The finality of my only sister’s death didn’t fully set in when I received the phone call.

No. For me, her earthly time clock stopped days later when I saw her in that casket.

Watching my mother and father crumble into the silk lining enveloping her lifeless body, my emotions welled with sorrow, then fury. Why would a mortuary makeup artist take a 30-year-old women’s long brown hair, tease up the top and twist it into a bun as if she were 98? Rouge covered her cheeks and her lips were painted red.

I wish I had been the one to prepare her. Sue would have hated looking so ridiculous to the 1,000 mourners, reporters, and curiosity seekers filing past her body in whispers and tears. The only thing that resembled the truth of that moment was her hands. I fixated on the silver cross and chain entwined around her manicured nails and slender fingers. On her wrist was a gash.

Attempting to shield my parent’s focus from her lifeless face, I pointed out the cut above her right hand. We came to the conclusion the injury likely happened when she fell on the pavement as the gunman’s bullet pierced her stomach three days earlier. The autopsy report from the Connecticut State Department of Health stated, “Gunshot wound to abdomen with penetration of stomach, aorta, and liver.”

Anyone who has lost a loved one to a violent death knows how it goes. A murder is newsworthy and the coverage can be cruel, riddled with inaccuracies and speculations by reporters. Still photographs of Sue were provided by her husband. Yet just as much coverage centered on the accused gunman. Prior to his arrest, a photographer for the local newspaper captured him standing amongst the detectives appearing as a curious bystander at the crime scene. For two days, these images were recycled at the top of the news hour until the morning of the service.

Dressed in our funeral attire, the family half-watched the local New Haven television station, numbly awaiting the hour to leave the house. A video, not previously shown, zoomed in on Sue talking to an EMT as her stretcher was loaded into the ambulance. The sensational effect worked. We all sobbed uncontrollably as Mom bellowed, “Oh my Lord, look at her. She was alive then.”

For us, Sue’s physical pain and fear the hour before she died on the operating table left us speculating her last words and final thoughts.

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Scorched in my mind was the vacant, confused expression on her 5-year-old boy’s face at his mommy’s funeral. During her eulogy, little Michael put his hands over his ears and bellowed four words, “This is not happening.”

It’s what we all wanted to shout.

The difficulty of moving beyond the deep pain of grief can be compared to a festering wound. Picking the scab away prematurely, contaminated blood begins to flow. There isn’t a Band-Aid big enough to stop the tide.

Healing stalled as we wrote family statements to the judge, waited for jury selection, anticipated the trial date, and awaited sentencing. Deep sorrow permeated.

Focusing on the horrendous nightmare surrounding the circumstances of her death made it virtually impossible to move on to actual memories of Sue’s full, vibrant life.

Shortly after returning from her funeral, friends planted a flowering plum tree in my backyard in her memory. It became a focal point of beauty behind our home.

My husband, Jim, built a deck surrounding it. The following year, he added a sunroom off the back of our house. In the early morning hours, I’d curl up on the loveseat with my mug of coffee in hand. Our three dogs tucked close by as I’d settle into my quiet time in full view of the tree.

Each year the tree grew in height. Its branches towered over a good part of the deck. In the spring, buds revealed pink and white blossoms. When the summer sun peaked, raising temperatures into the 80s and 90s, our dogs and cats settled underneath its shade from the blazing sun. As the crisp air fell over Maryland in autumn, Sue’s tree turned into a stunning array of crimson red buds.

Jim hung a wooden swing from one of the sturdy branches. When my nephew, Michae,l visited annually, we’d sit on the swing and reminisce about his mom.

My heart ached the day he told me he’d forgotten the sound of her voice. I had, too.

So I’d share her wit and even her shortcomings, but especially her deep love for him. He often asked me to repeat his favorite stories of her. I hated thinking about him growing up without his mother.

