I remember June 3, 2003 as if it were yesterday. I stood over my brother as he took his last breath on this earth. Alongside me were my sister-in-law, my uncle, and my husband. To this day I feel so privileged to be a witness of God’s divine presence in that room.
It was just moments before my brother’s passing that I had excused myself and frantically headed into the guest bedroom to hyperventilate—a first for me. With hands on my knees, heaving violently, the walls were crashing in. I could not control what was happening. My husband, Joe, had followed me into what felt as a dungeon. I remember him taking my hands and saying my name over and over, “Teena, it’s okay. Just breathe.” My eyes focused on his breathing routine, and I eventually mimicked a calm pattern of inhaling and exhaling. I really don’t know what triggered this reaction: maybe it was the fact that my parents had just left to purchase my brother’s, their son’s, burial lot, an unimaginable trip for a mom and dad.
I collected myself, opened the door, and stepped into the most beautiful presence of peace and serenity I have ever felt in my life. My spiritual eyes saw angels hovering in every corner. One angel was divinely assigned to our 8 ½-month-old baby girl and miraculously swayed her to sleep. Parents of babies “wired for sound” know a miracle when they see one. Was this the feeling of death? Peace? Stillness? Calmness? Quietness? Restfulness? If so, by faith I chose to accept what the Holy Spirit was showing me.
I stepped back into my brother’s room a different person than I was when I left. Whatever happened between my exit and re-entry validated my true belief. “For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (James 4:14, NKJV) “Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in me. In My Father’s house are many mansions, if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:1, 2, NKJV); “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4, NKJV); The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, NKJV).
Now, rewind seven years. It was a typical fall day in Missouri in October 1996 when I received the phone call that my brother had suffered a massive seizure. Days of testing proved he was the recipient of a fairly rare brain tumor. I was not there when he and his lovely wife had to ask his physician the questions, “How long will it take me to get better?” “How long will I have to stay in the hospital?” “How long until I have another seizure?” “How long will I have to take treatments?” “How long can I walk without using a cane, walker, or wheelchair?” “How long can I work and provide for my family?” “How long do I have to spend with my wife, my daughter, and my son?” “How long do I have to live?”
Maybe you have heard your loved ones ask the same question; or even, maybe you have had to ask. “How long?” I count myself blessed not to have had to roll such words off my tongue. But I must admit, I have asked my own painful “How long?” questions through the journey of losing a loved one.
1) How long do I grieve? How long do I question? These two subjects are a natural process and a natural response. Each question depends upon each individual’s season of life and season of spiritual life. For some, their “How longs?” may last for days, weeks, months, or even years. These questions can create an unhealthy dynamic, if not put to rest in due time. Grieving does not come by a play-by-play book or a prescription of, “if applied three times a day for four weeks you are cured.” In fact, I passed with flying colors on my college psychology test that listed the stages of grief defined by author and psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. I wasn’t expecting to experience these stages; I was satisfied with just having the head knowledge. This death was my first close loved one. I had it in my mind that possibly a “Dances With Wolves”-moment would transpire. The chief of our family tribe would walk up to me and tell me that my mourning days were over. Fights with a fist seemed to accept the instruction well. This wasn’t the movies, which meant I had to rely on Someone higher than myself to write my healing script. Survivors that have loved ones depending on them most likely take their thoughts captive and strive to work through this process/response in a timely manner. We get into trouble when we believe we know ourselves better than God. His timing is perfect if you will allow Him to direct the grieving process.
2) How long do I feel guilty? This question has been my number one struggle. It tries to rear its ugly head still, all because I am the only child left. Why did this have to happen to my brother, the namesake of our family? He was a husband, a father, a provider, a son, a brother, an uncle, a friend, and a man who loved God with all his heart. The enemy saw a chance to pounce on my vulnerability. Never did my parents or sister-in-law portray this thought to me. This was a self-induced fight. I felt guilty for being healthy, for having a wonderful marriage, for laughing, for playing, for traveling, for living. Why is it that we listen to those voices in our head rather than the breath of God? Guilt began to build a wedge in my relationships with my family. One-sided, that is. The wedge was entirely in my mind, and the enemy would fabricate lies and stories and nonsense that I would actually believe! “Your parents would much rather have your brother on earth than you.” “Your sister-in-law doesn’t want you around; you’ll just remind her of what she doesn’t have anymore.” Lies, all lies. I allowed Satan to use the silence that sometimes is a result of loss against me. “Now you don’t have anything to talk about with your family.” “They don’t care; why should they?” I know I lost some precious moments with God because I didn’t believe and follow His Truth, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).
As a survivor, I chose to capture my thoughts and renew my mind as Romans 12 instructs us. There’s healing in being together (even if there is silence); there’s healing in laughter; there’s healing in conversation; there’s healing by being present. When Jesus hung on the Cross and died for mankind, He took every ounce of guilt with him; guilt of sin, and for me, guilt of living, for it is Christ who lives in me (Galatians 2:20).
