Category Archives: Grief

Life Around Our Table.

DSC_0146My family owns an old wooden table that once belonged to my great-Grandparents, and has been carefully passed down over the generations. Through the ingenious magic of extra leaves, it expands and contracts like an accordion, making room for up to fifteen smiling faces to gather around it. Twenty, if you don’t mind your elbows bumping.

Years ago, the old wooden table followed my family across an ocean to Kiev, Ukraine, into our first tiny apartment where my Mama could stand in the middle of the doll-sized kitchen and touch all four walls with her hands. I remember the very first dinner that we ate sitting around our table in that apartment—I was six years old, and Stephen and I were famished after refusing to eat anything but white dinner rolls on our trans-Atlantic flight. Armed with fifteen basic Russian phrases and an iron will, our Mother had hitch-hiked to the local market. She wandered wide-eyed amongst stalls where animal carcasses hung dripping above dirty meat counters, looking for all the world as though someone had mercilessly slaughtered half of Noah’s ark. The hard-won meal that she presented on the table that night was beef in some sort of unidentifiable gray sauce, and sleepy, hungry faces beamed and gushed how wonderful each bite tasted. Years later, Mom told us that was the moment she decided that she could live in Ukraine.

Our table has seen three different countries and more different houses, but wherever it was, we were home. It’s seen Christmas morning cinnamon rolls, Cookie Monster birthday cakes and two grinning little boys with curly blonde hair and spaghetti sauce all over their faces. It’s where we learned to pass food to the right, and to wait until Mama started eating to pick up our forks. It’s the table around which eyes scrunched tightly shut as we thanked Jesus for [most of] our food, and where we tattled on the other kids for opening their eyes during prayer. It’s where Ian gleefully discovered that he could burp the ABC’s, and while I’m sure my parents wanted to chastise him it was all so bizarrely impressive that they couldn’t help but egg him on. It’s the table that Kellan broke on the cool October night that he leaned across it to kiss me, and though Daddy laughed out loud and fixed it right up, Kellan never quite lived that down.

Our old wooden table is where we’ve told our stories, where we’ve learned who the people sitting beside and across from us are. It’s where we have celebrated wildly and loved fiercely, debated passionately and doubled over with belly-laughter. That table has been the heartbeat of our home for as long as I can remember, hosting grand Thanksgiving dinner parties and quiet peanut butter and jelly afternoons. My most savored memories are the ones we spent relaxing around empty plates for long, unhurried hours after the meal had ended, red wine still swirling in long-stemmed glasses and contented conversation echoing off the walls.

Part of the raw ache of grief is that you can never go back. There could be nothing more precious to me in the world than just one more night spent laughing around the old wooden table with my whole family, but Ian is gone. And nowhere do we miss him more than when we sit down to dinner and realize that we’ve forgotten again, and set six places instead of five.

The ache of missing Ian has created in me a homesick longing for soul-exhale of heaven. And somehow, I suspect that heaven will look just a little bit like what has happened around our old table for so many years.

Happy 23rd birthday tomorrow, baby brother. We miss you every single day.

While in college, Ian was interviewed about the a cappella group that he sang in. It’s unnerving just how often over the course of two minutes, he was distracted by a girl walking by…


Filed under Family, Grief, Home, Ian

Our Father, Who Has Been in Hell.

My Daddy doesn’t cry.

Growing up, I never saw him cry even once. Oh, his voice faltered for one tenuous moment while speaking at my sweet Grandpa’s funeral in the old church on Hubbard Street, but no tears fell. This is, in no small part, why I find it violently disturbing whenever a man cries in my presence. It feels like the sky is falling.

As a little girl, my Mama used to tell me that one day, I’d see my Dad cry. She’d grin and lean in, as though she were about to share something precious, confiding in a whisper that every time the two of them watched Father of the Bride, Daddy teared up just a little bit until he’d finally ask her to turn it off. Your Father can’t even think about your wedding without tears springing to his eyes. Oh honey, that man is going to just cry on your wedding day, she’d tell me with a sort of prideful glee that I’ll bet only a Mama can understand. It was a promise that I savored, treasuring the idea that that my stoic Dad loved me so much that he’d actually cry when I got married. I used to recount that promise to friends, remarking how I’d need to wear waterproof everything on my wedding day because I was entirely certain that one look at my Father with tears in his eyes would send me careening straight over the edge.

