On November 6th it will be one year ago since my big brother, Gene, died. This past year has been one of the most amazing years of my life. With my brother’s death I lost my past. My entire family vanished with his passing.
This past year has had two parallel tracks. One has been an unparalleled grief in my life. It has been lonely and overwhelming many times. The second track has been an unparalleled experience of the mercy and comfort of God. I’ve experienced God in a deep fathering and mothering way.
I want to share with you some of the things I’ve learned on unexpected and unwanted path. I think you will find some of these helpful in relating to our friends’ losses and anyone in particular who suffers. I offer this in humility with my desire and prayer to be a blessing to you and your ministry.
I learned in those first moments that nothing can prepare us for the shock of losing someone you deeply love and who lives in the fabric of your life. It is a painful tearing with accompanying shock. In those moments you learn to receive from others. The simple gestures of phone calls, cards, and flowers are like taking medicine to keep you alive.
Early on there were three gestures that came in the form of material gifts that God used all year long to steady me and comfort me.
My friend Jody Strathman, in Colorado, sent me the most beautiful card with artwork from a young friend who drew it just before she died in a car accident. It was three hands working to repair a broken and bleeding heart. Three hands represent the Trinity who lovingly and steadily work to do emergency surgery on our ruptured, injured hearts. In the card, Jody wrote the most beautiful and tender encouragement to grieve and let God love me. Jody was like a nurse helping me to know the way to heal. Thank you dearest Jody! ♥
My dear friend of many years, Donna Hatasaki, took me out to lunch telling me that she wants to hear everything and just listen. Donna is one of the greatest listeners I know in my life. Nothing has been more important to me than someone willing to listen over and over again. The shock of grief demands a retelling of the story to emerge into the reality of what has happened and eventual acceptance that does not have a time limit on it.
Donna lovingly listened. Then she gave me a beautiful gift that I will forever cherish and always remember my brother by. It was a gorgeous, ornate, white heart Christmas ornament. Donna told me it was for the healing of my broken heart and to remind me that God has healed my brother’s heart. I looked at it all Christmas and what Donna said was true. It was healing for my heart and comfort to know God has my brother’s heart.
After Christmas I could not put it away. I asked God what to do and then my eyes landed on an 8x10 photo of my birth mother when she was 18 years old. She was carrying me in her womb at the time of the picture. Gene and I are adopted from two different families. I found my mother but he, painfully, never found his. I hung the beautiful ornament on the top left corner of the photo saying, “Gene, I give my mother to you to be your mother.” It is by my bedside and I look at it every night knowing God has healed Gene’s mother wound. Thank you, Donna, for giving me something so tangible that has lasted all year.
Then my wonderful 17-year-old, artist son, Zack, gave me something that also has been a daily source of healing. He fashioned and painted a small clay lighthouse with a sign on the front that says, “Gene’s”. That it came from one of my precious sons at Christmas and symbolized light in darkness blessed me to the deepest core of my spirit. I have it in front of my favorite picture of Gene and me. Thank you, beloved Zack.
These gifts taught me the power of a gift in the form of a tangible object associated with the one you lose. It is just a symbol that God can powerfully use especially when you fall deep into the pit of despair.
From the beginning, my lovely Susie has walked with me. Our grief affects all those who love us and especially those closest to us. Susie has been faithful though I know many times it was hard for her. I know she needed grief relief. The comfort we give is not just to the one who has lost but to those closest to that person. Thank you, Susie, for coming alongside me and staying like the Holy Spirit does.
I learned that within a few weeks most everyone forgets about your loss, but it is just getting started for you and the roughest days are still ahead. I foresaw this and early on made an important decision. I decided that I would not hold anyone under resentment who was not present for me in my grief, realizing for various reasons that they were unable to be there. I would accept from God which comforters He decided to send me. There are people you expect to draw near you that don’t and people you never would have expected who do.
