growing up with grief

My older brother died twenty-five years ago today.

I was ten years old. I grew up with grief.

All week I expected that today would hit hard. When someone you love has been gone a long time, you get used to the strange, unpredictable nature of anniversaries. Sometimes another year passes by without great sorrow; instead there is gratitude for the good of life. Some days wallop without reason, bringing anger or anguish, tearing open wounds you thought had long scarred over.

I expected the worst this year. Twenty-five is a looming anniversary after all, too many years to wrap your arms around and carry anywhere without crying out in pain.

And I am still thick in the throes of grief from the death of my daughters. A half-step closer to my own heart than the death of a sibling. They are flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone. Their absence gnaws at the fiber of my cells.

But this morning I woke with a quieter peace.

Not acceptance at death or resignation at suffering. No.

When I opened my eyes today, I remembered that I grew up with grief. It is not a foreign body that invaded when my twins died. It took shape inside of me when I was on the brink of becoming a teenager.

It formed the core of who I am.

For 25 years I have been mourning the death of my brother. Grief has walked with me in making a good, grateful, God-seeking life. It taught me that sorrow shapes joy and suffering defines hope.

If Jay had not died, I would not be the person I am today. 

So I have to hold these tensions together: the longing for a world where the young do not die and the embrace of a life in which growth still comes from loss.

This contradiction in terms can make for muddled living; I will not pretty it up. I will never pat it into tidiness to match someone’s thin theology that “everything happens for a reason.”

For 25 years I have fumbled when someone asks, “How many siblings do you have?” Society’s simple questions, small talk designed to pass the time or to sort out the contours of a stranger’s identity.

But for so many of us, the simplest questions are the hardest.

Try asking me how many children I have. Watch me sort through the stories, assess the situation in an instant, take stock of my own mental state. What do I have energy for today: truth-telling or an easier lie? What part of my heart do I want to share: the depths of who I am or the surface that won’t be scratched?

Most of the time I opt for vulnerability instead of self-protection.

A resentful heart makes for bitter living. (And worse writing.) I feel a deep calling to tell the stories I know so that others can enter into their own lives with eyes wider open. This is the vocation of a writer, after all.

But I have grieved for decades enough to know that grief is a complicated companion. What does it mean to mourn when so much of the world seems to go on in blind ease? How does death not steal the joy of life?

In his book Lament for a Son – which is without question the best book I’ve read on the death of a child – Nicholas Wolterstorff tackles the thorny questions head-on. He stares Christian faith in the face and asks how it will make sense of the gaping wound left by his son’s death. Of all surprising places, he finds meaning in the Beatitudes.

“Blessed are those who mourn.” What can it mean? One can understand why Jesus hails those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, why he hails the merciful, why he hails the pure in heart, why he hails the peacemakers, why he hails those who endure under persecution. These are qualities of character which belong to the life of the kingdom. But why does he hail the mourners of the world? Why cheer tears? It must be that mourning is also a quality of character that belongs to the life of his realm.

Who then are the mourners? The mourners are those who have caught a glimpse of God’s new day, who ache with all their being for that day’s coming, and who break out into tears when confronted with its absence…The mourners are aching visionaries.

The Stoics of antiquity said: Be calm. Disengage yourself. Neither laugh nor weep. Jesus says: Be open to the wounds of the world. Mourn humanity’s mourning, weep over humanity’s weeping, be wounded by humanity’s wounds, be in agony over humanity’s agony. But do so in the good cheer that a day of peace is coming.

Blessed are those who mourn because they bear prophetic witness to the world.

They refuse to stay silent and accept what should not be.

They pull back the veil between life and death.

They see through the present darkness.

They love beyond boundaries.

They weep with God.

Blessed are those who mourn. And blessed are those whose deaths open our hearts to grieve.

For they teach us what it means to love.

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  1. Judy Brandon on 9 August 2016 at 11:38 am

    “But for so many of us, the simplest questions are the hardest.”
    What does your father do? He’s dead. How did he die? By suicide when I was 4. He also had cancer. How does a child answer? Would that I had been given permission to talk about the questions and tools for answering them.

    Years later, I had stillborn twin sons delivered at 33 weeks. Like your twins, they also had TTTS which was identified after birth. I would learn the wisdom of your words, “What do I have energy for today: truth-telling or an easier lie? What part of my heart do I want to share: the depths of who I am or the surface that won’t be scratched.”

    Still, that childhood grief, more than 60 years later, has informed the person I have become, mother, nurse, hospice chaplain, now a minister, always a seeker.

    Thank you for opening your heart and for offering your personal insight and resources. I’m grateful that discussion of grief experiences are now encouraged. Two books on childhood grief that were helpful to me are “Never the Same – Coming to Terms with the Death of a Parent” by Donna Schuurman and “A Music I No Longer Heard: The Early Death of a Parent” by Leslie Simon and Jan Johnson Drantell.

  2. Erin on 26 July 2016 at 6:35 pm

    When I was seventeen years old, my sixteen year old cousin was killed by a drunk driver. As I grew up without siblings, he was in so many ways a brother to me. Almost twenty years have passed, and though the pain is eclipsed by other parts of life, it never really goes away.

    This is the most articulate description I have heard of the experience of grieving a young person, and the impact that grief has on a person and on the family unit. Thank you for sharing this vulnerability. Well done.

  3. Anne on 15 July 2016 at 9:34 pm

    Your words rang true for brother died almost 16 years ago and life has never been the same. The first year, the pain was so great..almost unbearable. I thought how am I going to make am I going to survive when the waves of pain were so incredible rough and unrelenting. God gave me that answer in one word. Love. Love for my creator and would make my heart whole again and would give me a life that is full of Gods grace and goodness. My losses have not ended, 2 babies await me in heaven one day, but I have a heart that is full of hope. Hope in the promise of heaven.
    Thank you for sharing what is on your heart Laura-you are always in my prayers.

  4. Elisa on 15 July 2016 at 4:53 pm

    Acknowledging our loss opens us up to compassion for others. At least I hope that I have a better understanding of the pain people feel when they lose a loved one. I have lost two babies, my mother, my father, my Godchild, and others. And yet, I marvel at those who have experienced an incredible loss but seem to be unaffected. How can this be? How much are they hiding? What sorrow burns in the core of their being? You expect people to change . . . to be transformed. How can you possibly bear this incredible grief? The scars should be obvious, the pain glaring. And yet, not visible until that compassionate one asks us to open up the wound, to let it seep . . . with each seeping, we find grace. Grace from God to mend the wound, grace from those daring souls who see the pain others don’t see and attempt to help the healing. The loss never leaves us. It is with hope that we look to the glory of being united again in heaven. Faith. Hope. Love.

  5. Patty on 15 July 2016 at 12:20 pm

    Thinking and praying for you in an extra special way today Laura <3

  6. Caitlin Lowry on 15 July 2016 at 11:26 am

    25 years ago today, you awoke to find your brother had died. I awoke to find that mine had been born. So many circles and cycles and overlapping waves of grief and joy and hope and sorrow. Praying for you in this hard place and promising to remember on this day that my happiness is simultaneous with another’s grief and that God holds it all, holds us all together.

  7. Melissa Borgmann-Kiemde on 15 July 2016 at 11:06 am

    Blessed are those who mourn because they bear prophetic witness to the world.

    They refuse to stay silent and accept what should not be.

    They pull back the veil between life and death.

    They see through the present darkness.

    They love beyond boundaries.

    They weep with God.

    Blessed are those who mourn. And blessed are those whose deaths open our hearts to grieve.

    For they teach us what it means to love.

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