Life Lessons Learned in Grief, Part 2

I have been to two memorial services in three days and I have spent far more time in churches this week than I have all year… probably. And yes, two memorial services for my brother – so if you can imagine the feeling of repeatedly scraping off the scab of a new wound with a cheese grater, that’s pretty much what it’s been like.

And it’s worse because of the previously mentioned terrible things people have done in the name of “honoring” my brother.

I can’t pretend to understand – because while I am conflict avoidant to the core, I am also a believer in doing what’s right. I fail sometimes, I know that… but at my core, I genuinely don’t want to be a screw up. I don’t want to hurt people. I don’t want to be vindictive and awful. I feel like I saw so much of that dark side of people. And what’s worse, I think some absolutely didn’t know or realize the level to which they were sinking. The older I get, the less of a screw up I become. Can’t say that’s true for everyone. Apparently.

So, here are some more life lessons for you – the general you – based on the clusterflugel of the past two weeks:

Sometimes there’s no substitute for an actual CONVERSATION

Yeah, I get it – I rarely use my iPhone as an actual phone and will avoid it if at all possible… but there are some discussions too big for text. Text doesn’t always convey tone, intent, or meaning — and there’s a lot of room for misunderstanding if you’re not careful. Sometimes it’s essential to pick up the phone and DISCUSS things instead of blurbing at one another.

You go off making unilateral decisions that impact people and YES they’re gonna be pissed

Again. Discussions. Discussions. Discussions. Some of the biggest moments of anger came from one person making decisions that impacted all of us. There was no need for that. Had people come together, had conversations, the likelihood of that happening would have been smaller. There were moments of near rage because of things like this. I had thought families would come together when times were tough – and I found that nope, that’s not always true.

Speeches scrawled on a legal pad at midnight are just as meaningful

I wanted to write my speech for the service far earlier than I did. I had a draft in my documents for days. Literally, I just MEANT to do it… and then it was midnight last night. I literally scrawled my speech while drinking bad wine and eating Cool Ranch Doritos. I could barely read my writing today – my hands were sweaty and my nose was running. I didn’t make it through without crying – but every word came right from my heart… even if it wasn’t the best thing I’ve ever written. I wrote love.

I need to just show up

I have done friendship all wrong. I really have. I can name a zillion times when a friend was likely grieving and I wasn’t there for them in a way that would have been useful to them. And I’m so sorry for that, because I just had no idea what a difference it truly makes when people just show up and do the thing. What thing? Whatever thing you have to give. It doesn’t have to be big, it really doesn’t. My sister’s sister-in-law helped us a ton putting together photo boards – even running to get more prints made when we couldn’t get to a store. That was huge, it was helpful, and it made life easier. She didn’t ask what we needed – she was just there.

Ban the words “Let me know if there’s anything I can do” from your vocabulary

I’ve said it before because I haven’t known what to say but odds are, no one will ask you for anything because they don’t really know what the heck they need. My brain has been swiss cheese for a week. I couldn’t tell you what could be done to help – I truly had no idea. Still don’t.

Grief Pizza is a thing

Because you can’t just drink away your sorrows, sometimes you can drown them in pizza.

Get together and celebrate when something good happens

We’ve had three deaths in my family within the last six months. I’m not even kidding – it’s been rough. I’ve seen my family A LOT. At funerals. I want to see them when there’s something joyful going on. We all talked today at the luncheon after the service: we have GOT to plan something and soon. Otherwise, too much time will go by, and we’ll be there again… coming together under less than joyous circumstances. And that stinks.

I don’t like sandwiches on hamburger buns

Who thought that was a good idea?

It was a beautiful celebration today, even though it was sad too. But the past two weeks have been so hard. I’m so tired. I’m… still just perplexed by some of the things people said, did… I don’t know that I’ll ever understand, really. Maybe I should stop trying to.

Life Lessons Learned in Grief – Part 1, Probably

It’s been just over a week since I learned that my brother died. My mom called me at work last Tuesday morning and when I didn’t answer, she texted a panicked message and so I ducked out of my office into the hallway to call her back.

“Come home,” she sobbed into the phone. And so I went, grabbing my computer, piles of work, and stopping by my coworker’s desk to quickly prep him for a conference call he would have to do without me shortly after that.

My mind was racing as I drove. And when my sister responded to a text, I knew that she was fine. In my heart, I knew then that it was my brother.

He died in his sleep, they say.

I am not new to loss. My grandfather died several years ago and it was a tremendous gut punch. I was in the hospital room with my family when my grandmother died just over a year ago. My mom lost both of her brothers earlier this year. Death has been a familiar road for my family in recent years, but this has been so different.

He was two years older than me, so he’s been around all my life. When you sort through the pictures from those first few years, we were inseparable.

