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Yesterday was one of those days. 

I don’t know exactly how “those days” start. Sometimes with a dream, where one or both of my parents appear to me and life seems so completely normal. I study their faces, and I feel silly, because I could have sworn they were dead. But there they are, as alive as ever. Sometimes I’ll ask, “What happened? Where did you go?” And they never have an answer. They just smile and shrug, like it’s not completely bonkers that their daughter thought they died when they didn’t. 

But they did. And they are. Dead, I mean.

I’m just starting to get used to the idea, despite what my dreams will tell you. It’s almost been six years since they were t-boned at an intersection and pushed into an oncoming semi. 

A month earlier, my dad had narrowly survived a bypass for congestive heart failure. My mom was accompanying him to a check up. And then they were both gone. Just like that.

I was twenty-four.

The next morning I got a call from a job I’d applied to, and they asked me when I could start. It was a great job… I wish I’d been able to feel excited. Instead I heard myself saying, “Uh, we just had a family emergency. Can you give me ten days?” Because, you know, my siblings and I had to bury Mom and Dad. 

I designed their headstone on the flight. I had about ten minutes of emotional oblivion to get it done before the pain set in again.

Grief is like that. It comes and goes in waves. One minute the laundry is the most pressing thing on your mind. The next, John Denver comes on the radio and the world falls apart.

That happened yesterday, during my “off” day. I usually steer clear of my “sadness triggers”, but since I’d already woken up feeling like shit, I thought it might be therapeutic to listen to the musician my parents loved so much. I grew up listening to John Denver, so sometimes it would be nice to listen to him just for me. God, just give me Annie’s Song, or Leaving on a Jetplane, or Rocky Mountain High, and I’m feeling high myself. But I can’t just listen to him anymore, because he belonged to them first. They played Sunshine at their funeral… and if I had known that was in my Spotify queue, I would have removed it. Nothing against the song, of course. It’s one of my favorites. But now it just takes me back to the memorial service, when someone other than my dad played it, and 400 grieving people sang along. 

On very rare occasions, the triggers can be cathartic. One morning I woke up desperate for some George Strait, who was another one of my dad’s favorites. I have this early memory of riding in the car when a song came on the country station, and my dad looked at me and said, “All right Sonja, who’s this? Garth Brooks or George Strait?” I must have been three or four at the time, because he was so tickled when I guessed correctly. 

But I don’t often listen to George Strait, and especially not John Denver. After (almost) six years, I still don’t look at pictures of my parents. Maybe that’s unhealthy, I don’t know. Honestly, everyone grieves differently. There’s not really a right or wrong way. For the first year, I lived in a sort of frantic haze. I wanted oblivion. I drank a lot. I stared at the wall and listened to music I had never listened to before. I wanted to disappear from life as I’d known it and reinvent an entirely new existence. It was… a very dark time.

But at some point, the haze went away. I calmed down. I stopped trying to leave my husband (and he stuck around! That amazing man.) I stopped drinking so much. I started creating again. I wasn’t just surviving anymore… I was living.

At some point though, I got really angry. That happened right around the two-year mark, when one of my brothers died from a catastrophic asthma attack. I was about six months pregnant with my son. I was renovating our new (old) house. It was really, really bad timing for another death in the family. As if there are good times. I felt like Wiley Coyote when he runs off a cliff and is suspended in midair until he realizes he’s about to fall to his oh-so-comical demise. My honest-to-God reaction was, “What?!” I couldn’t believe it. Not again.

I would spend entire days barefoot and pregnant, stripping wallpaper and screaming at the walls. My husband was at work, so I was the only person who knew I was acting crazy. 

I still get angry, probably more often (and more intensely) than I should. And I still get sad. Actually, I think the sadness never really goes away. It’s always there, right beneath the surface. But the difference between now and when everything happened is that I’ve learned to live with it. It’s still shocking sometimes… I have moments when I gasp and think, “Oh my god! I need to call my mom!” Or “I wonder how Stephen (my brother) is doing?” The absolute worst thing by far is when I have a question for them. The other day, I wanted to ask my mom if she had ever been part of a sorority. I had no idea. Other times I’ll remember something from my childhood and wish I could share it with them. “Dad, do you remember when you used to wrestle all three of us kids at the same time? And somehow I always managed to kick you in the groin? That was so fun.” My brother rarely smiled—like genuinely smiled—but when he did it was an event. Like the tip of a glacier crackling and crumbling into the sea. You wanted to see what else was underneath all that ice.

The most important thing I have learned is this: life continues. And you can either let it happen to you, or you can adapt. I don’t feel stronger… in fact, I feel like I have some serious handicaps, as if all those deaths chopped off my legs and gave me a bad lung… but I DO feel more motivated to take charge of my life and live the hell out of it. 

My husband recently said we don’t live like most people because we have another presence in our house, and that’s Death. That sounds spooky, but only if you don’t understand. I’m not talking about the Grim Reaper. I’m talking about a reason. Death is the reason we say yes to the unconventional, the risky, the happy, the hard, the rewarding. At times it makes us more cautious, others it makes us bolder. I would have never quit my job to be a full-time artist and author if I hadn’t lost my parents when I was young. I’m not saying their deaths were a good thing, but they gave me a profound knowledge of the transiency and value of life. I don’t want to waste another moment on anything that’s not meaningful. 

I admit, I’m not always okay. Sometimes I lash out, sometimes I drink too much, sometimes I have really, really dark thoughts. But most days, I’m able to extract joy from my husband, my son, and my work. Despite my intimate relationship with Death, I love my life. I’m not unbreakable, but I am resilient.