In my travels and my career, I’ve been blessed to be alongside a strange fraternity of souls. Membership is by initiation, only, and that is by losing a beloved, in a shocking, sudden, and catastrophic event. The wisest among them, a parent who lost a child in the PanAm flight #103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, offered precious insight when he observed following that terror event, there emerged a contest of sorts among the survivor families.
Some began comparing the enormity of their individual losses to one another. These survivors contended that loss of a spouse was less of a loss because one could marry again. Or, the loss of a parent in this tragedy was even less so because it was an event to be expected at some point. Ultimately, the loss of a child or children was the worst of all. When still others challenged that belief, saying one could have more children.
He said that everyone started coming together when they stopped comparing their losses and accepted the tragedy and the collective violation for all the survivor families. Together, they became a powerful political force, leading a movement to enact stringent airline safety and security rules, as well as improved aircraft hardening standards. These benefit people and families in such positive ways that will ripple through the generations. That is the power of recovery in action, but I get ahead of myself.
So, I return to my experiences that led me to Day Drinking. These insights were emblazoned on my heart, sparking a chain reaction within me exploring recovery from one of the Big Three: The loss of livelihood, loss of a loved one or the loss of one’s own health. I was blessed to be alongside my father, who passed too soon but after a lengthy illness in which I was his primary caregiver. His loss, hard as it was to recover from, felt like only part of the grief story following the loss of a loved one.
Comparing my own experience, I was given the blessed gift of time to “brace, brace, brace” (as they say before an aircraft lands, hard). What about the loss of a loved one after a sudden, catastrophic event? There is no warning. No time to prepare. At. All.
Over this COVID Pandemic, I’ve lived vicariously on the internet. To take the place of face-to-face human bonding, I’ve joined several groups on Facebook, and through one of them, I made friends with Bethany.* One day, out of the blue, she PM’d me (that’s a private message, if you happen to be light on the lingo of social media).
My best friend, who was also my niece, died a year ago, this December, while she was nine months pregnant. I don’t know when or if I’ll ever get over losing her. But anyways, for about 13 years before she came back to Kentucky she lived in Washington State, like you.
I am so very sorry for your loss. Words cannot express it, properly.
I have a story I want to tell you. Forgive me if this is going to be long and boring, lol.
Of course she did. It answered my silent question: How do I describe grief recovery following sudden death of one’s soulmate? How do I do that without, please, please, having that happen to me or mine? I felt like Abraham from the Old Testament of the actual bible, trusting the angel and laying out Isaac, his son, in a test. No, the angels answered. We don’t want this story to be all about your recovery.
We want others to tell their stories, too. About how they got back up into the saddle and rode on through life following their own losses. Life will knock us down a time or two. The trick is to love and live through it all—to have courage and faith, even when things don’t make sense. Especially then.
Oh, thank God, I thought, because so much of the inspiration for this story came about after hauling my own ass up, after loss. Not long after my imaginary conversation with the universe, Bethany showed up and trusted me with her story following her own sudden, shocking loss-of-love story.
I had a niece that was just two years younger than me. We stuck together like glue. She was my best friend.
Years ago, she met a guy on the internet that was almost 40 years older than her and she packed up everything at 18 and moved out to California to be with him. He convinced her to have nothing to do with her family. She would sneak calls in every so often. Later they moved to Washington and eventually settled in Clarkston. One evening she had a massive domestic issue and called me to get her home to us, her family in the south.
She eventually divorced this man and lived with me. Finally, I had my best friend back. She was told she never could have kids and that always weighed on her. She met a nice guy from Florida. She said she was not leaving her family again for any man. So he moved here, and low and behold, she got pregnant at 37. It was fantastic. Her due date was Christmas Eve. She moved out of my house and in with her boyfriend, the father of her baby, a week before Thanksgiving.
On December 3, her boyfriend called me to say she never made it home from work even though she had just called him to say she was on her way. She worked in the Kroger pharmacy. He drove to Kroger to look for her and found her dead in the car. They rushed her to the hospital to save the baby who was full term but the baby just passed. Come to find out she had a problem with an artery in her heart and it stretched and just burst, killing her right away. They just didn’t make it in time to save the little girl. My world has not been the same. I cry almost every day and it’s been over a year.
I guess what made me want to tell this story is every time I see you say something about Washington State, thoughts of her come to mind. She used to send me pictures of the little trips they would take, [like] going camping, visiting Forks (she was a huge Twilight fan), and her favorite, taking trips to Seattle. It helps to have good memories of her and I’ve spent my whole life never hearing much about Washington until she lived and worked there and now you. It’s just odd how things like that work.
