December 12, March 14, July 25, October 16
- The date of my brother’s birthday
- The date my brother became a father.
- The date I became a Mom.
- The date of my brother’s death.
Since the death of my brother Steven, I’ve become a student on surviving loss and trying to deal with the loss of a sibling. I have an ongoing lesson on how to explain death to my daughters. Each year as the girls get older, their questions about Uncle Steven get harder and harder to answer. Parker wants to know “exactly how he died.” Peyton has asked, will she get to meet him one day when she goes to Heaven? And with each question and with every answer, no matter how many years have gone by, no matter how much I have tried to learn and understand, I am paralyzed and unprepared for their innocent questions. I will never get over the shock and loss of Steven, but through my children and my niece, I have learned to heal my heart, to seek out my own answers, and to take another step forward, while clinging to memories and a powerful part of my own childhood.
Since becoming a mother, my girls have asked many questions about their Uncle Steven. Even though they have never met him, Steven is very much a presence in our day-to-day lives. My family is very open and we always tell funny stories about him. We have created traditions and kept his memory alive, so that my girls and his daughter, Abby, all believe that they “know” him. This has been a big factor in managing my grief. My third “P” is named after her uncle — our perfect Piper Steven. Since my husband and I clearly only know how to make girls, and she is our last baby, it was only fitting that her middle name was to be “Steven.” Even more special is that Piper is our only daughter with blue eyes. Steven was known for his huge and uniquely captivating blue eyes.
One of the most frustrating things in coping with the loss of Steven was the absence of supportive literature about sibling loss. Almost ten years later, there is finally some literature and websites out there…but the truth is that sibling loss is something that is rarely covered. And of course, it is complicated. The focus of grief coping material is primarily on parents and on the loss of a child. I am in no way diminishing my mother’s grief or any parents’ grief because it’s simply unimaginable. I pray I never experience this profound and debilitating pain, but sometimes siblings are “forgotten”. I remember going through pictures for Steven’s viewing, and completely losing all aspects of sanity. I was sobbing uncontrollably when a family friend took me aside and said, “You have to keep it together.” I couldn’t breathe, my heart throbbed, everything around me was falling apart, and I was supposed to keep it together? My friend Rachel, who lost her younger brother, Daniel, a few years later said it beautifully, “Our shared childhood history has disappeared. We don’t have anyone to fondly remember the good old days.” Things only get complicated from there. There’s this immense loss for not only our childhood but for our future. Steven will never meet my daughters, Daniel will never meet Rachel’s children, Connor and Abby. We can only paint pictures in our minds and create imagined joy our brothers would feel spending time with our children and being the “wild and crazy uncles”.
I recently found a group on Facebook, “Loss of a Sibling”. This group has guided me through some pretty rough days. It has also provided me some powerful suggestions on how to discuss death to my daughters. Members of this group have opened up and shared their stories of loss. A common theme among the group is that they feel forgotten, yet don’t want to say much for fear of upsetting their parents. It’s totally not a competition as to who is suffering more, it’s just a recognition that siblings are feeling profound pain too. Even though the stories are heart-wrenching, there’s an amazing peace in knowing that there are other people out there that “get it” and don’t expect you to be “over it.” And yes, I’ve been asked, “Well aren’t you over it yet?” or “You’re STILL sad?” [insert eye roll here] SERIOUSLY PEOPLE!!!
Incredibly, it’s been almost 10 years for me. How is that possible? Steven was killed while working at his construction job- a job that he took while his own business was on a hiatus. A man crashed his car into the construction site, killing Steven and another worker. I can still remember the unreal early morning phone call from my Dad. I remember driving like a madwoman to my parent’s house, and I remember my mom sitting in stunned silence in the corner chair in the living room. I recall going through the phone book and reaching out to relatives and friends that I hadn’t spoken to in years. I had to say the horrible words over and over again…”Steven died, he was killed…Yes, it was an accident… No, I do not know the details.” I was like a robot, because it HAD to be done, and there was no way in hell I was letting my mother or younger sister, a high school senior, do it. I immediately took on the role of “I HAVE TO BE STRONG.”
Besides the horribly obvious, the most wrenching part of the morning of October 16, 2008, was driving to my grandmother’s house, accompanied by my dad, to break the news to her in person. My grandmother, who lost a baby in infancy, my grandmother who has her own struggles and loss, needed to hear it from us because frankly, the accident was already all over the news.
The pain in my grandmother’s face is something that I will never be able to erase from the memories of that day. I remember my friends calling my cell phone, trying to reach out. I simply could not answer the phone. The one phone call I did take was from my family friend, Tracey, who had lost her own sister, Christy, 29 years earlier. You never understand why certain people come into your life, and I had known Tracey most of my life. It was then, in that moment, that I realized why she was in my life and how much I would need her. Tracey explains that “When you lose a sibling, you lose the person who not only knows you inside and out but also why you are the way you are. It’s a loss that you are forced to learn to live with, not one that ever gets easier.”
In the hours, days and tear-drenched nights leading to the viewing and funeral, I tried to be strong for everyone around me. My sister in law, my mom, my sister, and my grandmother. I didn’t feel like I had a right to break down…I believed it was my role in this family tragedy to keep it all together. However, as expected, and as everyone told me would happen, it eventually caught up with me.
I distinctly remember the morning of the funeral, not being able to lift myself off the shower floor. If I actually got dressed, and if I actually went to the church, and made it through the service, it would be FINAL, and he would REALLY be gone- I didn’t want to say goodbye…Desperate, my husband called two of my friends. Those friends lifted me up off that shower floor. They saw more of me than they anticipated that day, but these amazing friends dressed me and did my makeup, while I sat like a zombie. I’ll forever be grateful and will never forget what they did for me that day.
