My cell phone rang while I was making a special lunch for my son’s birthday on Tuesday. I almost never get calls and almost never in the middle of the day, and when I saw that it was my mom, I just knew it wasn’t going to be good news.
And it wasn’t. My uncle Bill had died sometime in the night. We’d known it was coming. His lungs were failing and his health was deteriorating quickly in the last few weeks. But it doesn’t make the sadness any less sad.
We talked briefly, my mom and I, and just as we were ending the call, her voice cracked, and I almost did, too. I wandered the kitchen, waiting for my husband to come back with our son from preschool (and the final ingredient I needed to finish lunch) when my phone rang again with a number I didn’t know or hadn’t saved since I switched phones. It was my cousin, whose father was the uncle who just died.
We’ve rarely talked on the phone, he and I, but that day, I was glad to hear his voice. (He lives in Colorado; I live in Pennsylvania.) We didn’t talk about much, but his voice, too, cracked as we ended the call. While we were talking, my husband came home and I must have had a distressed look on my face because he seemed to know, too. I ended that call, having not shed a tear yet and just sobbed into my husband’s chest while he wrapped his arms around me.
I cried for the loss and the pain that my family members were experiencing and the separation that kept me from being with them in their grief. My mom, my other uncle, my grandparents are at least all in the same state and have each other to grieve with. My cousin has his mom and my uncle’s friends and co-workers. I’m feeling a bit lost in the process out here in Pennsylvania.
And did I mention that it was my son’s birthday and I still had a cake to decorate? How is a person supposed to decorate a birthday cake and celebrate the passage of another year of life when death has just visited your family?
I don’t know.
It was surprisingly therapeutic to create something fun and beautiful with my hands while sadness made its home inside of me.
We continued our birthday celebration. We told our daughter the news when she got home from school. We ended the day as normally as possible, though we did stay up late putting Legos together. Whenever there’s a tragic loss of life, especially if it is close to home, I always want to spend more time together with the people I love. It’s like grief and loss remind me that nothing is guaranteed and every moment matters.
I haven’t experienced a lot of grief for deaths in the family. At 36 years old, I still have both of my parents in good health, and three out of four grandparents. Our losses have been few in my lifetime, though I realize that somewhere in the not-so-distant future, the losses could accumulate more rapidly than I’d like.
I know almost nothing about the grieving process except that it’s different for everyone and takes varying amounts of time and really, there are no rules when it comes to how people process loss.
My uncle and I weren’t terribly close. He lived in Colorado for most of my life. But his son, my cousin, is like another brother. We are nearly the same age and my brother and I spent many summers with him at our grandparents’ house in Illinois. I have many memories of our escapades together. A few years ago, my husband and I got to fly to Colorado for my cousin’s wedding, and there I had the chance to get to know my uncle again and spend time with him as a grown-up. I’m so grateful we took that trip even though our basement had just flooded in a freakish rainstorm.
So, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to process this loss. How much do I grieve the loss of a man who is important to me because he is important to people I love?
The day after his death, my emotions were raw and I was feeling everything. Grief felt like a heavy blanket over my head and I couldn’t get enough air. I played Legos with my son and again found a measure of relief. I don’t know if it’s the creating or the focusing on a task or doing something childlike but whatever it was, it lifted the fog a bit.
That night we helped decorate the church for Christmas, something I haven’t done yet at our house, and the joy and light of Christmas decorations reminded me that a light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. (That’s in the Bible. Don’t ask me to cite it right now.) That hope descends to the hopeless. That love has the last word. (That’s a line from Jason Gray.)
I desperately want to spend time with my family right now, and I may get my wish over Christmas. Until then, though, this grief thing is weird. Yesterday and today life has been almost normal. But I can’t say whether that will last.
I am not sticking to a healthy eating plan right now because sometimes grief says, “Eat a cupcake.” But it also says, “Take a walk. Slow down. Be present. Notice what’s around you.”
I am trying to do those things.
Maybe I’ll be able to write a post soon telling you about my uncle and the things I appreciated and loved about him. But that’s not for today.
Today, I just want to say that grief is weird. And that’s okay.
No words of wisdom from me.
But maybe you have some to share?