One of those was my dear friend, Jen, who lives many states removed from me. Jen is truly the angel God sent me. Phone calls, texts, cards, and emails nearly every week. She made me feel free to call her anytime. She listened, and listened, and listened some more. She never showed impatience. It was as if I had a broken leg healing and she walked alongside me letting me lean on her for support. I felt her support every day though we never had a personal time together. Thank you, Jen, for the gift you gave in friendship that I can never repay.
Then there was Shelley and Kristie, my ministry mates, who I see daily. They constantly drew me out when I wanted to withdraw. That is one of the greatest dangers of grief. But Shelley and Kristie wouldn’t let me do it. At times I felt like a club kid against the wall who didn’t want to play the game. Then Shelley and Kristie would pull me into the game for my own good.
My friend, Lydia, lost her sister 11 years ago. When I began to sink beyond the grief into self pity she, like Shelley and Kristie, would not let me. She disciplined my thinking onto Jesus with my grief to find His peace.
Yet, even with a small circle of wonderful friends it was a journey I have had to travel with God alone. I was thrust into the arms of God in mercy and grace. And did God ever show up! There have been countless visitations from God to encourage me, comfort me, and hold me up. I have learned that when we free fall, He really does catch us. I have learned as I draw close to Him how intimate He is with me. I have experienced His wooing and drawing me to Himself like the lover in the Song of Solomon. I have experienced His specific reassurance that my family is not lost to Him but He holds them in His heart. He has consoled me to know that our little story of a small, poor Italian immigrant family, living together on a farm is all a part of His larger story and is one of the millions of God’s chapters in His book of life!
I have learned that good memories can begin to emerge that start to overshadow the grief. Yet, my loved one will never be forgotten. There will be a sadness that cannot fully be healed until heaven. And yet this simply deepens the experience of life and character. For me I feel a greater urgency to love the people God has placed in my life and tell them so. I realize life is fragile and someone you love can be taken at any time. So I must be attentive to these relationships and savor them. I cannot let my “to do” list take priority over my “to be” list. My list of who I am to be present to with encouragement and attentiveness. I am taking more intense joy and gratitude at leaves falling silently in wonder this fall, in a hot cup of black coffee while sharing my life with a friend, in a family dinner, and in a card received or given. Pain is making me more sensitive to the gentle prompting of the Holy Spirit.
I have had to remind myself that grief is different for everyone. My grief is unique as well as how long it takes; a fact I want to carry for the rest of my life when someone in my life loses someone. There is no one size fits all. Like Jen has been to me I want to be present, patient, sensitive, and listening to the friend who has lost someone; and to the Holy Spirit’s prompting about how to help.
One morning a couple of months after Gene’s death I had coffee and conversation with Amira. Amira and I love books, movies, coffee, and conversation. We are such dear friends. She said, “I don’t know how to ask this or if I should but how are you doing with your brother’s death?” I know Amira was concerned she would cause me pain, but it is the opposite. I told her that it meant so much to me that she asked. It freed me to talk and reminded me that I am not alone. When someone is in grief I encourage you to ask how they are. Many people don’t know what to say so they pretend like nothing has happened. That’s what makes the pain worse.
I have learned to grieve but not as those without hope as Paul says in Thessalonians. What an unsurpassable gift we have as Christians. We have real rock solid hope of eternal life. I know for a fact that I am going to reunite with my brother, father, and mother in a joyous reunion. My precious friend, Lydia, and I take a prayer walk every Wednesday. Our relatives are buried in two different cemeteries across the street from each other. We regularly go to each on our walks, talk to our loved ones while praying, and remind ourselves we have the hope of Christ and will reunite soon. The early Christians met in cemeteries and rehearsed this certain hope of unspeakable joy.
I have learned that God, rich in mercy, fills the holes in our lives. This year God has so gently and intimately spoken to me this: “I am God your Father and I am your Father in the loss of your father. I am Holy Spirit and I am mother to you in the loss of your mother. I am Jesus and I am your big brother in the loss of your brother. I am your holy family in which you belong.
There is so much more but I better stop here. Friends, go to our club kids. Go with mercy, comfort, and grace being slow to speak, slow to anger, and quick to listen! Let the Holy Spirit make you a gracious, ever-present comforter to our friends!
In His abundant mercies,