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Missing Sue did not dissuade Jim and me from moving forward and entertaining frequently. If guests arrived in the winter months, several of us would be gazing out the frosty windows at the ornamental tree. The other three seasons, the swing was often occupied. I informed all newcomers, “That’s Sue’s tree.”

As it took root over two decades, so did my longing for the early morning hours.  Sitting on the loveseat, I prayed and read my Bible. Grabbing a second mug of coffee, I’d daydream about nothing and everything and begin planning my day. As old dogs passed away, I cuddled up to new pups, awaiting natural light to filter through the windows so I could turn off my reading lamp. Joy and contentment spiraled into sorrow as daybreak revealed the tree.

Sometimes I would settle into five minutes of opening the wound. Yet other mornings, I’d become paralyzed for a half hour or more. It’s where I would ruminate, tucking those thoughts away and leaving them at the tree. And so my days began.

My parents’ declining health accelerated due to their grief. It was baffling to all of us as to why the parole board granted an early prison release to the man who gunned her down. As additional trying events unfolded through the years, others marveled at my ability to laugh and smile despite mounting sorrows.

No one knew how I compartmentalized my sadness, alone gazing at the tree. I missed her with every fiber of my being.

The joy I experienced was truly genuine because of my certainty of Sue’s Heavenly home with Jesus. That assurance remained my firm foundation. Yet when I’d watch news coverage of school and workplace shootings, a physical ache crept in. Violence is so contrary to God’s perfect design in the Garden of Eden. At times, life’s twists and turns were simply conflicting.

In the middle of the night of September 6, 2003, Jim and I were restless. Hurricane Isabel was pounding Maryland. The rain and wind seemed to have no end. Finally, I fell into a fitful sleep. Awaking after daybreak was unusual for me. Shuffling into the kitchen for coffee, I glanced into the sunroom. Jim heard me cry out, “Sue’s tree!”

The wind and soaking rain had uprooted my flowering plum. Our patio furniture was smashed under its weight as well as a good section of our wooden deck crushed. The swing was reduced to kindling.

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Jim dealt with our brokenness by immediately starting his chainsaw and cutting up all the branches and its trunk for hours on end. He stacked wood over the next three days. For both of us, it was three days of mourning. I couldn’t walk into the sunroom. All of our animals were unsettled, wandering in circles around the empty earth where the tree once stood.

That vacant depression resembled a newly dug grave.

Four days after Hurricane Isabel’s arrival, my old routine returned as if by rote. Finding myself on the loveseat with my furry companions by my side, my eyes were closed for no particular reason. Heat inundated my face—a sensation I never recalled before. Opening my eyes, I flipped open my Bible. Jesus’ red letters appeared in Matthew 15:27: “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots.”

Looking up, sunlight streamed through the window, bathing my face in its warmth. The sun He created had been masked by the flowering plum tree for 20 years. With every passing year, it became increasingly difficult to experience the fullness of grace from the Son of God. The homonyms sun and Son collided in my mind.

Regardless of the season, each morning the tree spiraled my thoughts into the horrific details surrounding her death and the aftermath affecting our family. The scab had barely healed as I picked, scraped, and scratched it away. Sorrow flowed through my veins. Landing on Jesus’ red-letter words in my Bible stopped my daily tide of despair. God used the storm to literally take away Sue’s tree.

Do I miss the tree? Sure. Yet the memories of my sister are sweeter now. God knew what needed to occur in order for my healing to begin. Though visually beautiful, that plant had taken root, becoming an unlikely idol of sadness. By uprooting Sue’s tree, joy finally supplanted my cumulative grief. 

Originally published in Just Between Us Magazine

Karen Rhea

Karen Rhea is a sought-after keynote speaker. Her riveting storytelling is no less enthralling in her writings. She is the author of ‘The Mule; An Unexpected Ride’, ‘Sick Kids and Those Who Love Them', and magazine articles.  A former leader with Community Bible Study, she also directed women's ministries and couples ministries with her husband, whom she accompanied on medical mission trips.  She's Mimi to her six grandchildren and resides in Maryland.