Ian started chemo two impossible days after his diagnosis. Doctors wearing white coats and grim expressions were using words like aggressive, and as Ian’s abdomen continued to swell his shallow breathing was becoming increasingly labored. Every second mattered. Reeling from an incomprehensible diagnosis unceremoniously handed to a healthy twenty-one year old kid, we were sitting in a corner room at UNC Hospital, Dad, Ian, and I. Large windows overlooked Chapel Hill in October, and the Magnolia leaves had sparked into flame. We barely noticed, that day.

My tall, strapping brother looked so small laying in his white hospital bed. The chemo bag was hung, Ian was hooked up, and I remember being surprised that something as ominous as chemotherapy wasn’t more complex. As though there should have been more fanfare, more gravitas before poison was allowed to course through my little brother’s broken body. A smiling nurse quietly exited the room, and I sat on the edge of Ian’s bed as the chemo began to infuse, our Dad standing behind me.

So this was chemo.

Minutes later, Ian began to shake violently. The pale, curly-haired boy that had been cheerfully traipsing around his college campus just three days earlier was moaning and writhing on the bed in front of me, and as I lunged over him and held him I fought the panic in my voice as I screamed for someone to come help. I felt like I was drowning as I watched my little brother convulse on the bed in front of me, powerless to do anything but watch. Ian, I’m here, I’m right here. Daddy and I are right here. You’re going to be just fine. Just keep breathing. We’re right here. Nurses and doctors poured into the room, and I stayed trembling at the foot of Ian’s bed, my hands holding his feet. I’m here, Ian. I’m right here.

Fearfully, I glanced over my shoulder at my Daddy just in time to see one tear trickle down his face. It was the first time that I’d ever seen him cry.

I would later learn that Ian was experiencing Rigors, induced from too much of the toxic chemotherapy flowing into his battered body at once. His chemo drip was slowed, and eventually the horrifying convulsions came to a sputtering, faltering halt. I weakly made an excuse about needing to go get something, anything, and walked into the long hallway outside of his room with hot tears streaming uncontrollably down my face. I didn’t make it past the nurse’s station before gut-wrenching sobs threatened to send me to my knees. Sunlight poured into oversized lobby windows, and everything in my world felt dark and splintered. My twenty-one year old little brother’s body was rebelling, and there was nothing, nothing that I could do. I learned that morning what it’s like to feel helpless. To pray ragged, desperate, keening prayers, deeply guttural moans begging God the only way I could think to do it: please. Please. Please. Please. 

Ian would go into kidney failure later that day, and would be rushed downstairs into a dark ICU. I would sit there by his bed, holding his cold hand, begging God please. Please. Please. It was a scene that would be repeated time and time again over the next five months, by hospital beds and on 2:00 AM drives home from the ICU, always begging God please.

When I think about that day, and the many like it that would follow, when I think about holding tightly to Ian’s hand as he falteringly breathed in and out for the very last time, when I think about how God said no, I don’t understand. I believe that when our hearts are shattered, human instinct is to try and make sense of it all, as if a tidy answer will help us put the pieces back together again.

I don’t pretend to understand God. I cannot tell you why He said no to the one thing that I wanted most in the whole world. What I can tell you, is that before Ian’s first day of chemo, I thought about God as Our Father in Heaven. He is that, of course, but as I learn to stumble through life without my little brother I have learned to cling to Him as Our Father who has been in hell. Our Father who has been in hell, who watched the flesh be torn from his Boy’s body as He was chained to a post and violently whipped again and again. Until tattered skin hung loose and blood ran crimson and bone was laid raw and exposed. Our Father who has been in hell, who watched as thorns were pressed deep, as blood poured rivers down his Boy’s beaten face. Our Father who has been in hell, who watched smirking Roman guards stake his Boy to a couple slabs of wood. Our Father who has been in hell, who for hours watched his Boy slowly suffocate to death. Straining, gasping for air that his exhausted lungs could not find.

I’ll bet He cried, just like my Daddy did.

I do not follow a God that I understand. I do follow a God that understands me. Who understands wrenching pain and searing loss, who for the sake of Ian and you and me stood by while his precious Son bled out and suffocated. A God who is intimately familiar with the raw, howling, soul-wrenching bone-weary keen of grief. In the midst of it, I am grateful for the God that has been in hell. Who triumphantly walked through it and shattered the chains off the gates and declared it FINISHED so that death would not be the end of Ian’s story.

It does not have to be the end of your story, either.


Filed under Family, God's faithfulness, Grief, Hope, Ian

Lean on Me.

I apologize for the impromptu blogging hiatus. I’m sure you’ve all been on the edge of your seats wondering how the nail-biter saga that is my birthday turned out. PATIENCE, PEONS! [I’m sorry. The birthday dictator keeps bubbling to the surface. So embarrassing.]

