The summer before I was diagnosed with cancer we were celebrating our older daughter’s completion of boot camp. We hadn’t had a professional family portrait taken since our girls were very young. It was so much fun watching my dear friend, Sarah, at work. Artist behind her camera. While there Sarah told me something that would come back to me so many times since- take the time to take the pictures! I want to introduce you to her gentle spirit. I am grateful she has entrusted us with her story.
It was ten days before my 29th birthday. I should have been planning for a party, baking Christmas cookies, shopping for my family, addressing Christmas cards, making plans for my daughter’s second birthday and spending too much time on Pinterest pinning the décor and party favors. Whatever the scenario for that particular 29th year I know I should not have been dropping to my knees in complete mourning and despair, full of the most intense tears of my life. Never in a million years would I have thought I would lose my brother at such a young age. Never did I think I would be sitting in a funeral home picking out service music, preparing a collection of videos and photos for a slideshow, or planning for a burial of my baby brother. He was only 23 years old with a full life ahead of him. I should have been addressing those Christmas cards, not sending out thank you notes to all who were there for my family during such a tragic time in our lives.
Like most people, I assumed the natural succession of death; grandparents, parents and then children once they have grown old. And if you are anything like me I hope I am beyond senile before I lose my parents because I am still not accepting of the fact that they will ever leave me. At that time in my life I still had all six of my grandparents living. I had nothing to compare the loss to and couldn’t imagine moving forward, much less being able to focus beyond the grief.
This focus did not come naturally. The natural reaction was to crawl into a deep hole and never emerge, and on some days still is. For me there were three little ones to focus on and while I preferred to enjoy the comfort of my bed and dreams that this horrible nightmare wasn’t true those three babies deserved to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. They deserved to have a mom who had it together. They deserved to have a mom who played games, and enjoyed all the little things in life with them. So even if it was forced, and even at times it was just plain fake, I rose each morning hoping to focus on raising kind, loving, and thoughtful kids.
I’m not sure if I was aware of it at the time but reflecting five years later I realize that my family spent a lot of energy focusing on their strengths and using these strengths to honor the memory of my brother. This doesn’t mean that it is any easier or that your emotions don’t just come out while driving down Highway 65 causing you to pull over because the road is blurry with tears. It also doesn’t mean you don’t desire to spend the rest of the day in bed or just pretend that he is still here to get through the day or that I don’t still stick my hand out to the passenger seat of the car hoping I will feel an imaginary tight squeeze from his hand. I am often told by friends that my family “grieves beautifully.” Until recently I didn’t quite understand what they meant but now that I reflect on it I can understand it from a little different perspective. My family spent the next year and a half building my brother’s dream.
We put our focus beyond our grief because there really seemed no other way. After all we had babies to raise and memories to let live on. Most of the members in my family have empathy, strategic, developer, and ideation strengths. We decided shortly after Grant’s passing that we were going to put our grief and energy into a project called Grant’s Place. Grant’s Place was his dream; a dream house on our family land up-north that would forever be his place. A place where the kids could play, sled, enjoy time around a campfire, spend time with extended family, play no-bears-at-night, tell stories, roast the best s’mores and create the most unforgettable memories together. We wanted his dream to live on even if he couldn’t.
We learned through building Grant’s Place that our strengths work well together. We ebb and flow very well which is probably why our family tends to understand one another so well. I remember for over a year my dad’s nights focused on floor plans and you tube videos of framing, electrical, plumbing and shingles. My mom spent her evening at Lowes and Home Goods finding her special yellow tag deals and purchasing final décor to place in her baby’s memorial home. My sisters and I spent our days helping build the most beautiful sacrifice we had ever taken part of. Our love for my brother was and will always be focusing on keeping his memory alive. Keeping our focus on something special helped us move towards something positive. It helped us continue and build when everything around us felt like it was crumbling.
As Grant’s Place came to the decorating stage we planned for months about what photos would line his walls. I, along with my mom and sisters, spent hours upon hours planning what photos would be displayed in the gorgeous home that my brother had designed years before we could put his dream into action. His walls are proudly hung with pictures of the past and the present. Pictures of my brother with his nieces and nephews, as well as of those he never met, or as we usually say, those that “Grant Held First.”
As the years since our loss have unfolded I have found greater reason behind my work. I am truly blessed that I can use my creative skills in a job I adore as a photographer. In planning Grant’s funeral, as well as placing the perfect images on his walls, I am so blessed that we spent time taking pictures of our family together. Every family occasion my grandmas took out their cameras. Every moment of my childhood was perfectly documented by my photographer mother. I am blessed to have these memories with my brother in print to share with my kids; to keep his legacy alive and to help us grieve in a beautiful way. When my memory fails me, or my stories fall short, I find another picture that reminds me of another story to tell.
Weekly I photograph new births, the love of families, graduations, and weddings and I am so blessed that I can photograph with a perspective of love and finding joy in each family. I have a different understanding of the necessity of documenting life through a lens. I truly know the importance of documenting life through pictures. I am not even saying that professional photography is always necessary but I do 100% believe that the need of photographs of your loved ones is important. When you have suffered a great loss you know that life can change in an instant. You are aware that the beautiful family portrait you once had could be forever changed so seize the moment and take that darn selfie, get in a picture with your grandparents or parents, kiss your sister’s cheek, or as much as you feel you are not at your best get in the picture with your kiddos. They love you and will cherish that photo in the years to come. And if you are lucky enough to grown old and senile together you’ll have a photo to remind you how young and silly you once were.
I would give anything to get the next seventy years back with my brother. My baby girl wasn’t quite two years old when he passed away but through the building of Grant’s Place and so many photographs of his life my kids truly know him. The stories never stop coming and there is typically a photograph to go along with the silly stories. All my kids and my nieces and nephews are blessed to be able to let his memory live on through stories and photographs. We’ve used the power of our combined strengths to grow stronger together as a family and to focus beyond the grief.