In 2014, my older brother joined Jesus in Heaven.
He was fourteen, a passionate Christian, and a joy to everyone he met. His grin lit up a room, and his patience inspired me and my family every day. I considered him my best friend.
And then ten days after his fourteenth birthday, he unexpectedly passed away.
This time of year is always a tough one for my family. One week we celebrate my brother’s birthday, and just afterward we remember the day he left us. The mix of good memories and hard ones, joy and pain, laughter and tears, makes for a very emotionally draining couple of weeks.
This year, he would have been twenty-one. We spent his birthday doing things he would have loved to do. Watching movies, playing games, listening to music, and remembering times he enjoyed. He would have asked for cherry cheesecake as he always did, and opted to forgo the ice cream and have a second piece of cake instead. I know he would have considered it a wonderful birthday.
But I also know it couldn’t compare to the birthday celebrations he enjoyed in Heaven. The fun and laughter in streets of gold, listening to and singing with the choirs of angels, and spending time with his Lord and Savior. If there’s cheesecake in Heaven – and I don’t see why there couldn’t be – I’m sure it’s quite literally heavenly.
As much as I miss him here, I could never take him away from that – even if it was possible. I love him so dearly, and it warms my heart to imagine everything he’s doing now. Everything he’s enjoying. I eagerly await the day I get to join him.
Grief is such a complex emotion.
I’ve found that most people don’t like to talk about grief. They don’t like to think about it, or acknowledge it. And they certainly don’t like to share their own personal battle with it. In my own experience, it just hurts more. Or it feels like we’re whining, or that others will never understand. Or that we’d only drag others down too.
For years, I dealt with my grief in any way I could manage. The day we lost my brother, I cried a lot. At first, I tried not to, but as the realization of what was happening hit harder, I couldn’t help it. My family saw me sob a lot that day.
After that, I did my best to hide it away. I still cried a lot, but no longer in front of others as much as I could help it. I told myself to be strong. After all, I was the oldest now, and I saw how much the rest of my family was hurting. Somehow, in my mind it made sense that if I didn’t show my pain, maybe they wouldn’t feel so much.
Looking back now, I see how wrong those eleven-year-old thoughts were. But at the time, it felt like a mission. Like something I needed to do for my family. After they ‘felt better’, then I could let myself show my pain. It wouldn’t hurt them so much then, right?
But by the time the grief wasn’t quite so raw for others, it felt wrong to show how torn up I was over the little, daily things they’d already acknowledged. It felt like I’d held myself back, and now I’d never catch up. I’d missed my chance.
Everyone struggles differently with grief. Some people acknowledge it openly. They need to talk about it. To process it with others, and to deal with their pain with the close help of loved ones.
Others process it better on their own. By spending time in the quiet, often by writing, or another creative pursuit, or by simply sitting, praying, and pondering their own thoughts and feelings.
Most people cycle through variations of both. Depending on the day, or the time of day, they need to do different things. To be different places, and find different ways to push through their pain. There’s no clear-cut process for grief. No right or wrong way to do it. No roadmap for anticipating how you’ll feel a certain time.
It’s been seven years since my brother passed away. Sometimes, when people hear how long it’s been, I get strange looks. I don’t think they’re intentional, but I can see the moment their expression changes from one of sympathy at hearing I’ve lost someone close to me, to almost bewilderment after hearing it’s been years and I’m still grieving.
Though their reaction hurts sometimes, I try to remember that they must not have experienced a close loss yet. They just don’t understand that while the pain may dull, while the rawness slowly fades, the grief doesn’t ever leave completely. You carry it in your heart the rest of your life and it changes how you see the world. How you interact with people, how you react to situations, and how you live your life.
Yes, over time, the day to day hurts are fewer – their food still in the fridge, their clothes still in the hamper, and their chair still empty at the table. Their smell on their sheets, and their hairs in their brush. Their shampoo still in the tub and the money in their wallet. The things you don’t think about until they’re right there, and suddenly you’re crying again and you can’t even remember starting.
As time passes and life continues, those moments grow farther and farther apart. You’re forced to move on, and there aren’t as many of those things to stumble across. But there are still so many firsts. First time shopping without them, first family picture without them, first holiday without them . . . first time realizing those big things you wanted to do with them can’t happen on this earth.
Grief is eye-opening. As an eleven-year-old, I’d been blessed to experience very little death around me. The instances that were there went mostly over my head. In my mind, death was something reserved for some media, like movies or books, or for older men and women who’d experienced long, full lives. Of course, it was still sad, but I thought if you expected it, it couldn’t hurt so much.
I also believed that if someone younger was in danger of dying, and you brought them to a hospital in time, everything would be fine. You’d tell the story later and praise God for His provision, and marvel at the med-flight in the helicopter, and overall, it’d just have been an eventful few days, weeks, or months.
