I decided long ago that death and dying was a concept I was not ok with. I hated to think about death much less talk about it. I would cry every time I would think of someone I loved being mortal and the inevitable truth that I would have to face their death at some point in my lifetime. Yet, grief is very real and very raw. Grief is hard and it’s a struggle in so many ways. I know a lot about grief now and I’m none too happy about it.
My bachelor’s degree is in Social Psychology and my master’s is in Community Counseling. In my undergrad program I didn’t have to face the concept of death too often and if I did, I managed to hold it together behind the screen of a computer as I was taking many of my classes online. Then I started my masters program. I faced death and dying in my first weeks of school. It was unsettling and I questioned God about why people needed to die. Why do you take us home so soon? Why is our time on earth so brief? What about all the work people have left to do God, they aren’t done yet! I didn’t have to wait too long before I came face to face with death and dying. I wasn’t ready though.
The rug was pulled out from under my feet as I laid face first in a pile of tears in front of my professor and classmates while I watched a heart wrenching counseling service video of a little boy whose mother had died of an aneurysm in the garage while he played inside the house. He went to check on mom and in the video he says he tried to open the door but her head was blocking it. She was dead in the garage. He was alive and alone in the house. He was nine years old. I was a complete mess. The video ended and I excused myself from the classroom while I tried to get myself together. Well, naturally, and as it should be in a counseling program, my professor urged me to discuss my tears and my emotions and, more importantly, why they were so out of control. I didn’t have a great explanation, but I attempted something along the lines of “I just don’t understand why little people have to deal with such sadness so soon in their life. Doesn’t God understand that little boys and girls need their mommies and daddies here on earth and not in heaven?” It seems so childlike now as I look back on the experience, but I was just about 30 years old and my son was four at the time. I didn’t like death. I didn’t like the concept of losing people who were close to me and I wasn’t ready to concede to God that I know He has a plan. All I could think is that there just isn’t enough time…time goes so fast and I never know when it will be the last time I see someone I love and adore. I was challenged in the classroom by my professor to reach past my fear and dive into my issues.
My program, like so many others, requires internship. I was counseling with supervision for over a year in various settings one of which came to include The Children’s Bereavement Center in San Antonio, Texas. I decided to put my big girl panties on and face my fears and try to see the bright side of such sadness. I wasn’t prepared for the lessons I would learn there. I didn’t know then that my experience and training would help me in my personal life more than it ever would in my professional life. I didn’t know so much, but I learned quickly.
The first lesson was that, in grief, there is hope and happiness. I never knew so much genuine happiness could come from some of the most brokenhearted. It was amazing to work with such incredible families and counselors, to be in a home that captured love, light, and peace as though it were a butterfly net, to be at the center of sadness but in the warmest of places ever created on earth. The Bereavement Center is one of the happiest places on earth. What irony. Irony catapulted me into facing my fears and forced me to see what grief really was and, more importantly, what it wasn’t. Grief has a mask of its own that each person wears so differently. Some hide behind grief, some wear it on their sleeve, others create magic from their hearts in various forms. I worked at the Bereavement Center for about ten months and then my time was done. I was to graduate in December 2010 and move on to new ventures.
Grief will strike home in less than two years. November 2012, a sweet boy I knew, named Jaxon, dies of brain cancer at the tender age of five. November 2012, a grad school classmate’s husband, Cody, dies at the age of 28 of brain cancer. December 2012, a grad school classmate whom I sat next to for many semesters dies suddenly and tragically from a brain aneurysm. Melissa was only 28. December 2012, an Army veteran, professional counselor, professional bodybuilder, funny man of the funny men, and a co-facilitator at the Bereavement Center with me, Dominic, commits suicide after a tragic bout of PTSD and relationship issues. I lost four people in the span of a month. I was devastated and angry. Confused and shocked. I couldn’t imagine how the people closest to them felt, because I was a wreck.
As if that weren’t enough, I faced yet another loss in March 2013. One of my students at the time, Raynord, died in a car accident after writing his epitaph in my English class the day he died. The writing prompt was, “If today were the last day of your life, what legacy would you leave behind? How would you want to be remembered?” He died in that car accident less than 10 hours later.
