She was snatched away from me.
My best friend. My confidant. My mentor. My safe place. My protector. My love.
My older sister Sommer was snatched away from me the day after my 20th birthday.
Death crept up on that Thanksgiving week and, like a thief, tore her from my family’s arms.
Until that moment, I had never known a breath of life that she wasn’t there.
Until that moment, when Death, like a thief, took her away, I had never known the depths of grief that the human heart can hold.
My heart has been broken and as long as it is still beating, I will never be mended.
God can mend your heart, people tell me.
Yes, He can, but I don’t think that He will.
Take heart, you will see her again!
“Again” won’t happen for a really long time. Meanwhile, right now is a deeper pain than most people could ever begin to imagine.
Focus on the good times.
I do focus on the good times. But contrary to any other kind of sadness, focusing on the happy memories doesn’t make the pain decrease. Sometimes just the opposite.
Be happy that she’s in a better place, People say.
Please stop talking to me. I think.
I could go on for pages and pages listing things not to say to someone that has lost a loved one. But in fact, this list would still only scratch the surface because disaster is something that, quite simply, is endless. There will never be enough words, lists, books, thoughts, conversations or emotions to convey the depth of disastrous grief.
So, instead of giving you a playbook of things to say/not to say, I’m going to try to offer some thoughts for both those who are engaged in personal grief, and secondary grief – those who are grieving for the loss of a friend’s friend, friend’s loved one, etc.
There are so many kinds of grief. There are so many kinds of loss. My mind is swimming even as I write this, thinking of every circumstance and variable that plays into grief and loss. This is not an extensive list, and certainly does not cover the topic in it’s entirety. Instead, I’m hoping to offer what I know from my own experiences and thoughts, as a resource for those who either are in the middle of grief and thinking “What do I think now?” and the people who are sharing their love with those who are grieving and thinking “What do I do now?”
The first thing you need to know is that:
You’ll never get over it. This seems like such a “duh”. In a society that screams for compassion and acceptance, you’d think that we’d have more empathy for those dealing with loss. Unfortunately, our society is also burdened with a constant need to prove that we are living/achieving “the good life”. We’re all about recovery, growth, before-and-after-success stories, and silver linings. We’re sold this idea that we have to turn everything into a positive life lesson. Once we learn the positive life lesson, we complete the quest, the problem is gone, and we move forward with a new and separate part of our lives.
By all “logical” points, we should be able to get over death. The human mind has an extraordinary ability to adapt and overcome incredible traumas and challenges. And yet somehow through thousands of years of human development, we still don’t know what to do when grieving. Tragic loss strikes us like a sucker punch. It was a huge revolution for me the moment when I realized that I was never going to get over my sister’s death. What’s more, I’m not supposed to get over it. People have told me that God can heal my heart, and while I think that’s true, I don’t think that He will. If God were to heal my heart, that would then negate the pain of death’s curse on mankind. Death is supposed to be sad. It sucks.
The second thing you need to know is:
You will smile again. I don’t mean physically smile, I mean, heart-smile. Your heart will learn to smile again. Physical smiles and heart-smiles are two totally different things.
The third thing you need to know is:
Therapy is a lot more helpful than people give it credit for. I’m really tired of this stigma that therapy is only reserved for extreme cases. I’m mostly tired of it because I myself bought into that belief after my sister died. I truly felt fine. My heart was breaking, but I felt more supported and loved than I could have imagined. I thought “I’m okay. I have a great support group. I’m functional. I’ll heal. Therapy is for people that can’t function.” Unfortunately, I bought into that lie for so long that I ended up being completely debilitated by panic attacks, nightmares and cleverly concealed self-harm. A family’s love and a friend’s support will never be able to compensate for what a professional, licensed therapist can do. I wish that I’d gone to a therapist a lot sooner after my sister’s death, to be honest. There are a lot of mistakes that I made along the way that did so much more harm than good in my journey with grief.
The fourth thing you need to know is:
Your loved one will not be forgotten. This is a fear that I personally have wrestled with, and will probably continue to wrestle with as life goes on. I am afraid that I’ll forget her birthday, or that someday I’ll be the only one grieving over losing her. I’m afraid that her friends will move on and grow up and not think about her anymore, my future children won’t care about the aunt that they never got to meet, and all of the people that she loved so dearly will one day forget her name. This is a lie that Satan really likes to use to torment my heart. Your loved one changed people’s lives. There are people walking the earth today that are living differently because of your loved one. Your loved one contributed a beautiful verse to the epic poem of human history; a verse that will continue to echo throughout other people’s lives. They will not be forgotten.
The fifth thing you need to know is:
Grief is not consistent. Don’t beat up on yourself if one day you feel “healed” and the next day the pain feels as fresh as if the loss had just happened. Don’t beat up on yourself if one day you can talk freely about your loss, and another, you can barely say your loved one’s name without tears. It’s a process, it isn’t linear by any means, and it is far from consistent. Along with that, be gracious to yourself. Be very, very gracious to yourself. I remember in a conversation with one of my friends shortly after my sister died I said “I mean, it is what it is. I need to get over it and move on.” To which he responded, “Grace, it’s been three days.”
“It’s been three days”. Yeah. That’s how much pressure I was putting on myself.