Well in a day, everything I believed about death was proved to be wrong. What I’d seen or read in movies or books didn’t even scratch the surface of the real thing. Death isn’t only for older people (and now I’ve found out that expecting it doesn’t make it hurt any less), and getting someone to a hospital right away doesn’t guarantee they’ll be okay.
Instead, you can be left with pictures of helicopters but no one to show them too. A story that breaks your heart to tell. And praising God can be the farthest thing from your mind.
God has put up with a lot from me over the years. So many wavering beliefs, faith that I’m ashamed to say has not always remained strong, and what has felt like a tornado of emotions that has taken years to start to sort out. Thankfully, I’ve never felt angry at Him. I’ve never struggled to remember that He knows best.
But for a long time I felt very distant. The things I thought I knew about His methods were so wrong that I no longer felt like I knew the God I prayed to. My way of coping was just not to pray. Not to bug Him. Not to even try understanding a God I felt had just made Himself impossible to understand.
Despite the overwhelming comfort and presence of my amazing family, I felt lonely. My brother and I used to do so much together. And even though my whole family did a lot together (and still do), there were still times when we’d be going about our day, and my parents would be doing something together, my two younger siblings would go play together – and that would leave me, when I’d usually hang out with my brother.
That took a lot of getting used to. I’d starting writing a bunch the previous summer, and after my brother passed, it became a passion. An escape. A way of working out my thoughts, emotions, and memories by putting them on paper. Whether by journaling or writing fiction, it was therapeutic, and I’ve only written more and more as time has passed.
And as that time has passed, God’s worked on my heart; healing it, mending it, softening it, and teaching it. He’s shown me His ways and His own heart in ways I never knew them before. He’s comforted me, held me, and soothed me. He’s guided me, and revealed blessings in the midst of all the hardships.
Most of all, He’s simply been there. He’s stayed close, even when I tried to distance myself from Him. No matter how hard I’ve tried to pull away, He’s brought me back in His own, unmistakable and loving ways. Looking back, I see so many things He did in my life, and in the lives of my family members, without me realizing it at the time.
I won’t pretend I know exactly why God chose to take my brother home after only fourteen years. I won’t pretend to realize why He gives some people shorter lives than others. But I do know that He gives everyone a purpose in life, and once that purpose is accomplished, He brings them home. My brother must have fulfilled his purpose on this earth.
And in his death, he continued to influence people, and to bring people to Christ – a blessing that brought light and hope in the midst of the grief. As people saw the life he lived, his love for Jesus, and his passion for bringing others to Heaven with him, some were so moved, and so intrigued to know more, that they will now spend eternity in Heaven too.
My brother continues to influence me every day. His example of patience, faith, joy, compassion, and perseverance in the midst of hardship has always inspired me. I strive for the kind of passion for Christ that he had. And I do miss him very, very much.
The grief isn’t as raw anymore. But it’s still there. It still springs up when I don’t expect it. Still aches when I think of things we planned to do together. Still brings tears when I miss having an older brother, and all the comfort, encouragement, and fellowship that he gave as one.
I don’t expect it to ever go away. I think every time someone leaves our lives, they leave behind a wound. And while the wound can heal, it will always be sore. It will always leave a scar that you can feel. Maybe sometimes you can forget about it for a while, but sooner or later, something will rub against at it, and you’ll remember again. You’ll hurt again.
One blessing of those scars however, is that it reminds us to fix our eyes upward. Every time I feel the pain of losing my brother, I think of where he is now, joyful, peaceful, and in the presence of the One he loved most of all. I will get to see him again. I don’t know when, but until that day comes, I’m reminded to keep going and fulfill the purpose God has for my life. To bring as many people to Heaven with me as I can. Just like my brother did.
Everyone grieves in different ways. Everyone will grieve many times in their lives. The loss of my brother hasn’t been the only loss I’ve experienced and I know it won’t be the last.
But I also know that the God in control of the universe is enough. For everyone and anyone. For me. For you. No matter how we grieve, He’s there to help us in it. He’s there for us, to heal us, to comfort us, and to lead us into situations where we can help people we never could have before. In the midst of my grief, I’ve discovered a God that doesn’t abandon us, no matter how hard we may try to avoid Him.
I’ve discovered a God whose love comforts the most broken hearts, wipes away the streaming tears, and holds the lonely close. He’s held me in my grief, and I’m so very blessed to know He always will. I pray you’ll always know that He’ll do the same for you.
I look forward to spending eternity with Him – and my brother.
And until then, I know I’ll keep grieving. I know I’ll keep remembering. And I’ll choose to keep hoping, because the pain isn’t permanent. Some day – coming closer every moment – it’ll be my turn to go home. To joy, peace, eternal fellowship, and to kneel at my Savior’s feet, praising Him for His constant presence.
Every pang of grief reminds me to look toward that day.
He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain,
for the old order of things has passed away.
(Revelation 21:4 NIV)