I couldn’t have imagined this amount of grief and loss in such a short time in my life. I couldn’t imagine being happy when it was so sad to lose too many young people with such great lives yet to live. I kept questioning why. I kept thinking, if them, then why not me? What protects me from the same fate? What would my son do if I were to die? How would his life change without me in it everyday? And what about him…what protects him from being free of terminal illness and dying too young? How would I even be able to wake up in the morning if I were to lose him. I shook off the uglies and I prayed. I prayed for faith. I prayed for answers. I prayed for comfort.
Another round of grief struck as my grandfather died in December 2013. He was so sick in so many ways. He had everything wrong with him except cancer and he had lived a good long life. He was 82 and died peacefully in his sleep at home with my grandmother holding his hand.
I thought our 2013-2014 school year would be the best one yet as we hadn’t lost any students, but then in May 2014, right at the end of our school year, we lost Kiana. She was a former student, 16 years old, and just three months pregnant when she was shot and killed in a driveby shooting. The retaliation was from a rival gang which caught her in the midst of the shooting. She wasn’t the intended victim. I recently learned that the young man claiming responsibility for the shooting committed suicide about three weeks ago. So many lives lost so soon. Too young. Too much potential for greatness. But, their names were called by God and he brought them home. The community was angered and afraid. I was, again, a sorrow-filled woman questioning my God.
I haven’t healed from those losses yet to deal with another, but today, I am faced with it. Today, my friend and co-worker, Milyse Lamkin, was sent to God on wings of doves. She died August 28th after battling cancer like the warrior she was. She was such an amazing woman. A woman whose tenacious spirit infected those around her. She was young too, only 52, and healthy other than the stupid cancer that invaded her body without invitation. She was an athlete and a coach. She was a mentor and a friend. She radiated common sense and understanding while holding strong to her values and opinions. She was fearless like no other woman I have ever known. She was a legend in the community and, quite honestly, everywhere she went. She was an alumna of the high school where we worked together for the last three years. She was our Lady’s Head Basketball Coach and a special education teacher. She supported me in my classroom last school year and helped me see some areas for improvement. She helped me with students who were difficult to raise. She helped me recognize faults within myself as a woman and a human being. She wasn’t my closest friend, but oh, how I wish she would’ve and could’ve been. I was afraid she would see right through me. I was afraid I wasn’t going to be good enough. I was afraid I would be swallowed whole by the woman whom I wanted so badly to be my mentor. She wasn’t a jerk or anything, I was just a coward.
My tears today are mostly for her. But many more of them are for me. I have chapped and sad, swollen eyes because I was such a coward. I lost someone who I admired for all the right reasons but I didn’t get enough time with. She was the iconic woman. Always dressed the best. Always calm when the heat was on and a fighter when it was time to fight. I will miss her so much. I am grateful for the time we did share though. The many long conversations in my classroom after my students moved to their next class. Grateful for the moments when she would share her struggle with cancer and pray for me to excuse her memory with words while she dealt with radiation for the brain cancer. Little did she know, she needed no permission from me to be fallible because she just wasn’t. Never.
I will forever remember her beautiful face and warm smile. I will work hard to carry on and work for the students she devoted her life to. I will continue to live a life that will be a legacy once I die, but will pale in comparison. I will move forward with her in my heart. She and everyone else who has been near and dear to me will stay in the warm comfortable places of my heart.
Death hasn’t been easier, I have only learned to understand it better and have deeper faith in my creator. I struggle with each new loss as though it were the first. I cry. I fuss. I fight. I lose sleep while I toss and turn. The only comfort I find is in knowing that God has these souls on His right hand. The have been called to glory and are free from the mortal bonds. Free and free at last.
Rest in sweet peace my loves. I miss you all. I will see you one day, but until then, watch out for me, have my back in this life and teach me how to be a better person. I will seek guidance from each of you in my daily goings.
The Repressed Peach