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The Hardest Day After

This is such a difficult time of year for my family. The last couple of days have been cool, cloudy and rainy, just like that first week after our tragedy. I think it rained nearly everyday between our son’s death and his visitation and funeral, making an indelible impression on our brains, causing us to always relate this kind of weather to that kind of pain.

I find, though, that I am more in control of my emotions than in previous years, recognizing the oncoming feelings by acknowledging and naming them, and consequently managing them better than the past almost 6 years.

And how can it possibly be almost 6 years since my middle son passed away? How can it be?

I’ve not written much for the past few weeks as I’ve been reflecting, sorting and feeling the feelings, trying to figure out where I am in regards to this journey of grief, where I want to be (whether that matters or not), and where I am headed. This weather, though……it messes with my head. It puts me back into places I’d like to ignore, though that is not always an option. And when I try to ignore these memories and feelings, I then plunge into guilt for wanting to ignore something that has to do with one of my children. It can turn into a vicious cycle of sadness, rejection of sadness, guilt for rejecting the sadness, rinse and repeat……and repeat again, before I’m hung out to dry!

Interestingly enough, I’ve found my thoughts turning to a day I’ve not been able to write about in the past almost-6 years, as it has felt like the hardest day I experienced after a week of the hardest days of my life. I think, possibly, it feels now like the hardest day precisely because I didn’t write about it. Writing flushes me out! It is the best way for me to express the feelings that build up inside me, threatening to cause my chest to explode, and helps me see what exactly I’m feeling.

But that one day.

I hate it.

I hated it at the time, and I hate it still.

It still simmers in the back of my thoughts, bullying me into running from it. But it was just a day; a chore that had to be taken care of; a “last”, yes, but there have actually been many. And I still have a couple to do, though that is for another day.

The last text messages I have from my middle son involved food……..of course. I was checking in on him, knowing he’d been having difficulties with his finances and making sure he had enough food to make it through until he got paid again. The conversation I had with him before these texts is one of my most cherished, though all of them are cherished. I had invited all our kiddos over for dinner in a group text, and my middle son responded to the invitation with a phone call, telling me he didn’t have enough gas to make it to our house and back to his, and he didn’t have enough money to get gas. Heavy sigh. I think the poor (no pun intended) kid was just mortified with himself, and he really wanted to come to dinner. So I told him I’d give him money when he got here, and made him promise he wouldn’t wait until he was in dire straits to tell me about his situation again.

Well, the day of our family dinner came, and all the kids showed up and we had a wonderful time. After dinner, we were all sitting on the front porch visiting with each other when my middle son asked if he could talk with me in private. UGH! What had I done or said now?!?! I can still see him shifting back and forth on his feet, waiting for me to get up and follow him into the house, embarrassed that he had to ask me yet again for money, because, as usual, I’d forgotten. I sometimes think the stress of raising and homeschooling 5 children in 5 different grades for 23 years caused my brain to be so overloaded that I can’t keep another single thought in my head for very long! But I remembered as he was telling me his situation (again) and gave him more cash than he had asked for, because that is what parent’s do, and he left for home.

A few days later I texted him and asked him if he had enough food to get through the week. He gave me one of those “yes, no, maybe, I don’t know” answers, so I told him I was headed his way and could stop and pick some things up for him. He told me lunch meat and cheese would really help. I stopped and got them for him and took them to his apartment, visited with him for a few minutes, then went back home.

I can tell you precisely where I was on the highway when I heard my phone beep and glanced at it, seeing my middle son had texted me “lunch meat and cheese” that day. If you’ve been through a tragedy and lost someone so precious to you it feels like your leg was brutally torn off at the hip without anesthesia, you’ll know why this text conversation means so much to me.

Fast-forward a couple of weeks, and tragedy hit with a force I didn’t know existed. And many horrendous, terrible, gut-wrenching things happened after the tragedy, all bringing with them the need to remember and not forget them.

Three weeks after our son passed away, I mentioned to my husband and kids that we probably needed to clean out his apartment. I remember my oldest son, best friends with his younger brother, saying, in a slightly elevated voice, “Why? There’s no rush. I talked to the apartment manager and he said to take our time.” I heard the same desperation in his voice that I felt in my own heart. A desperation to not change anything, because surely he will come back and he will want his things to be just like he left them. I know “professionals” would call this “denial”, but I think “disbelief” and “desperation” are more fitting words to describe this level of shock. We just knew it couldn’t be true. We saw his body. We planned a funeral. We had a visitation – one of the most horrible things I’ve ever had to do in my entire life. And we left him in a casket at the cemetery, while we went back to the church and ate a meal. Yet 3 weeks later we still wanted to leave his apartment just like he left it, just in case none of that was real; just in case our eyes and ears had deceived us and things would go back to how they were.

It’s an incredibly mind-boggling experience. It was that way for most of the first 4 years after. It is sometimes still rather disconcerting. This past July 4th, my oldest son was in my husband’s garage standing a certain way with his head cocked a certain way and when I glanced at him it took my breath away. He looked just like my middle son, and the longing in my heart burst forth with a vengeance that left me in tears. My youngest son’s laugh is so much like his that I’m lost in memories accompanied by longing every time I hear it.

But remembering that day we cleaned out his apartment still makes my heart ache. We all met at his apartment mid-morning and everyone but our youngest daughter and I were there when we got there. The door was open and I could smell its unique scent as I approached. I could hear sniffling and quiet voices as I crossed the threshold. I saw that look of bewilderment that had become all-too-familiar in the past 3 weeks, on my children’s faces. How could this have happened? And how are we going to live through it?

We set about cleaning things out of his living room, closet, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom, with my oldest daughter, the “hop-to-it” girl, attacking the mounds of papers in his hall closet. I went to his bedroom, stood for a few seconds, then fell face first onto his bed, inhaling the scent of him I knew I’d miss for the rest of my life. My oldest son was in the kitchen, cleaning out the refrigerator when we all heard him let out a chuckle, so we all gravitated to the kitchen, and there he was with the refrigerator door open, staring at several 1/2 gallon containers of milk, each with just a little bit in the bottom of them, bearing expired dates on the outside. Instead of dumping the milk out, our missing son and brother simply slid the new container in, pushing the expired to the back. It was such a precious moment, remembering the man we all knew and loved so well.

As everyone quietly chuckled, I moved closer to the refrigerator, bent down so I could better see into it, and was struck by the contrast in our lives in just 4 short weeks. I’d bought him the containers of lunch meat and cheese I saw sitting on the top shelf of his refrigerator just a few weeks prior. I’d visited with my living, breathing, hungry and poor son just weeks previous. Here we were cleaning out his apartment so it could be leased to another tenant. It seemed shockingly cruel, the blow our family had been dealt.

It was my hardest day after the other hardest days…..and before all the hard days since.

But….And there is always a But…..

This morning I came across an explanation of the verse in Psalm 23 that says “He anoints my head with oil”, and decided to read the 23rd Psalm, even though I pretty much know it by heart. Sometimes, re-reading a familiar verse reveals new insights that bring a much-needed refreshing. And so it was this morning. I leave you with my “but for God….”.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.”

He is always with us. He never leaves us or forsakes us, even in the valley of the shadow of death.

“Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the dawn, If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, Even there Your hand will lead me, And Your right hand will lay hold of me. “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will overwhelm me, And the light around me will be night, ‘Even the darkness is not dark to You, And the night is as bright as the day…” (Psalm 139)

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