Five years ago today, we lost my beautiful niece, Kelsey, her fiance, Garrett, and their unborn baby, Sage, in a devastating automobile accident. While the healing has been slow, it has been steady. While the heartache will never go away, it has eased in intensity. And as with most challenges in life, there have been lessons. These are a few of the important ones that have touched me most.
You will find strength
Living through the unexpected death of a loved one isn’t for the weak. But if you happen to be weak or think you are, I can almost guarantee that you will become strong. There’s really no other way around the pain. The strength that carries you through the initial shock during the first days and weeks after the event may come from friends or family who hold you up (literally and figuratively) but eventually, you will start to feel your own strength. There was a point when that outer circle of support had to get back to their own lives. And I expected them to because that’s what we do. We move on, right? But when you are still feeling the unimaginable weight of grief every day, you know you won’t be moving anywhere. It’s as though the world stopped spinning at “the moment” and then, after a week or two, the world took up its rotation again. Only I was holding still so it made me dizzy and I felt off-balance. It was hard to get back into the groove of daily routines. And the reminders…oh they were constant and unrelenting. Every song reminded me of Kelsey. Because I could hear how she used to sing the lyrics while driving her car. Love songs brought tears of sorrow from knowing the incredible love Kelsey & Garrett had for each other. Disney movies were out of the question because Kelsey was Belle and the Beast…well, he wasn’t a beast, but we all knew Garrett was her Prince Charming. Lullabies or anything baby was totally out of the question. Every Facebook post — even if it was about chocolate chip cookies — reminded me of Kelsey. Because I remembered making them with her when she was a little girl. But eventually, I learned to smile a little when these memories hit me and to cherish the joy of those past times instead of focusing on the pain. Don’t get me wrong, there are certain songs and movies that are still off-limits because there simply aren’t enough Kleenex in the house…but I’ve become stronger. And I have watched Kelsey’s mom live through the unimaginable and gain incredible strength and her strength gives me more.
People will help you
When your world falls apart and people find out, they rush to help you. Since our culture is blessed with constant social media, this news traveled fast. We hardly had time to catch the wind that had been knocked out us before the texts and phone calls were flooding in with messages of support and offers to help. We openly expressed our sadness and the support came. Because Garrett and Kelsey have families who wept and grieved and let their hearts bleed openly — showing themselves in their most vulnerable hour — people responded with love beyond anything I’ve ever witnessed. Donations to help with funeral expenses came from strangers around the world and our refrigerator was brimming with food brought by neighbors we had ever met. It was a terrible, horrible, beautiful thing.
Something happened in the days following the accident that was unexpected to me. We had many, many visitors come to our home that week before the funeral because Kelsey’s mom was staying with us. Close friends and extended family came by day and night to offer their condolences and comfort us. What seemed to happen instead, however, was as those loved ones showed up, we comforted them. Of course, they offered hugs…but then melted into our arms from the weight of their own sorrow. They wanted to listen to us tell details of the tragedy but then they ended up asking the same whys? and hows? we had been asking. And we listened to them share their disbelief and shock. Mourning with those who mourn is not a one-sided expression of support and love.
In a recent conversation with a new member of my family, the story of Kelsey’s death came up and so we shared some of the precious details. We all cried a bit and my kids shared some of their memories of that horrible day, including the initial reactions they had and the pain they remembered feeling. It was an intense conversation that brought some of that hurt to the surface pretty quickly. But it was magically healing, as well. And although reminiscing about the cute things Kelsey used to say when she was little won’t bring her back, it does keep her alive in our hearts. These three beautiful people (and those wonderful dogs) will always remain part of our lives and we retell stories to keep them there. It doesn’t mean we aren’t “moving on”. It means we loved them so much that we never want their memory to fade. There was a time when I thought this might be rather pointless and cause further pain. But I’ve learned that it’s actually the thing that keeps us healthy. Thank you for so many who continue to support me and listen to me tell “the story” when it comes up on occasion. It means so much.
My sister, Jennifer Halterman, Kelsey’s mom, has put together a beautiful tribute as only a mother can. You can find that page here.