Once I overcame that guilt, Satan began to throw a different guilt dart at me: the guilt of not doing enough. “You should have been around more.” “You should have offered to help more.” “You should have done this . . . you should have done that.” Don’t think because you have overcome one hurdle in your race that the enemy will leave you alone. He will try every angle he can to keep your thoughts, your emotions, your spirit off of the One and only true God. It’s time to capture those thoughts! Don’t even crack open that door. Of course, there are a ton of things I would have done differently. But, our love and faith in God goes deep. When you remain in Him, He remains in you (John 15). When you go through grief, sometimes the only thing you know to do, or the only thing you can do, is just remain. And remain, we did. Our blue-collared family roots were and are anchored in the sure foundation of Jesus Christ, for we know His ways are higher than ours.
3) How long do I celebrate? Yes, I said celebrate! This year we will celebrate the 11th anniversary of my brother seeing Jesus face to face. Every June I am reminded of the atmosphere my brother made us promise we would create as we remembered and honored his life. “I don’t want a bunch of sobbing; it’s my life and I want it happy,” he said. My big brother taught me graciously throughout his sickness, even in his last days, of what life is truly about. We celebrate the fact that we have the opportunity to choose Christ as our Lord and Savior and, therefore, heaven as our eternal home. What exactly is there to celebrate? A future reunion. Birthdays (it just so happened God demonstrated His love toward our family by allowing our baby girl to share the same birthday as my brother). Every 21st of September you will see a bouquet of blue balloons sailing toward the heavens, delivering a message of love and perseverance. A celebration of life.
4) How long do I remember? One of my most favorite times in church is when we take communion. God knew we would forget; that’s why he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” How can we forget the most sacrificial love given to mankind? But we all do. We intentionally remember through the sacred ceremony. In that same way we intentionally remember my brother—the boy, and my brother, the man, throughout the year, every year. I “tell on him” to my parents (my joke is that he can’t hurt me now); I listen to music we would blast through his 1970 blue Chevrolet truck speakers; I relive moments of playing snow football and Army soldiers; I stare at our childhood and grownup photos; I picture him sitting by the beach, meditating; I reminisce about him, his best friend, and Joe helping decorate for our parents’ 25th wedding anniversary (what was I thinking?!); I remember with my parents and my family what a precious man of God he was as we change the seasonal flowers on his tombstone. I want to always remember, so I must be intentional.
5) How long do I share my experience? Allow me to use Deuteronomy 11 from the New Living Translation as a guide for this answer. Beginning with verse 1, “You must love the Lord your God and obey all his requirements . . . Keep in mind that I am not talking now to your children, who have never experienced the discipline of the Lord your God or seen his greatness and his strong hand and powerful arm. They didn’t see the miraculous signs and wonders . . . They didn’t see what the Lord did . . . Your children didn’t see how the Lord cared for you . . . They didn’t see what he did to . . . But you have seen the Lord perform all these mighty deeds with your own eyes! . . . Teach them to your children. Talk about them . . . .” (verses 1- 7, 19).
As long as you have breath, share what you know about God and His strength during your weakest, loneliest, saddest, angriest, and heart-broken moments. Your experience will provide the help someone else may need to make it. A new family friend, Daren Lindley, prophetically exclaimed at a recent event, “The bread to feed the city is in the house.” My family and I had to rely on the Bread of Life, God’s Word, to get us through our painful experience. The Bread that fed us, can feed other individuals and other families that are struggling with the same “How long?” question. We must be an example to the next generation. My girls did not see what I saw, but they will because I will paint the picture for them to the best of my ability through celebrations, by intentionally remembering, by conversations, and by sharing the solid verse I stood on from Lamentations 3:19-25:
“I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.’
The Lord is good to those, whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;"
The faith journey you walked through or are walking through allows the glory of God to be prevalent in all generations. We must include the next generation in our experiences with sorrow, pain, and death. It is by the word of our testimony that we are made overcomers (Rev. elation 12:11). Death is a part of life, but it’s not the end of life. We must remember who gave His life and that He is the giver of life.
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? (Psalms 13:2)
Death may have sent you into a dungeon and saturated your mind with fear. Your hands may be on your knees; you’re bent over heaving in and out; you are spiritually hyperventilating. Breathe in; breathe out. Breathe God’s Word in; breathe God’s Word out. It’s going to be OK; you are going to make it. You are going to be a different man and woman of God than you were when you entered this day.
C. S. Lewis wrote in his work, A Grief Observed, “God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn't. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.” For those of us who have sat or are sitting in death’s courtroom, Christ strikes the gavel and declares that it has been long enough.