A week and a half ago, one of my very best friends came to visit. Jess was one of my roommates in college, and has enough dirt on me to squelch any aspirations that I’ve ever had of running for political office.

She also led the charge to save my wedding.

Once upon a time in another life, I didn’t ask for help while wedding planning. Oh, dear friends offered time and time again–but I was simply skeptical of the idea that people might actually WANT to spend their spare time tying navy bows and stamping endless piles of cream-colored envelopes. I smiled politely and deftly refused–wholeheartedly believing that I was saving them from themselves.

When Ian went into the ICU for the very last time, I remember sitting on the cold floor beside his hospital bed with my DSC_0135laptop open on a rainy afternoon. I had neither thought nor spoken of my impending wedding since he’d been admitted, fearful that he would hear and begin to panic. I desperately didn’t want him to understand how close my wedding day was, and consequently, how long he’d been sick. In a dark ICU, days and nights bleed together as monitors murmur and flicker, and the passing of time becomes marked only by changing shifts as doctors and heroic nurses quietly ebb in and out of winding hallways.

As I sat on the speckled floor, an email from my reception coordinator popped up in my inbox, defiantly glaring at me from the glowing screen. The steady rush of a ventilator breathed in and out and my heart stopped as the sheer impossibility of it all threatened to drown me. My brother can’t breathe on his own and I am supposed to get married in three weeks. Without so much as a second thought, I hastily responded:

DSC_0216I am in the midst of a family emergency. Copied on this email is Jessica Mann. She will be working with you from now on.

I didn’t even think to ASK Jess first. And the thing is, I didn’t need to. I knew that Jess would take over the remaining three weeks of wedding planning without so much as batting an eye, a suspicion quickly confirmed when she responded “Absolutely.” less than 7 minutes later. The next evening, she, Gretchen, Haley, Ashley, Danielle, Hartley and Michelle [every best-friend-bridesmaid that was in town] all piled into an ICU waiting room with a bottle of white wine and a flock of open laptops, quickly and decisively divvying up remaining tasks. From crafting a seating chart on antique window panes to picking the wine list to coordinating with the photographers and meeting with the reception planner, everything was taken care of. Each woman gathered in the waiting room that night treated my wedding like it was her own, insistently caring about sweet details when I no longer could. My wedding was far from ideal, but I am quite convinced that there has never been more love poured into a single day.

Jess was the tiny, formidable force driving the whole herculean effort. They tied navy bows and called the florist.DSC_0253 They painted signs and coordinated chocolate cupcake deliveries. They took time off of work and wrote checks out of their own bank accounts that I wouldn’t find out about until months later–and all, so that I could simply sit by Ian’s bed and hold his hand. They gave me the precious, irreplaceable gift of time with my little brother. I could not have been more grateful for anything under the sun.

Weeks later, when I walked away from room 17 in the ICU for the very last time, they were the phone calls that I made, one by one, as I sat in crushed disbelief on my bedroom floor. I had always believed that somehow, Ian would live, and they had stubbornly believed with me. I remember Gretchen dissolving into tears as I numbly relayed the news, unable to even begin to wrap my mind around the idea that my curly-haired little brother was not coming back.

These are my people. The people that ache with me and belly-laugh with me and know to keep calling if my phone goes unanswered. The people to whom I can say everything or nothing at all. The people who spent hours sitting alone in nearby hospital coffee shops, just in case. I think that God gave them to me as a tangible reminder that in the midst of a world throbbing and aching and blindly reeling with grief, I am never, never alone.

Neither are you, friend.




Filed under God's faithfulness, Grief, Ian, My favorite people

Mama Always Said…

I’d like you to meet my Mama.

Her name is Cindy. She is feisty and sarcastic and ENTIRELY inappropriate. She makes a decadent chocolate cake that will change your whole entire life, and when I was little she religiously danced to Richard Simmons’ Sweatin’ to the Oldies work out video every. single. morning. [On account of the cake.] To this day, every time I hear “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to”, I have PTSD flashbacks of mint-green striped spandex and coordinating scrunchies.

My Mama also happens to be the director of women’s discipleship at The Summit Church, a minor miracle given the fact that she is probably the least-holy person that I know. She tells it like it is, and this talk that she gave is no exception. She’s my best friend and my first phone call should I ever need to dispose of a body with no questions asked, and if she died tomorrow I would inscribe one thing on her headstone:

God only gives good gifts.