There was no light at this moment in my life, except for Abby, who kept us all going. I was married, but in the early stages of marriage… mostly, I was trying to figure out life without Steven. I had NO idea how to “live” without him. My life became “before Steven’s death” and “after Steven’s death”…Truly I just wasn’t the same. Nothing was the same. To this day, I’ll cry over a silly song, I’ll cry driving past a construction site, I’ll cry over the scent of fresh cut grass. I remember completely bawling my eyes out at a Toby Keith concert during the song, “Cryin’ for Me” (look up the lyrics and you’ll get it). And of course, there are the random where-the-heck-did-that-come-from questions from Peyton and Parker about Uncle Steven.
I remember returning to my teaching job a few days after the services for Steven. I vaguely remember standing in front of my classes. I wasn’t ready to come back. I wasn’t ready to face reality…Talk about anything…Look at anyone… Answer another question. The world kept turning, but a part of me had died. I graciously thanked my students for their understanding and patience in my absence, and somehow made it through that day…through the year…the first Thanksgiving without Steven, the first Christmas without Steven, and Abby’s first birthday…
As life goes on, I’ve lived through the years and had three daughters. With each birth, I find that I simply can’t imagine the pain my mom feels. She never stopped being a mom, a Mom Mom, or an incredible friend, despite her loss. She has shown me how to be strong, but also that it’s okay to cry.
In the years since Steven’s death, many people have asked, “How is your mom?” Their kindness in asking about my mother is something that I appreciate, but the truth is, I lost something too. I lost a piece of my heart, my brother, my person. I could go to him for anything, tell him anything, and I loved him with my whole being, even though we fought like idiots and ratted on each other during the teenage years. Steven totally went to bat for me once when I was grounded. My mom reminded him that she hadn’t even grounded me yet. She and dad were still deciding on an appropriate consequence. I hear him say, “WOW, she’s on her own, what an idiot!” Yeah, thanks, Steven!
We will never forget his infectious laugh, his wise observations on life, and his kind heart. I can still hear him say, “Hey, you gotta have a sense of humor.” I’ll keep this post PG, but he also had some other pretty good mottos on life that I still use today. We made t-shirts bearing them on the anniversary of his accident. We kind of shocked the takeout delivery guy with the obscene words on our shirts, but Steven would have loved it.
Steven’s death combined with motherhood, like most major life events, has changed me. When I could finally pull myself out of the darkness, I refocused. I tried to use my grief and my pain to help others. Rachel came into my life, where she was fresh in the grief process. I used my unfortunate experience to guide her. And as my daughters get older, we will continue to talk about Uncle Steven. I will answer their questions as much as I can. We will talk about the symbolism behind dragonflies (that’s a future blog post coming soon), we will talk about the funny things Steven said and did. On the sad “Steven” days as we call them, we will remind ourselves how blessed we are to have a piece of Steven through Abigail. Every day, I silently thank Steven and Nikki for her sassy, funny, and wise presence in our lives.
Each October 16, I will continue to make Steven’s favorite dinner of ravioli and homemade meatballs and we will toast to Steven with Coors Lite (his favorite).
Each December 12, I will make a birthday meal for Steven, and we will sing and eat cheesecake and chocolate cake.
Each March 14, I will celebrate my beautiful niece, Abby.
Each July 25, I will thank my mother for teaching me and showing me how to be a mom.
This past December 12, on Steven’s birthday, my 5-year old daughter, Parker, set the table with the special “birthday dishes”, that we use for everyone’s special day. When I walked into the dining room, she had set a place for “her Uncle Steven”. I had tears in my eyes. She asked if she did something wrong. At that moment, I realized I was doing something right.
I can’t ever change the fact that Steven is gone…I can’t ever take away my sadness or my mom’s pain, but I CAN make healthy and healing steps forward. My daughters were honoring their Uncle Steven and I will be sure that we continue these special traditions. How lucky am I that I got 25 years with my brother? How lucky is our family that we have Abby? There are a slew of things that I can’t change, but I can do this for Steven. I CAN take control of my future and my attitude toward the “bad things” that happen. I can write a blog post on sibling loss and maybe my story will help another sister who lost a brother.
We all experience loss. Whether it be a friend, grandparent, parent, sibling, cousin, etc. And there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Nobody’s pain is worse than anyone else’s. It’s YOUR pain and YOUR grief. We are all entitled to our own feelings and emotions. I hope and pray that those suffering find peace moving forward and find ways to cope.
My dearest friend Rachel said, “Everyone experiences loss and death of those they love. When you realize you are not the only one, you start to realize, the sun will still rise and set, and each year will get easier and easier in many ways. Decide what you will do with the hand you have been dealt.” This is so true.
In the years since Steven’s death, Nikki has created a beautiful life for herself and Abby, while still maintaining a close relationship with our family. My mom and dad started a new adventure in Milan, Italy. My little sister graduated from culinary school and moved to Napa, California where she is Chef de Cusine at a great restaurant. I wonder… if Steven had lived, would my family have changed so much? Would my mom be in Italy? Would Taylor have done something different? Maybe? Who can know? But I know for sure that Steven would not want us to stop living.
Losing Steven changed me…Maybe for the better, maybe for the worse…But the old Casey is gone. Things I use to worry about, don’t matter much anymore, and things that didn’t matter so much, suddenly matter. Losing somebody so suddenly makes you harshly aware of your own mortality.
The best part is that Steven is here in us every day. In the dragonfly signs, in Abby’s perfect little, Steven, giggle, and in Piper’s blue eyes.
The “Legend of the Dragonfly”
I Miss You This is a link to a book that I have read to my oldest daughter, Peyton.