Counsel from my mom on the 5th anniversary of the death of my brother

Five years ago today my sisters and I lost our little brother. A year later my folks gave up their busy-but-comfy existence in Florida and moved to northern Uganda. Their purpose was to re-dedicate their lives to alleviating suffering in a place that has a great need. They’ve already brought so much joy to so many people  in their time there, and Africa has become their permanent home. I’m so proud of them, though often people don’t understand why or what they’re doing there. My mom, Deb Gilbert, sent this email today. I hope something in here resonates for you.

“There is no foot too small or too young that cannot leave an imprint on this world…”

Five years in and still I’m learning from my son.

The 16th of April, 1989 was one of the most joyous days of my life. I welcomed my first son into the world at 6:30 in the evening after a fairly easy labor…well, 12+ hours and drug induced with an amazing epidural. After 3 amazing daughters I was finally ready for a little son. At first glance, his daddy said, “yikes…I don’t think his head is done, put him back for a bit.” He had somewhat of a cone-head that I always believe was perfectly shaped for an easy arrival.

In sharp contrast, the 30th of July, 2007 was the worst day of my life. While it began like any other day, by the end of it, our lives were changed forever. I never expected that when Sean walked out the door that Sunday night to our “I love you’s” and “have fun,” that would be the last time we would be able to speak those words to him. Or see him. Or hug him. Or hear his voice.

Sean left us with a gaping hole in our heart and in our family, all of us devastated. When the numbness began to wear off some months later, the true reality began to hit me very hard…pounded me daily, really. I don’t think any ‘anniversary’ from the first to now, our fifth,  is any easier.  I believe there are days that God lets my brain stay numb to protect me from absorbing the full impact of my loss. Thank you Jesus.

So Sean, even five years later, it is still difficult to absorb that you will never return to this place. Not for a brief hug, not to give us some of your attitude, one of your killer smiles, to play one of your pranks, to tell one of your bad jokes, to do one of those crazy things you were famous in the family for…coloring your hair deep blue or red with kool-aid, nose rings, giant holes in your ears…you know, the things I would now give anything for to just have you back for a bit. As would daddy. Your big sisters miss you every day. You were kind of a rock star to Jenny and Jesse and Mandy.

We all miss you. Still.

Today though, I am remembering your life. Not your death.

Today I will bask in the countless memories of you I have tucked forever in my heart. The moments we shared. Mommy and son.

Today, no matter how much I hurt on the inside, my face will reflect the joy of you.

Today I will honor your memory by extending love to another child…because that is what you would want me to do.

Today when my heart feels like breaking, I will remember that grief is the price we pay for loving
and the only reason I hurt is because I had the privilege of loving you so much

Today, I will allow myself to be happy because I enjoyed you for 18 years.

Today, each time I hear your name, though it might bring tears to my eyes, I will smile with the memory of your voice.

I’ve learned… that death is as natural as life and all of us must deal with the death of someone we love deeply at some point in our lives. Much as we know that death is inevitable, though,  we are never quite prepared to deal with it. Are we.

I’ve learned… that Life is short. I know it sounds cliché. We’ve heard it so many times it begins to lose its impact and meaning. We know that life is short, yet we don’t really believe it. We don’t live like it. And we’re surprised when it suddenly comes to an end. With all good intentions, our human nature tends to put certain things off until tomorrow. Don’t. Take life one day at a time. Enjoy the small things with your family. A family vacation; tucked inside your home during a storm…little things, cleaning the house together, grocery shopping, on a car ride to school. Appreciate all those moments in your life.

I’ve learned… that the lessons gleaned from pleasure had a tendency to be shallow and easily forgotten. The lessons I’ve learned from sorrow run deep, to the deepest part of my heart and soul.

Frankly, I would rather that be opposite, but it seems to not be the case.

I’ve learned to… accept the certainty of death. Only against the backdrop of the certainty of death does the prospect of eternal life become important. Death makes us suddenly wise. Our priorities are shaken out. Our head is cleared. And in that clarity of priorities, nothing is more precious than the prospect of eternal life. It made me question, am I ready to meet my Maker?

I’ve learned…that I must discover the feelings and emotions that I can’t even articulate, alone. But to listen to those who have lived the sorrow and pain ahead of me, for being aware of what lies ahead in my journey reassures me I haven’t, in fact, lost my mind.

I’ve learned that…through my sadness, journey and lessons, I can be salve to another.

“Who better to soften the wound of another,
than one who has suffered the wound himself”?
-Thomas Jefferson

I’ve learned that…I am never alone. During the most awful of times… countless meals were made for our family, flowers were sent, friends sat and listened or stroked my back, an army of amazing people lovingly and joyfully cleaned our house, spruced up our yard, serenaded us, offered up vacation homes. After the adrenaline stopped and some of the shock wore off…those acts of kindness by people who love us came to me. And on anniversaries such as this, I continue to reflect on the love shown us…on the love felt by us. Thank you all again. Your kindness and love will never ever be forgotten and will continue to give us strength.

And because I love you all, I hope you’ll glean a bit of counsel from our pain…

Life is short.

Remember what is important.

Have an eternal perspective. Are you ready to meet your Maker?

Enjoy, immensely and often the gifts of your family God has lent you.

Don’t be defeated. Use your pain to make a difference.

You are never alone.

Cliché’, maybe yes…but don’t get comfortable and let each of these lose their meanings.


6 responses to “Counsel from my mom on the 5th anniversary of the death of my brother”

  1. margaret murray says :

    What a lovely, joyous perspective!

  2. Dawn Grimaldi-Lynch says :

    What an amazing post. And what an amazing woman your mom sounds like. I don’t profess to know what it is like to lose a brother. It sounds like this life altering event propelled your parents to do something really really awesome for others. Sometimes, when you lose someone you love, you don’t know where to turn or direct your energy. It sounds like from this post your parents have directed their energy in a positive way, and that you admire what they have done. Life is short, she is right. But, evidence from this post, shows you are all living your life honoring your brother’s memory, and you know that he would be really proud.

  3. Ashley says :

    This is so beautiful Jenny. You and your mother have given me the same gift. You’ve both reminded me to stay in the moment, to be in the here and now, to breathe into it and experience it. I practice this every time I take your class. Your brother, and your family, will be in my heart and in my thoughts.

  4. eva odlan says :

    I was thinking of your family today.Good to see ya’ll are still pushing back.

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