Her Story: Mom and my siblings waited in the car on the gravel driveway while my eyes took in the orange shag carpet and yellow walls of the first bedroom of my own. It was a room in the century old house on the farm homesteaded by my great great grandparents from Prussia-a room I was to leave that day at age 14 due to divorce. I wept as I turned to leave and join my family to travel to a home 40 miles away. Life on the farm with a large family had been a wonderful blessing. My parents had three girls and five boys who, out of necessity, were my primary playmates and friends in those early years. Farm life meant spaciousness, freedom, an appreciation for nature and the satisfaction of hard work. Suddenly, we were pulled up by our roots. It was the severing of family and emotional ties. In the trauma it felt like we had moved to a foreign land. Our school no longer had 30-40 kids per grade but over 300. Our friends, dad, and home were gone.
Four months after our move my 13 year old brother, Mark, struck a cable while snowmobiling and was killed instantly. The message we kids received from all around us was ‘be strong for your mother.’ Mom had not fully recovered from the death of her first child, Debra, who choked to death on a peanut while mom was seven months pregnant with me. There were no pictures of beautiful Debra in our home and no stories of her two year old life. My sister, Tami, and I found out about her by accident when we came across a box of cards and pictures from her funeral. The pictures of Mark came down after his accident and we dared not speak of him for fear of upsetting our mother. The loss and pain were too great. It was as if he had not existed. We learned our pain was to be borne quietly, stoically and in private. It was not significant.
I went away to college with pain and trauma stuffed deep within my soul. My college roommate, Lisa, was seeing a counselor. It allowed me to see that help was available and it was healthy to seek it. It was the beginning of a long journey.
My husband, Mark, came into my life during my years at school. He would be my anchor in the storms yet to come. Little did I know they would be horrendous.
In 2003 my closest brother, Michael, took his life in Duluth, Minnesota. Nine months later, Paul, the baby of the family at 32, was killed in an ATV accident and just two months later Dad died of cancer. Three family members were gone within twelve months. The grief and pain were oceanic.
If you start subtracting significant people from your life and your skills for handling pain and loss are put to the test, what do you do? I reached for massive help. Mark and I have three beautiful daughters, Caitlin, Chloe and Olivia who were ages 18, 14 and 6 at the time of these three deaths. These girls of ours were full of life and joy. It was my job to help them through their grief while dealing with my own.
Intense grief is chaotic, messy and we are urged to rush through the process in modern day life. The way of grief is not a normal trip-the way is unclear and prevents people from grieving. I learned through a program in Bismarck called GriefShare to press into my pain and trust the journey. There is no control in the journey but letting go of control brings healing. Grieving, especially for children, is not the time to be brave or strong. It is the time to be human. The tears must come It is honoring to feel grief for the brothers I loved and adored.
I questioned my faith deeply after the deaths of Michael and Paul. I had prayed for Paul more than any other person and now he was gone. Where was God? My anger at Him came boiling out of my heart. I wrestled with Him in the manner of Job. I would go to bed every night and tell God how angry I was with Him. This went on for months and what I received back after my brutal honesty was a deep knowledge of how much He loves me. I realized that all God wants is for us to pour our hearts out to Him. He just wants us to talk to Him. There is nothing we can do to drive His love away from us. It took me a long time to come to terms with that. Now I know that He looks at each of us with intense love and we do not need to perform to receive it.
In August 2011 I was diagnosed with stage IIIb ovarian cancer. My mother had survived ovarian cancer 20 years prior. I felt strangely calm when I received the diagnosis. I had my surgery done at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota by one of the top surgeons for ovarian cancer in the country. It was a brutal surgery and the chemotherapy was far worse. My chemo had just started when my mom called and told me she had breast cancer. We went through chemotherapy together. I was done doing chemo about the time Mom’s doctor found the cancer had moved to her brain. I was thankful I could be there for my mom those last few months. I am in remission. Mom died in April 2013.
Four months later, my strong US Marine Corp brother, Bruce, took his life. Bruce was a Gulf War combat veteran and helicopter mechanic. He struggled after mom’s death and went into the Veteran’s Administration for help. I talked to him by phone while he was at the VA and was thanking God he was being taken care of because I knew he had a lot of unprocessed grief and pain. He was diagnosed with PTSD and severe depression. He was given meds after pouring his heart out and sent home. Two days later he was gone. My entire family is grieving his loss deeply and will for a long time. We have been here before. I go to a Survivors of Suicide support group that is far too full, but where I receive powerful healing and support.
Now my brothers Scott and Thomas(my dad’s last son born the day I graduated from high school) and sister, Tami, are all that remains from a large family. My family was a treasure and God mends what is broken. He has made it clear to me by numerous signs that my family members are in His care. My soul is full of hope and joy because I know I will see them again.
Even with all the loss I feel blessed. I have tremendous people in my life. My mother-in-law, Sandra, is the most gracious and loving woman I know. She has loved me like her own daughter when my mother couldn’t be there. My friends have walked beside me and loved me where I’m at. My husband and children are simply the best.
Living life as fully as I can honors my brothers and parents. Psalm 18:19 says ‘He brought me out into a spacious place; He rescued me because He delighted in me.’ The pain of grief and loss is confining. Walking straight into that pain and dealing with it opens our world to a spacious place.
Discovering what comforts has been a big part of my grief journey and I have learned to follow my heart. Music heals. Michael had given me Amy Grant’s first CD of hymns and after Paul’s death and I listened to it nonstop for six months without ever tiring of it. Hard to believe, I know, but it was healing balm. Music is a gift to our souls and I listen to everything from Johnny Cash to Gary Clark Jr. to receive it. I am taking piano lessons for the first time in my life. After each of my brother’s deaths I felt a tremendous need to create so I go with it whether it’s gardening, sewing or some type of art.
Currently my most comforting and healing activity is wandering the back roads, windows down if weather permits, and listening to music in a 1996 Ford F250 4wd diesel pickup. It was Bruce’s truck.