2017: What This Year Has Taught Me

In just two days, six hours and some minutes, 2017 will finally be over. That is how much remains of this year at the time I begin writing this post, on a Friday evening in Michigan while my dog paces the living room, while snow falls gently outside, while I keep refreshing “Find My Friends” to see how far away from home my daughters are as their dad is currently driving them home.

In two days and six hours and some change, the ball will drop, friends will toast, and a new year will roll over… and we’ll have that fresh start that everyone seems to think is coming our way.

I don’t know if I believe in the kind of fresh starts that come with a new year. Not anymore.

Midnight will roll around and the only thing that will have changed is the calendar. For those of you who are still writing checks, you’ll have to deal with trying to get the year right. But ultimately we’re the same people living the same lives and likely making the same decisions over and over (except for the first few weeks when we all vow that this year is the year we’re going to stop eating garbage and for three quarters of January we are going to EAT SO MANY VEGETABLES, and then we’ll go back to licking the sugar out of the bottom of a bag of Frosted Flakes again, because that’s the way it goes).

I could hope that things would be better or different in the new year, but I know better. The past few years have taught me that, if nothing else. Each year, I have rejoiced while saying goodbye to the year we have just endured, and then the next year brings more of the same, if not worse. It’s as though the collective universe looks onward in January thinking, “Hold my beer…”

This is not your uplifting end of the year post. I’m sorry about that.

But for all the cynicism I feel about the new year ahead, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I have truly learned a lot this year. This year was one full of so much emotional turbulence and loss. It was filled with challenges and some triumph, and it had moments of struggle and grief.

Love is one of the most amazing things in the world, and yet by opening your heart and loving, you are vulnerable to some of the most crushing pain in the world. I’ve felt a lot of that pain this year. It’s been tough, I’m not going to lie. We are all scabby open wounds, in our family, and the pain of someone poking at these wounds is devastating. Especially when it’s your family.

Sometimes the people who are supposed to love us the most end up disappointing us. And the pain that comes from it, from harsh words or broken promises, is a spectacular hurt. When it feels like it’s so easy for those you love to lash out at you, well, sometimes you can spend a lot of time wondering what the hell is wrong with you. You’re the common denominator, right?

So. Yeah. I’ve spent a lot of time this year wondering what’s the matter with me.

In 2017, my brother died and I found out that mine was not a family that rallied around each other when times were tough. Some of us did, some of us didn’t. I found that the friends I thought would be there, weren’t really. I had no idea when I was raising my middle finger to 2016 last December just what the year ahead had in store.

I mean, I guess we never know. It’s why I hesitate to get too optimistic about 2018. I mean, I’m still me, you’re all still you, and all we have is our brief intention to do better, at least for a little while.

What I can say is this: the lesson I have found to be most prevalent in my life this year is a simple one. In short: Your words matter. What you say matters, what you don’t say matters. How you say it, why you say it, why you don’t say it, when you say it. All of that matters in large ways and more than any of us can truly comprehend.

We choke down negative feelings and don’t air our complaints until they burst out of us sideways, taking along innocent bystanders in the process. We fail to reach out when someone is grieving because we don’t have the words to say. We recoil when someone is hurt because hurt is messy and their sadness feels like blame.

When my heart was hurting most, I know who was there for me and who wasn’t. I remember who reached out to me, and who was absent. I had no idea until this year how truly impactful it was to tell a grieving friend, “I am so sorry” or even “I really wish I knew the right words to say, but I don’t have the words and this is really just so awful.” Too many people waited for the right words to come, and said nothing. Their absence was palpable. I didn’t need solutions. There was no way anything could be fixed. All I needed was for the words that beneath their surface said to me: I hear you, I see you, and I know I can’t make this right but I’m sorry.

The day before my brother’s funeral, a family member told me they’d been upset with me. His plan had been to resolve it before the year was over. At that point, he’d been hanging on to that festering feeling for months. What you say, when you say it, and why you say it matter. How many more months would have gone by? Years? Who knows.