I am not sure how old we were when I realized he was different. He was in the hospital quite a lot when we were kids. I remember one year I was in a school spelling bee – and none of my family came. My mom had been at the hospital with my brother, and then later when she took my sister to the pharmacy to run an errand, my sister had a seizure in the store and then she went to a different hospital. I think our next door neighbor was called to pick me up and take me home.

I got second place in that spelling bee, by the way. (I would later bomb miserably by misspelling “skittish” at the Contra Costa County Spelling Bee.)

But for my whole life, I have been his sister. And now he is gone. In recent years, his health issues have been so severe that there were times we were afraid of what might come – and then he healed. He was back to his normal self. He was fine.

That didn’t happen this time. Out of nowhere, it seems. He’s just gone. We didn’t get to say goodbye.

So here’s what I have learned so far:

Grief makes people stupid.

A lot of people can’t handle grief. It turns them into insufferable humans. Oddly, I didn’t know that until this week. So many people have said to me, “Grief brings out the worst in people” and enough people have said it that it must truly be a universal thing… so I’ve gotta say: If you’re one of those people who handles your feelings by lashing out at other people and making life miserable, well then perhaps you may need to learn a thing or two about how to appropriately handle your emotions.

It’s funny, because I’m a total mess – but I’m never not just totally feeling what I’m feeling. If I’m sad, I’m sad. I get the impression that people get so scared of sadness that in order to avoid it, they kick things into jerkface mode. I’m seeing enough of it right now, and I’m bearing the brunt of it in a lot of ways… and it’s exhausting.

Your sadness doesn’t override the need to still be a semi-human-being. (And if you’re going to be a jerk, take it out on someone else, because I’m all stocked up here…)

Empathy is not a flower that blooms in everyone’s garden

I have been beyond grateful for every expression of kindness and sympathy that has been shared with me. Even when someone has no words, hearing them say, “I have no words,” means so much. Even an “I’m so sorry” goes a long way. I have appreciated every gesture, and have been surprised by the goodness of people. And yet… my daughter tried to talk to a friend about it, and got shut down every time. I was recently around someone who likely read about my brother’s passing – but she never said a word.

I firmly believe Emily McDowell’s “There’s No Good Card For This” should be required reading for all humans. Trust me. Go buy it.

The world has to keep turning

This is somehow the biggest insult of all – that the world doesn’t stop turning. I was listening to a podcast on the drive to work this morning that essentially said, someone dies and you still need to get toilet paper. I feel guiltiest about the real life moments, I do. Tonight, I worked on a presentation for work about content marketing and storytelling after vacuuming my living room and while my daughters gave the dog a bath. This week I made dinner. I folded clothes. (Okay, I meant to fold clothes, but mostly I just sat on the floor surrounded by clothes and thought about folding them) There is this part of me that is horrified by this, that his life was unfairly cut short, and I should still be surrounded by socks in the midst of a September heat wave.

Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion

Yeah. A Steel Magnolias quote. I was leaning against the counter the other night listening to Ingrid Michaelson’s “Old Days” (heaven help the ones who fly away…). And then had a memory of my brother breakdancing. Doing the centipede, and twirling on his back on a piece of cardboard. I started laughing, remembering how we’d watch all of those breakdancing movies (I still reference “Electric Boogaloo” – a lot). If I don’t laugh, I’ll cry… and sometimes the crying gets to be too much.

Kindness isn’t always easy but it feels better than anger

I have been angry this past week. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so consistently angry for so long. And I hate it. When I’m dwelling in anger, I’m not honoring the memory of my brother and that is so terrible to think of – that I’m upset with people for being terrible grief vampires, and that is taking away from remembering my brother and mourning him as he deserves.

People have been terrible. I’ve seen behavior so despicable that I’d swear that it was not real life but a badly scripted movie… but no, it’s real.

I’ve been trying so hard in those moments to focus on kindness. To focus on light. To embrace the memory and to make a difference.

No, sometimes it’s pretty damn hard. But each kindness shared with me gives me a few moments of peace – and that feels better than rage.

I have no idea what’s next, really. There are funerals this weekend and Monday. My mom has picked up his ashes. We’ve received the cause of death from the medical examiner.

This world feels different. Am I still his little sister even if he’s not here? How does that work? Does it get easier? Do people return to who they were before the grief turned them into hateful people, and if they do, will I be able to forgive the hurt I am in right now?

I don’t know.

I really just. don’t. know.



On Having to Say Goodbye: Reading about death and dying

I’ve been reading quite a lot about death and dying today and if that sounds absolutely morbid to you, well, believe me, every time I enter a new search term in Google, I cringe a little also.

How to talk to children about dying, I type.

