Many of you know that I lost my parents, a sister, Wendy, and her friend on March 15, 1999 – the Ides of March.
Every year since then, I have marked that day: early on, I would stay home from work and be miserable. It was too much to try to be ‘normal’ when I was grieving so deeply. Between late February and late March, I faced heartache on days that should have been celebrated: February 26, my parents’ anniversary; my mother’s birthday; Wendy’s birthday; and even my birthday, which was the last time I ever saw the four of them.
Every one of those days was tough to get through, but not as tough as the day: the 15th, the Ides of March. For a long time, I was unable to function on that day; it was overwhelming, and I couldn’t manage much more than taking flowers to the graves, awash in tears. After several years, I would take flowers to the graves and spend the day in quiet reflection, but I no longer took the day off from work. I would still be overcome with the memories, preferring to keep to myself that day.
For the last few years, the day has passed much more easily for me. If I let myself, I can easily be swallowed up in that quicksand of sorrow, but I don’t want to do that, because it’s hard to return when you sink so low. So I have deliberately tried to go the other direction and find some happiness in that day; it’s tough but necessary. This year, I am happy to report that I am attending a dear friend’s wedding.
In the last fifteen years I have become a different person. That sudden and catastrophic loss changed everything. My heart was shattered, but in healing, it became more open and loving. I have become more compassionate; living through those terrible times when I thought I might never recover broadened my capacity for love and understanding. My empathy for those who are struggling is deeper than it ever was.
But I am also afraid. I am more fearful than ever before of things I cannot control. I worry constantly, and I can’t seem to stop. I know my anxiety won’t change a situation or make things better; and I know that being concerned and worrying are two different things. But no matter what I tell myself, the worries creep in. I no longer believe that things happen ‘to other people’ – they happened to me and my family – so I keep wondering what will happen next. It is always — always — in the back of my mind.
My mind reels with ‘what ifs’ for every situation. What if that driver crosses the center line and hits me? What if this plane goes down? What if a prowler shows up when I’m home alone? What if something happens to my children and I am helpless to do anything? I am mostly able to manage the worries, but some days they take over, and when they do, I am an unreasonable, agonizing mess. Nevermind that many of the things I worry about are not going to happen; that doesn’t matter. What matters is that once the fear arises, all reason goes out the window, and I become a frightened child.
I have also noticed that my memory is not as reliable as it once was. I think the trauma of that incident was a huge factor. My recall of those first days and weeks is rather muddled, which is understandable, but even long-term recollections of my childhood and young adulthood are gone. Wiped from my mind. I can’t remember movies I’ve seen, books I’ve read, or things I’ve said and done. This is one of the hardest things for me to accept.
My priorities are different now, too. I used to envision myself having a successful career, great investments, and a busy social life. Those things changed. Now, I value time with my family more than I ever did. After the crash I stopped balancing my checkbook and lost interest in building my investment portfolio; instead of hoping to maximize my profits, I only cared to have enough to pay for my sons to go to college. I prefer gifts of time and experiences to material things, because I am always aware that time (and life) is short.
My internal turmoil during those first few years matched both the external chaos of the tragedy and the subsequent upheaval among my siblings. It was an exceptionally difficult time for us all, and with emotions running so high, conflict was inevitable. There was a lot of anger and pain, and I think we learned more about one another than we ever wanted to. But that time also taught me to look deeper into people’s hearts for their motivations. The roller coaster extremes of emotion, the irrationality, the impulsiveness, and the inertia that I experienced all taught me to take a second look at situations instead of merely reacting. I try to see the underlying issues that make people act and react the way they do.
Using myself as an example, I realized that stress and emotion cause people to do crazy things sometimes – things that are uncharacteristic of them. At times, I was sure I was going crazy. I lost interest in my life in general and sunk into depression. I acted strangely. I would hope that people who saw me like that realized that the crazy person wasn’t really me, but a product of what I was going through. So I try to extend that same understanding to other people. Who knows what their back stories might be?
Not a day has passed since March 15, 1999 that I don’t miss my parents and sister; the gaping hole in my heart is still there. So I’m marking the day. I’ll take flowers to the graves, but then I will go to the wedding and enjoy myself. “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:1,4).
I spent some time in the pit of despair, and when I crawled out, the world was different. But I was different, too. Not all of it was change for the better, but that is life.
And life is still good.