This year has been a heaping pile of suck in so many ways, but I am grateful to have learned the lesson that showing up matters. I wish I hadn’t had to learn it the hard way, and I wish that it hadn’t come with the revelation that I hadn’t been a great friend in the past when they had experienced grief, loss, or strife. I know there were times I said nothing thinking my silence would not be noticed. There were times I didn’t do anything because I didn’t know what I could possibly do that could make an impact. I know now: I can’t fix it, I can’t erase hurt, but I can be a person who shows up, who offers kindness and an embrace, who hears you and sees you and acknowledges your pain.

Empathy. As we say in my house, it’s not a flower that blooms in everyone’s garden. That we truly discovered this year. And at least my daughters and I are a tiny bit wiser in having learned that lesson. I guess we have 2017 to thank for that.

This year has been hard. And if I’m being honest, I’m sure 2018 will have its challenges as well. I am far too cynical to get optimistic about it, and I hate that about myself right now. I’d like to have a clean slate and a happy heart and march forward into January with optimism. But y’all know me, that’s NOT how this mom is wired, after all.

I feel like it’s a shameful thing I’ve just done, written over 1200 grim words without mentioning any of the joy of the year, or that I am loved, or detailed the high moments. I hope that you will forgive me that. I am not unaware of the things that are good. Please trust that I know it, I see it, and I feel it.

We are now two days, five hours and some minutes away from a new year. What does 2018 hold? We’ll find out soon enough, I guess.


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.



Day Ten: Oh This Day. Oh This Year.

071 | 365

A year ago today. He had his stroke a year ago today. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital from there it was the hospital, rehab, nursing home… he never really went home again.

I had a feeling things would hit me hard this month – because it happened last year when I was in the midst of writing daily – and the hopes I had had for being uplifting and entertaining went out the window and instead it was sadness and stress.

I was in his home on Thursday, picking up a dresser for my girls (they just don’t make dressers like they used to, you know? Those cardboard bottom drawers never last). On his wall was a card I had given him for Fathers Day. In 1989. He’d hung it on the wall, framed, for all of those years. And it ripped the wound open again.

I can’t think of anyone in my life who has been as unconditionally supportive as he was. He had a faith in me that I didn’t, and don’t, have and I miss hearing him tell me stories about my first job out of college, how he knew I could do it. I miss him mispronouncing Pumpkin’s name. I miss him bragging about The Princess. I miss him telling me how beautiful my family is.

He believed in the magic properties of duct tape and he believed in always having an answer to the question even if he had no idea what the hell the correct answer should be.

He was one of the good ones.

As if that wasn’t enough.

Today is also the day my former stepson turns 18. Right, wrong or indifferent, a lot of stepparents have that 18th birthday in their heads as a milestone, particularly those in high conflict situations. Eighteen marked the time when the drama would stop – if not then, soon after upon high school graduation. I spent a lot of years with my eye on this date.

And now it means nothing really.

It’s a strange thing. He was a difficult child. He had a lot of problems, one of them being his mother. I have no idea what he will become or what his life will be like and I hope that he’s able to find health and well being and peace. He’s still my daughters’ brother, you know.

It would have been a milestone day, and it’s not, and it strikes me as odd how it feels when you stop waiting for something and then it arrives.

I will spend part of this morning in my grandparents’ house. My cousin will be living in the house and she and her mom are getting rid of a lot of things. Coffee pots, throw rugs. His clothes. The basement shelves are lined with books; I don’t know where those all will go or how and I am sort of grateful that that task falls to someone else because I have no desire to haul the hundreds of books up the stairs.

We saw something in the basement the other day, a piece of furniture long forgotten. One no one had claimed. One that would have been discarded without a thought.

But it will look nice in Chris’s house. And I’m happy it will go there. Maybe he’ll be able to clean it up, spruce it up. It makes me smile that this table that would have been tossed away will instead be somewhere where I’ll see it.

