Celebratory Grief

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I received a graduation invitation in the mail last week. This was not surprising. I typically receive two or three invitations this time of year. This is an exciting and anxious time for graduates and their families.

I expect that when my own children graduate I will be overwhelmed with pride and flooded with memories of all that has led up to graduation day. I expect that I will remember the first days of Kindergarten and how I cried as I drove away from the school and away from the tiny, chubby bodies that sat at desks that were still slightly too big for them.

I expect that I will remember my children’s first soccer games. I’m positive I will remember muddy soccer cleats, skint knees, sweaty heads, and the sweet taste of seeing my children play so hard. I know I’ll remember hundreds of soccer practices as a collage of images all joined and blurred together. I’ll remember the game it sleeted, tiny needles pricking my cheeks. I’ll remember the game it was one hundred five degrees and I was convinced we all had heat stroke.

I’m sure I’ll remember my children’s first days of middle school and then high school, although I’ve yet to have those experiences. I’m sure I’ll remember their first loves, first heartbreaks, first dances, first dates, and first cars. I expect that college admission letters are in our future as well as dorm rooms and the sticker shock of college tuition. Weddings? Yes, and grandbabies. I expect all of this. I expect my children to have futures. My vision of how my life will play out from this point forward in woven into and through their lives.

Tonight, my young cousin will graduate from high school. An honor student, member of the golf team, a member of the gifted and talented program. A good kid. My family will celebrate his graduation with dinner at the marina adjacent to one of his favorite places on earth – the lake. After dinner, my family will attend the graduation ceremony at the local community college. When my cousin’s name is called, I have no doubt that the entire auditorium will stand and applaud.

And weep.

It will not be my cousin who walks across the stage to receive his diploma. It will be his dad who will accept it on his behalf. My young cousin’s body lays in a cemetery that is, ironically, across the street from the community college where the ceremony will take place. His grave will be no more than one hundred yards from the spot where his dad will receive his diploma. I have no doubt that my family will visit the graveside after the ceremony.

Life can be cruel, and heartbreaking, and unfair. I wish I could make this different. I wish I could make it better. I wish I could ease the grief. I cannot do any of these things.

I don’t believe bad things happen to good people for the purpose of teaching us lessons. I do, however, believe that lessons can certainly be gleaned from bad things. I’m not sure what lessons will ultimately be revealed to my family by the loss of my cousin. The cruel loss of an only child and only grandchild. The loss of not just a life, but of a family’s future. I do know this. On the last day of my cousin’s life he boarded a boat. He did not wear a life jacket. At some point he entered the water and drowned. I have no way of knowing if he would have lived had he been wearing a life jacket. I do know he would have at least had a chance. A chance to be rescued. A chance to somehow get himself back into the boat. A chance to be the one receiving his diploma tonight. A chance for a future. A chance to live.

I cannot protect my children from everything. I will, however, teach them to always always always wear a life a jacket on a boat—even when, especially when, they think they won’t need it.

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