“We need to grieve the ones we’ve lost—not to sustain our connection to suffering, but to sustain our connection to love.” ~Jennifer Williamson
Ken was only forty-seven years old when he met his untimely death.
It was surreal, my brother-in-law was gone from our physical world.
As a family, we felt the motions moving through the initial telephone call summoning us to the hospital to the time we surrounded him as he took his last breath. It was if we were all caught between two worlds, one of cruel reality and one of complete disbelief. You read about it happening to other people, not to us.
My chest felt like a dense, cold stone had been dropped abruptly on it aimed at my heart after hearing those words hit my ears: “He’s not going to make it…”
When it’s your family lying in the wake of such a painful experience, you soon realize the profound effect that death has. It causes an enormous ripple in all our lives that reaches out for miles, days, weeks, and years.
It’s such a deep wound for an entire community that surrounded him—his young family left behind, extended family at work, concert traveling buddies, camping friends, and countless other people who enjoyed his presence.
Ken embraced fun, passion, and laughter, whether he was tearing up the dance floor, creating his culinary signature dishes for our family gatherings, harvesting his perfect tomatoes, or taking pictures of his lovely wife, kids, and all their adventures with his “fancy camera”. Ken was such an amazing soul that brought light wherever he shone.
A fall down a set of stairs changed our world completely. Ken suffered multiple bruises on the front and back of his brain as well as a significant fracture to the base of his skull. Black circles surrounded his eyes that look liked two large shiners. Contusions littered his arms and head.
The next week was steady but slow progress. His alertness grew and conscious awareness slowly trickled back. A conversation with the physician’s assistant was frank. Despite the best-case scenario, it would be a long recovery.
Questions loomed in the back of our minds. If he recovers, will our Ken ever be whole again? What challenges will this new version of himself present for our family?
It was clear that Ken would more than likely suffer from cognitive behavior issues associated with a traumatic brain injury. While in the hospital, some of his behavior was unusual but typical of a patient with his condition and prognosis. Initially, he had to be restrained to ensure he wouldn’t pull out his vital monitors or attempt to leave the hospital.
Eventually, he became calmer and more stable. A couple of days before he died was the last time my husband and I saw him smile and laugh again. A little of Ken was still in there, and it gave us hope.
We soon learned that brain injuries are unpredictable. Twelve days in and without warning, Ken suffered a massive stroke. The night before, he sat and watched the Jets hockey game with his son and wife. The next morning changed everything.
The nurse found him unresponsive. The doctors advised us that they would have to place Ken into a medically induced coma for three days.
The next morning our immediate family was summoned to the ICU. For reasons unknown, the pressure on his brain suddenly escalated. Medical intervention could not save him. Ken would have to be taken off life support. The doctors ensured us that he would pass peacefully.
All our family rushed to be by his side for his last moments. That day was the toughest day of my life. I witnessed the life leave his body as his skin turned from a beigy pink hue to a flush of gray in an instant when death gently urged life to leave him. We said goodbye to Ken as he took his last breath on this earth.
The hospital was a stark reminder of the gravity of our situation. Patients and families in intensive care. The noises of the machines and sight of numerous tubes. The nurses and doctors. Conversations and updates. Decisions. Sandpaper Kleenex from the waiting room. The beeps and syringes. It was so much to soak in with your eyes and ears.
The hospital is not a pleasant and serene place to die. It was out of medical necessity. For his children’s sake, it was a bitter lesson of mortality. There was no real goodbye. Memories of their father motionless, tubes parading from his body surrounded by an army of machines. My heart sank for them. It was their dad’s final moment of life, and unfortunately death doesn’t let us choose our departure.
The next day after he had passed, we gathered at my mother-in-law’s house. A service needed to be planned. Food was ordered, notice in the paper submitted, cremation arrangements and so many other details were handled in a few short hours. A celebration of life at the local community center, where my husband’s family grew up.
Simple and incredibly warm would be his final goodbye to everyone. It told a story of his passionate essence that was his life. There was an incredible outpouring of support by those that attended and were touched by Ken’s being.
A collection of Ken’s favorite things and pictures of precious moments throughout his life was on display. His fishing rod, lures made from his daughter’s nail polish, guitar, sport jerseys, and the leg lamp Christmas Story movie lights I gave him for his birthday, among other things, were included.
Ken’s wife gave the eulogy (the only speech), and it was moving. He was the love of her life since she was eighteen years old, father of her children, and the guy that was supposed to be alongside her till they were both old and grey.
Despite the sorrow, she spoke of the time they had and her gratitude for having found her soul mate. I was held back by the shimmer she refused to let go, despite the world she knew was crumbling all around her. I expected that the service would provide some closure, but despite the reality growing around his death, it made it harder to accept that he was really gone.
The wave of responsibilities in the aftermath of death is overwhelming. It is astonishing the volume of family and friends that contacted my sister-in-law, his mother and father, my husband. It left little time to feel lonely let alone mourn. Constant phone calls, food deliveries, visits.
My sister-in-law knew that it was an unavoidable truth to the whole situation. People mean well; it’s the process that follows that is daunting. Paperwork, death certificate, cremation, insurance, calling the kids’ schools, and all the little things tacked on create an enormous to-do list.
You steadily move without pausing and push through during the most profoundly impacting moment of your life. I’m still amazed at how well she pulled it all together. I knew in my heart she wanted to just collapse once all of this chaos settled. Once the mayhem calmed, the mounting grief would follow in its footsteps.
I watched my family fall apart and try to make sense of it all. The cruelty of holding onto the idea of someone that once was. Hope heartlessly taken abruptly away from us.
It wasn’t just his death alone; it was the rollercoaster of preceding events in the hospital that would damage us. Desperately holding onto the side of a boat without paddles, helplessly letting the river take us down its path etched into the earth. It is futile to stop it, you have to let it to carry you along its rough waters till they are calm once again. Like the river, living is really just control relinquished. It was never our duty to try and harness it.
The heavy gravity of loss and pain we all felt was slightly dissipated as we reminisced about Ken. Our faces would be painted with smiles amid a round of laughter as we fondly remembered his antics and told stories amongst ourselves.
We would be delicately reminded of how much we love him and his incredible passion for living. Death may take our physical being, but his memory and energy will live on within each of us.
Grief and love are so intimately intertwined. Without grieving we would never know love so deeply. It’s the beauty of love and sorrow twirling around us in this constant dance we call life. I realized that our hearts are meant to be broken only to be reborn and rise time and time again.