I find these articles, articles that tell me to be honest with my children and brief, but to answer all of their questions. Don’t say that dying is like the body going to sleep forever. What you say about after dying depends on what you believe.

The articles say that parents often avoid talking to their children about death – ostensibly to “protect the children” but in reality, it’s a method of avoiding. Let’s not talk about the difficult things. If we ignore it, it will go away. If we don’t talk about it then can it really be happening?

My family met with hospice yesterday.

“I thought about all of the things that everyone ever says to each other, and how everyone is going to die, whether it’s in a millisecond, or days, or months, or 76.5 years, if you were just born. Everything that’s born has to die, which means our lives are like skyscrapers. The smoke rises at different speeds, but they’re all on fire, and we’re all trapped.”

– Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

The thing is… no one is saying that this is it. They’re not saying it’s days or weeks. In the hours that have passed since my mother called me with the news, I have been told numerous times that there are people who have had hospice care for years even. While I’m not naive to believe that that would be the case here, it has helped me find peace to know that there’s still time.


While there’s still time, it’s important to make the most of that time, to take none of it for granted and to make sure my grandfather knows just how very loved he is, has always been, and how much better he has made my world.

My dad said to me on the phone yesterday, “Sarah, death is a part of life,” and I was angry at this statement. Though realistic, and though it’s true, the expression of this truth felt like he was crushing me, and ant beneath the heel of a boot. While I know he’s right, and while I know the statement wasn’t intended to hurt, it did.

That my grandfather is dying is devastating to me. Yes, it’s a part of that whole circle thing – but it’s the part that sucks for those of us who will be left behind.

“Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it nor fear of it in his mind. But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill. Living was a hawk in the sky. Living was an earthen jar of water in the dust of the threshing with the grain flailed out and the chaff blowing. Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond.”
– Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

He has made his peace and he has lived an amazing life and he has loved and he is loving and we have loved and we are loving and I don’t know how my world will ever be the same.

When I was younger I remember standing in my front yard and the air was cool with a strong breeze, the clouds pushed through the sky by the wind. “The world must be spinning very fast today,” my mom said, and I laughed at her.

“It’s not the earth, mom, it’s the wind!” I replied.

“My dad always told me that it was because the world was spinning really fast.”

And it’s just like him to have said such a thing, and mom will tell you now that she never really believed that, but at the heart of it all, he’s a kind soul, with a light heart, and a goofy sense of humor.

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“I’m in good with the man upstairs,” he told my sister during one of his hospital stays this past fall. Deeply rooted in his faith, I don’t doubt that he’s found his peace and he has comfort in what may be waiting for him – that perhaps to him this is not an ending, but a new beginning.

I’ve, uh… never been good at the faith thing – but I hope that his beliefs bring him hope and comfort.

“In the external scheme of things, shining moments are as brief as the twinkling of an eye, yet such twinklings are what eternity is made of – moments when we as human beings can say “I love you,” “I’m proud of you,” “I forgive you,” “I’m grateful for you.” That’s what eternity is made of: invisible imperishable good stuff.”
-Mister Rogers

Over the past 24 hours, I have thought to myself, how truly blessed I am to know while I still have the opportunity to tell him, how much I love him, how he has made a difference to me. How I’m grateful for every little moment – and every not so little moment – and I still get to tell him. He’s still here. Not everyone is that lucky.

As for what I’ll tell my children, I still don’t entirely know. I suppose I’ll tell them that great grandpa is old, and that bodies are similar to machines and to toys in that sometimes when they get older, things start going wrong, they don’t always work so well anymore. And sometimes, like that time when we were able to sew that stuffed animal back together, people and toys can be fixed. And sometimes they cannot. That we’ll be spending more time with my grandpa, their great grandpa, while we can. I’ll tell them stories about how when I was a kid, he always had candy for me like he always has for them now. How he told their grandmother that the world was spinning very fast. That he always kept pretzel rods and red Koolaid in the house. That when I was a kid and he’d call on the phone, we raced to see who could say “GOTCHA!” to the other first. That I’m sad because I love him, but that even when someone dies, we don’t forget them and that we get to keep the memories. That he’s still the same person, and there’s nothing to be scared of. And how he calls The Princess the smart gymnast and Pumpkin is the funny one and how much he loves them. I’ll let The Princess do handstands in the nursing home so he can see her and brag about her to the other residents. And when Pumpkin hides under a chair to be funny, I’ll let her because he thinks it’s funny too.

This part of parenting is hard.These things, these big heavy things that they’ll learn about from me and from life. I don’t want to be scared of these big things, because I don’t want them to fear them either.

This isn’t easy.

This is all just really really awful.

But I love him. I don’t want him to hurt.And I don’t get a choice in what happens, only what I do with the time we have left.

And so I will make it count.