You never really know how you will handle something like the loss of a loved one, until it happens.
It was the summer after my freshman year in college. My roommate and I had just returned from a weekend trip to Canada. It was quite common for students in North Dakota to venture across the border, especially if you weren’t of legal drinking age in the states.
I was sleeping on the couch when I got the call. This was before the days of cell phones, so my roommate woke me up and said, “Your mom is on the phone. It sounds important.”
I remember like it was yesterday. It was as though time stood still in that moment. It took my breathe away, shattered my heart and my world all in the blink of an eye.
I had always been close with my grandparents. We would spend hours talking about life.
My grandfather told me about their first date, reminisced about his time in the Navy, and would tell stories of his wild days.
My grandmother and I would sit at the piano playing and singing while my grandfather would sit back and listen.
She taught me how to be strong. This is the woman who changed the oil in a car and used it as a life lesson about equality. We would sit and just talk about nearly everything, especially during the tough teenage years when my own mother and I were constantly battling it out.
When my parents decided to divorce the summer before my senior year in high school, it was my grandparents who helped walk me through those tough moments. In fact, I lived with them for several months trying to avoid the situation altogether.
It was my grandmother who finally told me that I needed to face the decision my parents had made as doing so would prepare me for tough life lessons down the road.
Little did I know one of those lessons would be losing her and my grandfather 15 months later.
When I got to the phone and picked it up, my mother told me I needed to come home right away. I didn’t understand what was happening. She went on to explain that my grandparents had been in an accident. My first response was to inquire what hospital they were at so I could quickly pack the car and drive home.
My mother explained to me that her mother and father weren’t at the hospital. They were gone.
I stopped. Everything stopped.
I remember dropping the phone, falling to my knees, and feeling this deep sense of pain and sadness rush through me. I sat there sobbing, my mother on the other end of the phone trying to hold it together although was likely falling apart herself.
No! Both of them? No! It can’t be true. Why both of them? Are you sure?
I went completely numb and from immense sadness to complete shock.
My roommate quickly came in when she heard the phone drop and saw me on the floor. She grabbed the phone and talked with my mother.
She picked me up off the floor, helped me pack a bag, and said she would drive me home because I was in no condition or state of mind to be driving.
That was the longest that drive has ever taken.
I kept thinking maybe there had been a mistake and one of them was okay. Why both? Why both, God? Why?
Sadness, anger, confusion. I had just been home from college the weekend prior. They were always my first stop when I would come home for a weekend away from dorm life, sports, and studies.
We finally arrived.
My mother is the oldest of 8 children. Growing up in a small town, everyone knew my grandparents.
Our family was meeting at my Uncle’s restaurant. All my aunts and uncles were there when I arrived. My brothers were there. My sister would arrive a few hours later.
My older brother and I drove to the beach. Sitting there brought back so many memories, but we weren’t reminiscing about a funny prank that he and his friends had pulled off or his latest love interest, this time we were crushed and questioning everything about life. We looked out at the waves. We cried.
All our lives changed that day. It was 21 years ago today.
The next few days would be a blur of planning, people coming and going, phone calls from friends who had heard the news. I grew up in a town that had fewer people than my last apartment building in New York City, so to say news traveled fast was an understatement.
Because my siblings and I were the oldest grandchildren and most of us adults by that point, the funeral director gave us an opportunity to say goodbye. It was a closed casket funeral. They had been killed in a car accident. A group of reckless teenagers had clipped the back of their vehicle, sending them into the other lane of oncoming traffic and straight into the path of a semi-truck traveling at 55 mph.
It happened in an instant.
My sister and I went in together. We held hands. We sobbed. We didn’t understand why.
I needed that moment to know it was real. To see them one last time. To tell them I loved them.
You often hear of someone not wanting to see a loved one sick or after they have passed so they can remember them as they were. For me personally, even in seeing them one last time, my memories are still of them living.
I remember the smell of my grandmother’s hair, the arthritis that was starting to set in from years of being a seamstress, her nurturing heart. I can still hear her voice and the way she would call out to me, “Jenny.” I remember my grandfather’s laugh and sitting in his rocking chair, smiling and being at peace in the moments when we we all together.
That is what I remember.
I don’t remember what I saw that day in the funeral home. I remember saying goodbye and the emotion I felt in that moment.
My family asked me to sing at the funeral. I knew it had to be “Amazing Grace” as my grandmother and I used to sing it for my grandfather.
That was the last time I would ever sing that song.
To this day when I hear it, I immediately go back to that moment. Sometimes a sense of joy will come over me, knowing how lucky I was to have the relationship I did with them and to know them in a way that was very profound. Other times, it will bring on that feeling of sadness, wishing they were here for all the life moments that we had talked about when they were alive.
That is usually when it happens. Thinking about life moments and missing them so deeply, whispering to myself that I wish they were here, when I realize they actually are.
A song playing on the radio. A ray of sun hitting the window in a way that feels divine. Something that is unique to them and our relationship that can only be described as their presence. A sign.
Loss is painful. I struggled for years wondering why it had to be that way. I went through all the stages of grief and nearly left college, questioning if I could go on.
Over time the pain and questions eventually turned to understanding. The understanding turned to acceptance. Acceptance turned to peace.
I still miss them, every day. The important life moments where I wish I could talk to them, but also in the day to day small moments.
The thing is, the minute you lose someone and your entire universe is off-balance, you have a choice. You can choose to fall into the darkness and allow the sadness to swallow you whole or you can choose to live, without limitations.
Loss taught me that I never wanted to look back on this life and wish I had done it differently. Sure, there are mistakes I have made along the way but all of them have brought me to this moment. All of them helped define the person that I am today.
I learned through time to channel that loss, to use it as a driving force for how I wanted to live my life. I took that pain and turned it into strength.
Loss taught me not to fear life and to simply live each day. Tell the people in your life that you love them. Take chances. Never apologize for being who you are.
Sometimes it takes great pain to change the course of your life, to help guide you to the path of discovering who you were created to be.
This week, challenge yourself to do something that you have always wanted to try but have been too scared to do. Tell someone you love them. Make amends with an old friend. Kick off your shoes, stop for a minute, and just laugh.
Don’t let the fear of the unknown hold you back from living this life, you may never have that chance again.
Everything can change in the blink of an eye.
Cheers to a great week and going after it, without regret!