The sixth thing you need to know is:
You will see your loved one in strange and beautiful ways. I had dinner with a friend and her mom a few months after Sommer passed away, this was a special dinner because the mom had lost her own brother when she was about my age. “Y’know, Grace,” she told me, “you’ll see Sommer in strange ways for the rest of your life. You’ll see her in your other siblings, you’ll see her in your own kids someday. Her influence in your life will continue.” She was speaking from experience and went on to tell me how each of her children carried traits of her brother, even though they had never met him before. I don’t have any of my own children, but I would be delighted to find out that one of my own children, or my little sister’s children might one day have Sommer’s beautiful brown eyes or enchanting laugh. Even still, there are little reminders of Sommer’s presence in my life right now. My church group at my college campus, which Sommer was also a part of, have committed to always saying “I love you” to each other when we say goodbye. Why? Because Sommer always, always told the people she loves how she felt about them. As the plaque placed above the doorway to a room they dedicated to her at the church states “In loving memory of Sommer Raye Morton, who was quick to say ‘I love you’ and taught us to do the same.”
The seventh thing you need to know is:
You need to be honest with your support group. Your support group is friends, parents, siblings, your spouse/significant other, pastors, mentors, therapists, etc. You need to be honest with them. Full disclosure, I was not always honest with mine. People were so impressed with how well I was handling my grief and how “strong” I was, I felt the need to keep up that impression as grief continued to tear me apart. I reached a point where I felt so trapped by this lie that I needed to be strong that I began to take it out on my body and try to rid it of all “weakness” (this led to cleverly disguised self-harm in the shape of depriving my body of proper food and water and instead filling it with energy drinks and supplemental vitamins, laying out in the sun until my skin literally blistered as “punishment” for my weakness, running my shower water at either scalding or freezing temperatures, and creating a detailed plan for how I could end my life all together.) I’ll be blunt: you don’t get a prize for suffering the most on your own, or being the strongest. There were two reasons for why I wasn’t honest with my support group around me: first, I didn’t want anyone to stop me. I already felt like I had no control over my life around me. I felt like at least I could treat my body like I wanted to, and I didn’t want anyone to take that control away from me. Second, I didn’t think anyone could handle it. My family was already dealing with the loss of one member of “Team Morton”, I didn’t want them to live in fear of losing another. Satan, as the father of lies, is really good at coming up with reasons for why we shouldn’t tell the truth. After a long series of events, I finally opened up to one of my good friends and told him what had been going on in my head. (I credit a lot of the reason I’m alive today to this guy) He told me “Whenever you need to talk, I’m here to listen. Call me and I’ll answer. If I don’t answer, text me and tell me to call you.” “I don’t want you to be worried.” I argued. To which he said, “I’d rather worry and keep you alive.” Even if your situation isn’t as dangerous as mine was, I cannot urge this enough, be honest with your support group. They love you. They want to know. They want to help. Let them. We are never called to “go it alone.”
Note for those who are members of a grieving person’s support group: You can’t force anyone to be honest with you. But here’s something you can do to show your love and openness: be vulnerable and never judge. Be someone that the person you’re supporting can be honest with. Don’t be the person they’re afraid to reach out to because they think you’d condemn or gossip about them. Let them know that you’re a safe place, and then be that safe place.
The eighth thing you need to know is:
God has not forgotten you in your grief. When someone dies, we spend a lot of time reflecting on the glory that their loved one is now encountering in heaven. Some of the most hurtful, but most well-meaning comments that I have received are “Your sister is in a better place – she’s celebrating with our Lord now!” And while this is true, (and praise Jesus for the victory of the cross so that I too can someday encounter that glory) it kind of, well, sucks. My sister had been with me through every hard time that I’ve experienced in my life. Because of our relationship and close age, she was there with me in a way that even my parents and younger sister didn’t have the ability to. Additionally, no matter what I’ve been going through, I’ve always brought my broken heart to God for Him to comfort and heal me. But now, in my darkest point of heartbreak, I was being told that both God and my beloved sister were off celebrating together somewhere?! I didn’t care for that thought. Grief is a weird mix of missing that person with all of your heart, but also being thankful that they’re in a better place…and yet, also being sad that you aren’t there with them. C.S. Lewis said in his Grief Observed, (I’m paraphrasing since I can’t find the exact quote of which I am thinking) “How strange it is that a God of love is both blissfully celebrating with His beloved coming home, and yet, grieving with those left behind,” Can this even be possible? Absolutely. God sees and hears your breaking heart. He knows the depth of your pain – He is the creator of hearts, after all. He knows every murmur and pulse within your body. He absolutely knows your broken heart, since He was the one that made it to love so deeply in the first place. You can be assured, God has not forgotten you in your grief. God doesn’t like death any more than we do. In fact, I think He may despise it even more than we do. It’s why He made every effort to relieve us from total separation.
As I write this conclusion, I’m sitting in the same restaurant in downtown San Marcos where I was when God first planted the desire to write publicly about my life of faith and grief for others to share in. It was actually under construction when Sommer passed away so she never got to eat here (which is good because it is freezing in this place and she never liked to be cold, but also sad because I think she would have liked their Bobcat Fries and virgin daiquiris.) I’m thinking about how I cried in my car on the drive over here today (partly from stress and partly from the thought that I won’t be able to see her beaming face hold her own babies someday – don’t ask me where this thought came from. It’s the little things.) and praising my Jesus that He is the God of broken things. There is no final conclusion to grief – it just keeps going. We keep learning, one day at a time (sometimes one moment at a time) and sometimes we flip back and learn the same things again. Along the way we learn about ourselves, our loved ones, our friends, and how incredibly persistent God is in His love. We learn that we simply can’t handle it all, and God gave us our support groups for a reason. We learn that crying is okay, and crying with God is absolutely a thing. We learn the endurance of our own hearts as we are sometimes forced to sit and contend with the dungeons of our grief. We learn that sometimes it’s okay to be weak, and in fact, sometimes God specifically calls us to be weak so that He can show us His strength.