Yes, odd, indeed. An empath’s heart is blessed (or cursed, as the case may be) with the ability to feel or experience things without having to actually go through them. This has been supremely true in writing this series of stories on grief recovery. I wrote her back, immediately.
I'm honored to hear your story. I want to know these things. And to know you can think of her and remember her and now I can remember her with you. Do you dream of her?!
I do. Funny you ask. I had a dream a few months ago. It was the most real dream ever. It was clear and it was her. I asked her if there were dogs in heaven. She told me she was aware when it happened and saw herself. She says she started saying the “medical prayer” and that’s weird because I have Googled it and there’s no such thing. She was going to school to be a nurse. But why would my mind make up the words “medical prayer”? …. And then the other day I dreamed I passed her in a vehicle and she waved at me.
About the time Bethany first shared this story with me, I’d accepted a job in Central Washington, near where her niece—whom I always thought of as her sister—lived for a time. In fact, I would think of Bethany’s “sister” as I drove into town. As soon as I had time, I promised myself I’d follow up, again. This new job was just so all-encompassing, Bethany and I kept trying to sync up to talk more about it but the timing was never right.
Yet, her “sister” would not be ignored. I would be dropping down on Highway 82 into Yakima, so beautifully flanked on each end by Mount Rainier and Mound Adams. They stood like bookends at either side of the valley and out of the blue, my thoughts would ramble back to her. In all the hubbub surrounding my new job, I’d completely forgotten what sex the baby was but the vision kept popping in my head of a brand new baby, all wrapped up in pink, being handed over for eager arms to hold.
In our earlier exchange, Bethany shared with me that it was difficult to grieve the baby because, whether true or not, she felt that the baby was the cause of her sister’s death. The pressure of the late term pregnancy was more than her heart could handle. I wondered about her and I wondered if Bethany began grieving the baby, finally.
It’s important to say, at this point, that this is most definitely Bethany’s story, but it’s also partly mine, too. In my second week at this new job, my mother died.
It wasn’t unexpected but it still weighed heavily on my family. After a few more very uncomfortable weeks at my new job, I realized that it was not the place for me. The organization I worked for was going through tumultuous change—they were certainly not ready, yet, for my work as a marketing communications professional.
Conversely, given my professional experiences over the prior six years, I was completely unable to work with this group of people as they navigated their journey through those five dysfunctions of a team, as author Patrick Lencioni, observed so well. I abruptly unraveled a home purchase and decided to pick up where I’d left off with my life, eight weeks prior, returning to my blissful slice of heaven—my life and family in Gig Harbor, WA.
I was reeling from so much personal loss and tremendous professional disappointment—I felt I was standing amid the shards of my career, not unlike the remnants of a burning building. Oh. My. God. Where in the actual fuck would I go from here?
Where were you when you last left our story? Seemingly out of the blue, probably the same heart space where I thought of Bethany’s sister and her adorable baby, came this obvious question.
If you’re going to retrace your steps, where were you eight weeks ago?
The answer came to mind immediately: Thinking of Bethany’s story.
So I PM’d her again. Apologized for my long absence and asked if we could talk. My best guess was to pick up where we’d left off in our messaging. Where was she, now, in her grief journey? I wondered how she would characterize this loss, this gaping absence of her sister, I mean, niece, who was her lifelong best friend. Of course, we didn’t start there. We re-wound her story to childhood.
“When my mom was in her early twenties, she had my second half-brother, Cori’s Dad. My mom married my dad several years later, giving birth to my brother, sister, and then finally me at the age of 40, just two years before Cori was born. Cori’s Dad was always more of a father figure, really. He and I have always been close,” she explained. “All of us made up a close family. We’ve remained in the same town, here in the mid-South, for many generations.”
What a blessing, to maintain extended, close relations, with family. Anyone, anywhere, knows that it takes commitment for families to all get along and not fall prey to silly peccadillos or intrigue. “My niece, Cori, was more like a sister to me, not a niece. We were only two years apart in age. We were raised together and since the time I can remember, we did things like have sleepovers and we just shared everything,” as if in answer to my unspoken thought. It explained why I always considered the pair as sisters, not aunt and niece.
She recounted the horrible night that they lost Cori. How everyone ended up at the hospital. How the paramedics and ER team knew they couldn’t save the mother but tried desperately to save the baby … and couldn’t do that, either.
“Some of the family said that I should have gone to the hospital and seen her lifeless body in order to say goodbye,” she admitted, finally. “I just couldn’t do that.”
