Memorial Day is a difficult time for so many families remembering and honoring the loss of their loved one who died serving in the U.S. military. Despite not being in the military, my family spends this weekend remembering my brother, Chris. At the age of 42, he died over Memorial Day weekend six years ago.
In high school, Chris planned to enlist in the Navy with his childhood friend, Michael, but due to a congenital heart defect, he was not fit to serve in the military. With a thick scar that ran down his breastbone, it never prevented him from playing football, baseball, or going out dancing with his friends. During the last few years of his life, he obsessed over the intricacies of making pizza. He often made his delicious pizzas - Margherita, barbecue chicken, and his specialty, kimchi pizza, (an homage to our Korean culture) - for his friends and family, leaving a mess of flour behind and regularly set off the fire alarm.
“I would rather regret the things that I have done
rather than the things I have not.”
- Lucille Ball
When you don’t expect your loved one to pass away unexpectedly, you regret not saying the things you wished you had, and, likewise, saying things you wish you hadn’t. I believe that for families with members serving in the active military, knowing that they serve our country and potentially are in harm’s way, it may be more common to appreciate the valuable time together and make an effort to let them know that you love them. Would we have less regret if we treated our loved ones as if it may be the last time we saw them? My brother died in his sleep - his heart failing to beat in sync. His death was the biggest trauma that my family had ever faced, and regrets piled high.
At my brother’s memorial service, Michael, one of his closest friends who spent his career in the Navy, gave a eulogy in his Navy whites. I had not seen Michael in 25 years because my family had moved away when my brother graduated from high school. To my benefit, Michael - having served multiple tours in Iraq - was no stranger to grief. He graced me with his comforting presence and words and was there for me during my darkest times. He was also a memory keeper. He knew stories of my childhood and shared many moments of my brother’s life. He often retold stories of their shared nonsense and regaled me with some new stories - even some that were never intended to reach my ears. He was a link to Chris that helped me stay connected to him long after his funeral.
One of the experts on grief and grieving, David Kessler, states the importance of witnessing grief. Michael was one of those people who helped acknowledge my grief, but I also had unexpected witnesses. One week after my brother’s funeral, I was back to work. Despite being in the healing profession, I felt broken and worn thin. The big bags under my eyes highlighted my grief and made it apparent to everyone who came in to see me in those initial weeks back at work. Unexpectedly, two patients, who had known me for many years, were kind enough to hold some space for my grief. One had lost her brother 13 years prior and, in empathy, she, too, shed tears at the news of my loss. The unanticipated kindness and humanity of some who bore witness to my sadness still stands out in my mind as some of the more extraordinary moments that came out of so much pain.
“Our tendency is to try to ‘fix’ grief
and yet when you are in grief, you are not broken.”
- David Kessler
The grieving process was agony, mainly because the mundane became a reminder of my sadness. I remember being so sensitive and triggered at being asked: “How are you?”. Mustering a response of “fine” felt awful because it was far from how I felt. “How the f*** am I supposed to be?” was a closer reflection to how I felt. My father cringed when he went back to work a few weeks after the funeral and disliked being approached with “I’m sorry for your loss”. Work was supposed to be his escape from the pain. He didn’t want to be confronted or reminded of it while there.
For the few months after Chris passed, I seemed to get asked randomly and (what felt like) more frequently, about my siblings. It ached to be asked, and it overwhelmed me every time how to best answer the question: Do I only mention my sister, the one sibling still alive or do I mention my brother as well? Would it lead to a conversation about him and where he lives? Would I have to talk about his sudden death? I often felt like it was more than I could handle, so I did my best to give curt answers and change the topic.
The visual and auditory triggers became overwhelming whenever I’d visit my parent’s home as they were reminders and memories of Chris having been there - from the 50 lb. bag of pizza dough flour, to the creak and slam of the front door that Chris most often would use, to the photos that my mother plastered all over the house. For three years, it felt like a thick blanket of clouds hung over my head. It felt much like the first few months when I lived in Seattle.
When you lose a sibling, you also lose parts of your history. Events from one’s childhood, people’s names that only your sibling could recount can never be retrieved. Memories flash by, regrets come and go, but thankfully, the heavy clouds over me have lifted. For Chris’ birthday, my sister and I celebrate him and his legacy by having pizza. My mom honors his memory by buying fresh flowers and leaving them with a card by his urn (that sits in the alter she set up in the dining room). There are still times when tears well up in my eyes and sadness overwhelms me. I suspect that I will have those until my last breath. Because of this experience, I can say that I truly met grief.
Although it took a while to adapt to my new normal, I am grateful for the lessons from the experience of grief. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned:
1. Appreciate the time you have with your loved ones. You never know how long you get to have with them.
2. Say “I love you” without hesitation.
3. People grieve in different ways and timelines vary. Honor the differences. Don’t judge.
4. It is important to witness grief. Allow for the time and space to talk about grief.
5. Triggers keep memories alive. They can be painful or they can be blessings. Strive to make them the latter.
6. Live without regret. (Or as Chris would say, “Carpe Diem!)