On May 21, 2015, my uncle died.
When my mom texted me to tell me Randy was in the hospital, I was just finishing up a night shift at work. I relayed the news to my coworker, and I felt pretty casual about the whole thing. I thought Randy was invincible. This was just another one of his adventures, another story in the life of Randy.
It wasn’t until later that I realized this was serious. That he might not make it. That maybe Randy was not invincible.
The night before, I was hanging out with some friends, and I was telling them about my family. I told them that Randy was always so interested in hearing my dramatic stories and about the trials of my love life.
He’d laugh at me and tell me to stop being ridiculous. “Why do you put up with that?” he’d ask.
I didn’t go see him in that hospital. I hadn’t slept all night. So I drifted in and out of fitful sleep waiting for someone to tell me a miracle had happened and he would be okay.
My mom called later.
She said something, something about life support and I don’t remember if she was crying, but I do remember feeling awkward, like I had to get off the phone immediately or else I’d explode.
Do you want to talk?
No Mom, I need to go lay on my floor while my world flips upside down.
I love you.
I love you too.
The last four years have been a journey.
I remember the first few days after he passed away, everything had a surreal quality. I’d cried many tears in the few weeks before, tears over a broken relationship, but these tears were different. They were the tears of grief and shock and fear.
Fear that there could be so much bad in the world and the things you thought always happened to other families had just happened to mine.
I went through the next few days mostly just kind of numb. One minute I’d be fine, and then the next I’d be crying those heavy tears. I tried to go about my life and live, as he would have wanted me to, but no matter where I went, my heart felt like it was being twisted and contorted. There was no normal left in my world.
I still don’t remember when I saw him last.
This haunts me. I have laid awake at night, praying to remember.
Come on, Kirsten, just… Just remember. Anything. A word, a moment. When did you last see him? Why didn’t you know?
Why didn’t you run back into that house, hug him, and tell him you loved him?
Am I allowed to grieve for my rough around the edges, stubborn, hilarious, loyal, helpful uncle if I don’t even remember the last time I saw him?
I wasn’t super close to Randy, but all of us as a family are close. We spend days at Grandma and Grandpa’s. Randy was the one who bought the dirtbike I unceremoniously crashed. I tell this story now, hundreds of times a year, to students in my classes.
Every class is one small act of remembrance of him.
For a long time, I tried to hide my grief, keep it tucked away because I felt like the grief belonged to someone else, to those in my family who were closer to him. But it was always there. It still is. Sometimes I don’t know how to talk about it. I don’t know how to describe how this loss still affects me.
I grieve for my uncle. I grieve for the relationship we could have had. I grieve for the fact I didn’t go see him one last time. I grieve for whatever my last moment was with him and that its memory is lost to me now. I grieve for the pain of my grandparents, my dad, his siblings, and all my cousins. I grieve for my youngest brother, not even a teenager yet at that point, who had to learn how bad the world can be. I grieve that this was no accident, illness, or the passage of time. It was intentional.
Many people talk about grief being like ocean waves. It rises and it falls. Of course, at first, it seemed like the waves would topple me over and I’d drown. I couldn’t catch my breath as I tumbled through my daily life. In those first weeks and months, there were breaks, moments of respite where I could almost catch my breath. But sure enough, another wave would build and fall on me again. In that year of all the firsts without him, the waves were big and they threatened to topple me. Even after all the firsts, there were the seconds and thirds, and the waves will never stop.
It’s been four years and I still cry sometimes. I cried four years worth of tears in October when I sat in a large-ish room and heard the things no one should have to hear about someone they love.
I didn’t show up four years ago, but I will always show up now. I will sit on those hard benches, I will listen to words that make my heart break, and some day I hope I’ll get the chance to express, out loud, all of the pain and hurt that has enveloped my family.
The circumstances in which he died mean that my family and I have had to relive this, again and again and again. We have to tear open old wounds in a long, but necessary, process.
And in less than a year, we do it again.
I’m still sad and continue to miss Randy, but there is beauty in sharing in the sufferings of others around me. Grief is awkward: we live in a society where we emphasize progress, solutions, and results. I have struggled in the last four years to let myself process my grief as it comes.
No one should have to bear the burden alone.
I know on some level, somewhere, that I can miss him in whatever way my heart feels. I feel this deep gaping ache for the uncle I could have known better. I wish we had another twenty, forty years. I wish I could ask him about how it was to grow up with my dad. I wish I could show him I took his advice and I don’t put up with the same stuff I did before.
You never, ever expect that your uncle Randy that you spend Sunday afternoons debating with and telling the stories of your tragic love life to will suddenly be ripped away.
I didn’t see him on his birthday.
I didn’t make the trip.
I didn’t drink a big cup of coffee and go see him in the hospital.
I sat on my couch and napped on and off and comforted myself with the knowledge that nothing could take down my uncle, our Randy.
But something, someone, did.
I love you, I miss you, I don’t know how to say goodbye.