The Missing Letter and the Guilt of Grief

On Pearl Harbor Day this year, my cousin Jeanna would have celebrated her 42nd birthday. She and I were 11 months apart–one of us born in January, the other in December of the same year–and she sometimes referred to me as a sister instead of a cousin. She grew up with 3 brothers but no sisters; she saw me as a kind of substitute one.

allison-and-gina-oil-drum
Jeanna and I play on an empty 55-gallon drum as pre-teens. I’m on the right. (Yes, I’m wearing a dress to roll around on a big barrel.)

I remember Jeanna each December 7, though she’s no longer alive. This time around, I thought about Jeanna’s birthday before I even got out of bed.

She was only 22 when she passed away nineteen years ago; I was 23. I’d been back from my year in Romania for exactly 2 weeks when we got the phone call at my parents’ house that Jeanna had finished her life on earth. She had been sick, but for just a short while. Jeanna passed away in a hospital bed.

I instantly felt the hole in my life that her passing left. Returning from a year overseas, a year away from family and home, I knew Jeanna would be perhaps the only person who would want to sit down with me and hear all about my time in eastern Europe, all the details and adventures and struggles. I lost a friend when I lost Jeanna.

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Grief brings with it such a variety of emotions, and this time was no different for me. Wrapped up in my grief were also feelings of guilt.

Near the end of my time in Romania, I’d come back to my apartment early from our debrief. Instead of staying through the new team’s briefing in Hungary, I went back to my Romanian home to pack and then wait for the new team’s arrival so I could help orient them. But my roommate had family visiting for a few days before they set off traveling together, and our little flat was full to bursting. So instead of staying in our apartment, I spent a few days in one vacated by a missionary who’d recently returned to the U.S.

When I set out for the cold, quiet apartment on Strada Popa Laurentiu (Pope Lawrence Street), I knew I needed to get brutal about culling stuff so I could pack to go home. I’d bought a rugged internal frame backpack in Romania to replace some luggage that had gotten completely thrashed in my international travels. But even that wouldn’t help me get EVERYTHING back to Mississippi. So I started by sorting through a big stack of mail that had come in over that summer and fall, including the one and only letter Jeanna had sent me that year.

As I prayed and wrote in my journal and contemplated all that I’d experienced that year–in an apartment without radio, television, or computer but with plenty of solitude–I thought about how I’d be back home (my U.S. home) in 2 weeks. I don’t need to save this letter, I thought. I’ll see Jeanna in a less than a month!

allison-and-gina
Jeanna is on the right; the one trying to wear all her Christmas presents at once is me, on the left. Christmas 1992, at our grandparents’ home.

After Jeanna passed away–and I told God over and over during her funeral that this didn’t make any sense–I felt anguished over having thrown out that letter. Regretful, remorseful, and guilty. I felt guilty for not having spent more time with her when I was in college. Guilty for lying awake one night before her funeral wondering what I would wear–what I would wear–to the service.

I lost another cousin, on the other side of my family, when I was 10. She was 18, a college freshman. I remember feeling overwhelming guilt after she died, too. When we returned from her funeral, I remember my parents going to take a nap. I locked myself in the bedroom that I shared with one of my brothers and cried myself sick. Part of my grief surfaced in feelings of guilt:  because I didn’t know her better, because I’d missed my chance to be her friend.

I’ve read that children often experience guilt intermingled with their grief. I wonder why that is; I wonder why I did. I wonder about this:  When life is falling apart around us, it feels good to feel a sense of control. It feels good to control what we can get our hands on. Maybe I thought that, if I’d been a better friend, if I’d taken every opportunity to pursue relationship with those cousins, if I’d known them more deeply or somehow “been there” for them more faithfully or more lovingly or more SOMETHING, I could grieve their loss without one shred of remorse. Without one iota of wishing I’d done anything different or better. Without any doubt that they knew how much I loved them. 

Maybe I thought that if I’d loved them better or bigger, I could have protected them from this somehow.

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But won’t there always be thoughts of the “more” we could have done, said, been to the loved ones we lose? I could slay myself with those thoughts, analytical person that I am. I couldn’t control the deaths of both those cousins I loved–not when they died or how or under which circumstances. I accept that, though I loved them both, loss means just that:  There is no more time, no more opportunity, to play together or talk together or write letters to one another. Not in this life, although I have such big hope in the life that is to come.

A few days before she passed, Jeanna told me about the job she had at that time, one that she didn’t like. “I know God has something better for me,” she assured me. And He did. I don’t know if she meant leaving a life of illness and pain behind in order to be with Him for eternity–maybe she meant a better job–but He did have something better for her. Someplace with no more loss. Today, thinking about all the loss we face in this world makes me feel old. And it makes me long even more for the time when Jesus will return and make all things new, when He will set things right and make them beautiful in their time.

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