Closer Than A Brother

“Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” Matthew 5:4

What I anticipated to be an ordinary Sunday morning, would become the day that my life changed forever.

I was five months pregnant. From the front, I was all belly and looked as if I was carrying a basketball under my top but from behind, you couldn’t see a noticeable difference in my appearance.  I swayed to the worship music in the auditorium of The Orchard’s newest church campus, in Northfield, IL, where my husband Adam and I had only recently begun attending to help with church planting. I rubbed my belly as I fought my usual morning nausea, but the words of my favorite song engaged me enough to stay in the moment.  

“You give light

you are love

you bring light to the darkness

you give hope

you restore,

 every heart that is broken.”

We have one main campus pastor who does a sermon series periodically which gets shared across all campuses. That morning was the beginning of a brand-new series called “For All Who Grieve, Light and Hope in Lamentations”. Pastor Collin Smith began sharing (in his Scottish accent that I love listening to) that this was a special series that would address suffering and loss. Then what really caught me by surprise was his emphasis that it was his first time in his FORTY years as a pastor that he would teach a sermon on specifically the book of Lamentations in the Bible. I recall feeling struck with attentiveness. It was as if the Holy Spirit was whispering, “Pay attention” and I did. As we left the service, I told Adam that I felt as though Pastor Collin was speaking directly to me and that this series was going to be very important to me.  I had a gut feeling that I was going to lose someone, and I feared that God was preparing me to have a miscarriage.  

We drove to my in-law’s house after church and spent the afternoon there until going out to dinner. On our drive to Portillo’s, my phone rang. My dad said he received a strange call from my brother’s wife that he had a seizure and it wasn’t looking good. He went on to say that an ambulance and paramedics were at their house and she urged my dad to head over. My brother had many seizures over the course of the last decade, caused by his epilepsy, so this was alarming but not completely out of the blue.  It was the calm in my dad’s voice left me concerned that this was more than a scare.

I think to this day, the most terrified I have ever been was the first time I saw my brother have a seizure. I was twenty-one years old, my brother Don was twenty-five and we took a trip to Colorado together to visit my Dad where he had been living at the time. We were both taking an afternoon nap when I woke up to my brother calling my name and seconds later heard a loud thud as his body hit the ground. He had fallen off the couch and was having his first grand mal seizure. I called 911 while helplessly watching his arms flail, his mouth foam and his eyes roll back into his head. I thought he was going to die that day. Ten years later, these calls still took my breath away and played the tape of that time and others that I saw him have seizures.   

I told me dad to call me as soon as he got to the house and knew more about what was happening. I was concerned and asked if I should head there too but he hesitated and told me to continue with my dinner plans and that he would call me to keep me in the loop.

I sat down to eat my beef and cheese fries (Don’s favorite meal and mine to this day.) I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I began talking with my sister-in-law about the sermon at church and asking what she thought of it. I shared the bad feeling I had that I was being warned about a loss. I had a pit in my stomach, my throat was feeling tight and I started feeling panicked. Just then Adam’s phone rang and he turned to me to say “Your Dad is calling me.” I knew right then what he would say but I couldn’t comprehend it.

Don was 35 years YOUNG and lived a full life. He was so radiant, loving, funny, outgoing, and charismatic. He was Dad to four children, two of whom were teens, one step daughter who he raised since she was 3 years old and his youngest who was in Kindergarten. He was a husband to a wife that he had been friends with since junior high school. He was a loved leader at his job, his Dad’s best friend, his Mom’s heart, and my big brother which I have come to realize was one of the most meaningful relationships I have ever known. Siblings are unique. They share things that only you two could have been through as children, under one roof, with the same family members, experiences and memories. They are the person who loves you more than you realize.  They are the one allowed to tease you and give you a hard time because you know that they would have your back in a heartbeat. They are the person who helps mold your personality and give you character and thick skin. They are the person that knows things no one else ever will and vice versa. It is too hard to comprehend losing a brother so unexpectedly because they are the person you never imagined not being there the rest of your life.

My Dad’s phone call ended with a request for us to meet at my brother’s house where the rest of our immediate family was gathering. When I showed up Pastor Tom Olson was there. Just seeing my pastor gave me the courage to walk through the door. This is the pastor who had been with me when I accepted Jesus as my Savior. The one who baptized me.  The one who walked Adam and I through pre-marital counseling and married us. The one who would end up being there at the wake and funeral to give the eulogy.