That was a good decision. “One of the other family members told me she looked like an empty shell of herself. And yet, she still wore her nametag from work. It had spots of blood spray on it. I just couldn’t have seen that.”
Time heals all wounds, right? Yeah, fuck that.
“It’s been a year, and I’m still not okay,” she said. “I’m not okay.”
We talked round and round; Bethany explained that at the time Cori died, she had a new boyfriend. “I poured everything I had into him, and naturally, he broke up with me, almost immediately.” It was just too much for a new beau to carry. No one who signs up for Date-dot-com can handle that within the first few weeks of meeting their match.
Can you imagine adding that to your online dating profile?
Hi there…I’m a Libra, I love to watch Dirty Harry movies, and, oh, my sister will die, suddenly, within a month of our first date.
After the New Year, Bethany began seeing a grief counselor. He was just helping her unpack her loss and then the COVID pandemic hit.
“Everything stopped, like time stood still,” she said. “After a few weeks, the practice staff contacted me offering to do our sessions by ZOOM. I couldn’t do that.” So, she focused on other aspects of her life.
A few months later, she accepted a great new job. She is a mortgage loan officer and now does her job, virtually, for an out-of-state company. She also met a new boyfriend, and full-disclosure, he knew about her loss. More importantly, by the time she met him, Bethany had focused her grief and her energy in their rightful places. He was not assigned as her immediate, total and complete focus to replace the sudden and shocking loss of love caused by the tragic death of her sister.
I thought a lot about the gift of time. While she feels she’s still not okay, and that is totally okay, I’m still so proud of her. Not that she needs me to be so, but I am, anyway. Time has, indeed, marched on. Bethany has gone about the stuff of daily living. She may feel she’s wallowed but one might view it, differently. She’s continued on in her career, she’s continued loving others, and also working through her grief by staying in touch with her therapist. As a note, Bethany will soon be returning to in-person private appointment grief counseling sessions. All healthy. All reflecting that she has, indeed, accepted the gift of time.
As we talked about her plans, my vision of the baby, swaddled in pink, kept coming to mind.
“Did you know what she was having?”
“For a while, I was the only one to know, because I was the one to plan her gender reveal party,” she explained. She waited for a while to tell everyone, including the baby’s father. Cori had a miscarriage a few months earlier, so she wanted to just give it time.” I thought more about the gift of time and how it is a precious gift that, instinctively, Cori also knew.
“Not that it matters any more, but she was having a girl. And, I was so excited before it all happened. I was never going to have children, myself, and having this beautiful little girl was going to be so special.”
Did Cori want Bethany to accept that baby, and her heartfelt loss, by the act of visually receiving a pink bundle of joy into her arms?
Within a couple of days, I was amid writing her story and just got to a place of pause. Not surprisingly, that evening I PM’d her to check in.
Spent the greater part of the day writing about you and Cori. Felt her all around me, looking over my shoulder. "Uh, Bethany didn't say it like that!" I was LOLing all day!
I dreamed of her last night! I said “just keep letting me hug you because I don’t know when I’ll see you again.” … Last night’s dream was a simple hug and not wanting to let go.
What a miraculous, magical moment with her sister. I’m so very, very happy that the veil of heaven dipped enough to allow this experience for Bethany. And, okay, so the agnostics and pragmatists among us will assure readers that this is just Bethany’s way to work through her grief. It’s her subconscious mind playing out imagined conversations in order to let go and heal from such a tragic, sudden loss.
What if it’s both? What if there is magic and there are angels and there is a vibrant, active life on the other side of this one? And, what if they blessedly, benevolently, get special permission from the heavenly powers-that-be to help us work through our grief during our dreams and in our subconscious minds?
Imagine that, for a moment.
My father, who was world-renowned for his “Wes-isms” had this to say of the arduous, difficult experiences of life … “This, too, shall pass.” It’s often messy, full of fits and starts, back-tracking, outright fuck ups, and yet, it passes. One day, we wake up and the burden has lifted. We’ve done the work we needed to do…not shoving it out of sight or sweeping it under a proverbial rug. We’ve gone about the business of daily living because, well, the alternative we know would break the hearts of those we love, in this life and the next.
And, if we’re really, really fortunate, their positive influence remains. Their memory continues to live on within our hearts as our constant companions. Their influence ripples through the generations. I am absolutely certain of Cori’s memory doing so in Bethany’s family. In all the nieces, nephews, brothers, sisters, mothers, grandmothers, grandfathers and, well, everyone, for generations to come.
This, too, shall pass.
Have courage. Have faith. Even when—especially when—things don’t make sense. Continue on, dear loved ones.