, I (will tell my children stories of how their skinny, beautiful, funny, loving, others-focused Aunt could take down unexpected amounts of sweet potato casserole and quietly and sweetly whoop anyone’s booty no matter what board game was being played. We will laugh and be thankful, remembering that this life is short and the people that come in and out of our lives for no matter how long or how short are a gift to be treasured.
Please share this Post with people you know who are grieving. It helps to know your not alone in grief.