Pastor Tom had been out to dinner with his daughter when he received the call from my Dad telling him the news and ironically had been at a restaurant down the street with his daughter for dinner. He lived 30 miles from Crystal Lake where my brother lived yet happened to be at a restaurant minutes away during our family crisis. God’s timing is impeccable.

Don had never seen me pregnant. At the time, I resided in Chicago which was over an hour drive from him. Our schedules were crazy the last couple years with me being a new business owner and him being on the go with his kids. His oldest lived with their mom full time in New Lenox which is a long distance to travel especially co-parenting every other weekend. He spent a lot of his free hours driving to see them for sports events and be involved in their lives as much as possible. Living in the city for that six-year span, I didn’t even own a car which made it inconvenient to see him also.  We had great intentions of meeting up and would text about it many weekends but something always “came up” and our schedules were conflicting which prevented it from happening as often as we liked. I hadn’t been to the house since Christmas. Four months was a long stretch for us to go without seeing each other and that was how long it had been.  I always thought we had next weekend.

I walked in and told the Paramedics I needed to see my brother. I could see the concerned looks on their faces. My family hesitated too. I think everyone was worried because I was pregnant, but I didn’t care what anyone thought or said in that moment. I needed my brother to meet the baby inside my belly. I needed to see him to believe he was dead.

“Tears and Talk.” That was the title of the first sermon in the Grief series. Initially there was a lot of crying before any talking. The first night I was in total shock as I slept in bed next to his wife. We cried and tried to take care of each other and the kids enough to care for our basic needs and then cried some more. I woke up on April 25th with swollen eyes after a full 24 hours of my new reality had passed. I felt lost and hopeless trying to wrap my head around my new reality. I opened my devotional. It was titled “Struggling to Pray”.

I was struggling to pray, and He interceded! He already knew I would be and had a message waiting for me in the devotional. “Do you ever sit down to pray and find yourself struggling to find the words to begin?”… “The good news is that God intervenes for us in the midst of every type of struggle, including our prayer life.” …”He will give you a form of communication words can’t express”. YES. Peace beyond understanding.

He is near to the brokenhearted. He was with me every step of this tremendous and unexpected loss and continues to be today. From the morning on April 23, the day my brother passed away, he was communicating with me through the holy spirit and the holy Word of God in the Bible by planting seeds of comfort to hold on to through the sermon. He sent my pastor to be nearby during the tragedy of watching my brother be taken out of the house on a stretcher. He continued to surround me with love through members of His church. When I had to keep a commitment to hold a sold-out event for work only days after the funeral, my colleagues at LimeLife who I consider sisters were there.  My friend Mary Kay tragically lost her brother during 911 and my friend Kendra lost a best friend, who was like a brother, tragically in a motorcycle accident. These two friends both knew deep grief from losing loved ones unexpectedly and could really be there to talk me through where I was at emotionally. If it weren’t for these women, I don’t know that I would have picked my feet up to keep moving forward as quickly as I did.  They knew how I was feeling and allowed me to be a mess. They held me as I cried and helped me laugh when I didn’t think it would be possible to. Here is the kicker, they both live out of state. Had this event not been planned months in advance, neither of them would have been there and available to comfort me after this loss. God’s timing is impeccable!

               Although I have so many unanswered questions about my brother’s passing, I choose to focus on my faith and believe that he is home in heaven where we will meet again someday. It is easy to miss out on what is truly important in this life with all the distractions. I certainly have a clearer picture of the life I want to lead because of Don. My first awakening after losing him was the importance of family because he believed this to his core. I make time for them today and don’t take them for granted the way I used to because I know now that my family is priceless. My recent awakening has been to make people FEEL how important they are to me. Don made me feel so important and loved. I didn’t know just how much until he was gone, and it is a sorrow that lingers.

I pray that if you are reading this blog you take a moment to really reflect on your relationships with your family and loved ones. Ask yourself if you have taken them for granted, held a grudge, made time for them, told them how much you loved them. Then go do or undo whatever it is you need to take a step closer to healing and pray for the courage to take the right action in love and faith. We are only promised today, and the Lord is with us every step of the way.

For anyone suffering unexpected loss or grieving a loved one and looking for comfort and hope, please feel free to visit https://unlockingthebible.org/series/for-all-who-grieve-light-hope-lamentations/ to hear from Pastor Collin Smith on the series I mentioned in my blog. I can’t say enough about how timely and comforting these words were to hold on to as I navigated that first month of life without my brother.