I’m not looking forward to being in the house again. The more things they throw away, the less the house is what it was. And what it was might not have been befitting a spread in any issue of HGTV, but it was theirs – my grandparents’. It was who they were and the life they led. It was four children in a small house with fake paneled walls and a kitchen painted the color of the sun.

There’s a part of the living room wall that needs to be repaired – my grandpa’s swivel chair rubbed a gouge in that spot and now there’s a hole that is going to need something better than spackle.

They’ll patch up the wall. They’ll carry the books out. They’ll paint the walls. It will be like they were never there.

And I hate that. I know I’ll never go back again because I don’t think I can bear to see it stop being what it was anymore than it already has.

So, uh, Sunday. Emotional Sunday. That’s a thing, right?

On Goodbyes and Hearts Full of Sad

it's 20/20

Sunday morning, we sat at my grandpa’s bedside and we sang happy birthday to him. We sang softly. There was no cake, no ice cream. There was no joyful exuberance, except (oh bless her) The Princess when we finished singing, who added some lightness by starting in with the, “Are ya one? Are ya two? Are ya three?”

We didn’t let her get to 87, but it made us smile.

We’d been preparing ourselves since last Wednesday when hospice said they didn’t think he would make it until his birthday – and then the morning of his birthday we were told, “This is it. Gather around. Say your goodbyes.”

There were so many tears that day.

We’d had a lot of negativity over the weekend, bickering, family fighting – he said, she said. I guess that’s normal in times of stress. I hadn’t expected it. I thought we’d all pull together, stay together and not resort to pettiness. Except, that’s just what people do.

Sunday, though, we cried together. We wrapped each other in tight hugs. We came into and out of his room as we needed – sadness gets overwhelming, as does the need for air and sunlight to remind you that yes, it’s a circle and there’s a world that is going on, even when it feels like your life is on pause.

I said goodbye, kissed him, knowing it would be the last time I saw him.

And it broke my heart to walk out that door.

And then he hung on and it was Monday. I should be there, I thought. But I knew I couldn’t bear saying goodbye again. And what if he lived through another day? I’d say goodbye again? And again? I felt I should, but I also didn’t know if I could.

I didn’t.

He died Monday evening. My mom, my aunts and uncles had gone home. It was just my grandmother and some nurses.

He died like he lived – he dug his heels in and got stubborn, refusing to give up. And his strong heart held on as long as it could.

354 | 365

I am glad that he’s no longer suffering and that he’s not in pain. I guess it was far too easy to believe for too long that he was invincible, that he wouldn’t be here forever. It hasn’t even been 48 hours and there’s a hole in the world where he belongs. I’m doing my best to fill it with memories, but I’d rather he were still here.

He was such a loving man and I am comforted by the knowledge that he loved me, he loved my children. I don’t wonder at all how he felt because he told me every time he saw me. I don’t have to wonder if he was proud of my kids because complete strangers would walk into his room last week, and they’d know me by my daughters (he often described my kids as “the gymnast” and “the funny one”). And every time I’d leave he’d tell me, “That’s a beautiful family you have there, Sarah.”

Grief is a strange thing – because it seems like you anticipate it, you know you’re going to be sad, you know you’re going to miss someone, but you don’t really expect that you’ll start crying driving down the highway because a line in a song – a song you never heard with the person who’s gone, a song that’s not even in any way associated with that person – hits you in just the “right” way and sets you off.

Life will go on because he’d have wanted it to.

I find that even though I don’t really know what my beliefs are, it brings me great comfort to imagine him sitting somewhere, watching over me. I imagine he’ll soon exert some pull and fix the things that need fixing (some heavenly duct tape on the parts of my life that need patching). And maybe it’s ridiculous to think so, but it brings a smile to my face, so I’ll take it.

He will be missed. He will be so missed. He already is.