It’s been her mantra since I was tiny. To be perfectly honest, for a long time I thought it was a cliche; something to be needlepointed onto tacky decorative pillows or slapped onto bumper stickers. That all changed the day that her little brother died. I was in the 8th grade, and in the face of incredible pain, Cindy Peterson still believed to her core that God was incapable of being anything but good to her. Spending my life watching her believe–really believe that–taught me to believe it, too.

If you have ever experienced grief or questioned the goodness of God, this video is worth your time.

And if you’d like to hear about the time that she and I belted “Gold Digger” to Ian until 3:00 in the morning in a dark ICU, well, that’s in there too.


Filed under Family, Grief, Hope, Ian

The Intersection of Death and Marriage.

_DSC2702 bwOn March 2nd, 2013, Kellan promised forever to a woman that neither of us knew.

Three impossibly short days before I put on my white dress and walked down the aisle, I’d held my little brother’s swollen hand as he died. The girl that left her brother’s body alone in room 17 of the ICU that day was profoundly different than the one Kellan had been dating for two and a half years. Neither of us knew who she was.

We tightly held each other’s hands as we promised “I do”, then boarded a Jamaica-bound plane. One week later I found myself standing beside a casket. My Daddy could tell that I wanted to see my little brother one last time, and someone opened the lid for me. Quietly, I kissed my fingers and laid them on Ian’s cold chest as my little sister watched. She slowly did the same.

That evening I trembled in the white dress that in another life, I’d carefully chosen for my rehearsal dinner. As eight hundred wide-eyed people sat watching, I willed my legs to walk towards a stage, and spoke at Ian’s funeral. I’d spent a week staring at an ocean, mentally composing my little brother’s eulogy. I had everything and nothing to say.

Kellan and I were the first to arrive back home from the funeral. Night hung heavy, and sweet friends had left glowing candles lining the stairs leading up to my parent’s front door. I sat numbly on the yellow couch while Kellan rented a U-Haul to be picked up the next morning. And just like that, the very next day we found ourselves driving a truck to New York. A fresh mound of dirt reminded me that Ian was gone, and two rings on my finger reminded me that I was a wife.

I hear a lot of couples talk about how their wedding day was the happiest day of their lives. It’s a sweet sentiment, and I wish I could share it. My wedding day and every newlywed dream that I didn’t know I had shattered the moment that Ian stopped breathing. Our marriage began in the midst of crushing grief, the two so deeply intertwined that it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began.

I am almost afraid to admit it out loud, but in the spirit of more authentic marriages in the world I want to tell you that more of my nights this yearJCP_3983 have ended in tears than laughter. Kellan and I recently mentioned to some friends that we were about to celebrate our one year anniversary, and they made a crack about the honeymoon phase almost being over. We looked at them as though they’d just sprouted horns and announced plans to summer on Pluto.

The honeymoon phase? Please explain. With visual aids and an outline, if possible.

Kellan and I promised each other for better or for worse in the midst of “for worse”. No girl makes wedding Pinterest boards devoted entirely to adorable seating charts thinking that will be her story, but it’s ours. I can no longer remember what I thought being a newlywed would be like before cancer. I simply know what it has been, and it’s been harder than I’d ever dreamed possible. We have slogged through the neck-deep mud of the death of my brother and the death of the people that we used to be before Kellan and I vowed to become something new together. Each painstaking new step has been painful, worthwhile work.

Over the past year, I have watched my husband honor his vow to love me no matter what on days when neither of us recognized who I was. With no one watching or applauding, Kellan has chosen to love me when the very bravest thing that I could do was get out of bed and stare blankly at our living room wall. He has chosen to love me when I dissolved over closet space [read: missing Ian] and when I couldn’t get off of the bathroom floor. He has chosen to love me on the days that I have been very, very angry about everything that I lost. And after one impossibly heart-wrenching year, I am quite certain of one thing: when Kellan Dickens looked me in the eyes on a Saturday in March and promised for better or for worse, he meant it. Even when it is exhausting and thankless and horribly unglamorous, the past year has taught me that my husband is going to wake up each new morning and make the choice to honor his vow.

Since the day that Ian died I have wrestled with both grief and marriage, and quite unexpectedly, they are teaching me the same simple thing: I need to do what my Mama always told me to and make good choices. In the midst of pain, I need to choose to believe that God is good. I must fight to cling to what my mind knows to be true when everything in my aching heart screams false. And in much the same way, I need to choose to love my husband on the days when it does not spring up naturally in me. Choosing truth is painfully simple and unromantic and often really, really hard—but there is no other way. My heart will not win every battle, but if I have consistently preached truth to myself my mind can win the war.



Filed under God's faithfulness, Grief, Marriage, The love of my life.