Loss, disappointment and grief, we all have this bond in common. Whether you are eight or eighty, you have experienced some degree of grief over lost love, hopes and dreams. Children lose beloved pets, lovers grow apart and change their minds, jobs are downsized, parents grow old, disabilities, divorce, disease and death take those whom we love dearly. Anger, depression, frustration and bitterness are natural feelings when experiencing a loss; however, those experiences do not have to define the rest of our lives. It is my philosophy that such challenges can serve as a catalyst to a higher and more rewarding level of life where we can discover who we really are and what our purpose is in this life.

One of my favorite quotes on grief comes from Keanu Reeves. I happen to adore Keanu for many reasons, but I especially love his quote, “Grief changes shape, but it never ends.”  There is no finish line with grief. No races won or awards given for the fastest recovery time from a life changing event. Grief takes time and every one of us has a different time frame in which to work through. Grief changes who you are but it does not have to destroy you. You can be a stronger and better person because you endured loss and survived. Grief can make you feel fully alive if you are at a place in your life to embrace such a life lesson from God.

Ten years ago this May, my husband and I buried our third child, Gabriel “Gabe.” It was a devastating loss and for days I had dreams that I could hear his cries but I could not find him. I also remember telling myself that I had one week to lie in bed and mourn. Pioneer women often endured multiple deaths of children, only to bury them and then move hundreds of miles away from their final resting site. With no place to honor their lost children and all the additional responsibilities they endured (i.e. give birth without modern medicine, bury children, get back to caring for the family) I decided I could pull myself up by my “boot straps” and make my life work. My two older children could only eat so many bologna sandwiches and my husband needed me. I had people who counted on me so I worked through my grief. Gabe was born on the last day of school and died the next day. As a teacher, I had the “luxury” of time that summer to spend with my family in order to help all of us adjust to life without the son, brother, and grandson we had all so anxiously awaited.

Anyone who knows me well understands I worked through my grief with the strength of my faith, family, friends, music and education. This is what worked for me. You may have a different path. I still have tough days, especially when I work with kids who are the same age as what Gabe would have been this year. But, I choose not to stay in my grief. I work through it and allow those feelings to shape who I am emotionally and spiritually.

I specifically remember working through a sense of loss when my husband deployed the year before we lost Gabe. It was only after losing Gabe that I realized deployment had served as a prerequisite to dealing with grief. I had to let go of my sense of “control.” I could not change the time, distance or situation that separated me from my husband, but I could embrace the new friendships I had found in the Family Readiness Group that year. To this day, some of my best friends in life are those women with whom I shared those difficult moments of deployment.

In my grief, I discovered a whole new set of friends through music. For me, music is the bond that knows no cultural, faith or language barriers. In a gracious and kind gesture, Gabe’s memory was kept alive through a song written by Dominic Miller entitled, “Gabe.” You can hear this song on his Fourth Wall album. Dominic is known in the music world for his work with Sting and his own solo guitar work. Because of this bond, I was blessed with a diverse group of friendships from around the globe. I certainly never intended to share my loss with strangers; but, because I shared my heart and soul during a very vulnerable time in my life, I was blessed with the gift of friendship because of Gabe. Music has always been my “go to” during difficult moments in my life. Country roads, fresh air and loud music (of all genres) can truly be therapeutic, if you are open to the possibilities.

Because of Gabe, my husband and I decided to educate ourselves on everything we could find regarding HLHS – Hypo-plastic Left Heart Syndrome. This was the disease that had taken our son and we wanted to know everything about it. Could it happen to future children we might have? We never experienced a “why me” attitude but wanted to know more. Together, we talked to national and state medical professionals who encouraged genetic testing to possibly give us the answers we were seeking. Testing did not reveal any genetic abnormalities that would indicate a heart defect such as HLHS. We were relieved and were told on-going research continues through such organizations as the American Heart Association and Children’s Heart Foundation of Nebraska in order to find a cure for Congenital Heart Disease.

Thankfully, my husband and I were blessed with two more children after losing Gabe. Each individual life is unique therefore we went into this experience knowing that we would never replace Gabe. I prayed a great deal during those pregnancies and had many long conversations with God about how I would deal with life if things did not turn out the way I thought they should be. I cannot imagine how much of my life I would have missed out on had I let my grief stand in the way of having my two youngest children. My youngest daughter is a kind and compassionate old-soul who often shares bits of wisdom with me on parenting her younger brother. And, that boy, I was meant to be his mom. I would have missed out on two of the greatest loves of my life had I let my grief stand in the way.

As we prepare to remember Gabe on his 10th heavenly birthday, we also pause to remember all those whom we have loved and lost as we celebrate Memorial Weekend. Death is a part of life and a bond that we all share. You are not alone on your journey. We each have our own unique and individual ways of handling our disappointments, loss and grief. It is my hope that my story will serve as a reminder that you can embrace your own grief as motivation to live your best life. 

Lisa Cass

Lisa is a UNK graduate and has spent the last twenty years teaching special education in Kansas and Nebraska schools. She lives in Hastings, Nebraska with her husband Tim, also a UNK graduate and children, Sam, Sophia, Addison, and Ian. Over the years Lisa has served as a respite care worker, tutor and volunteer for the Nebraska Army National Guard Family Readiness group, Special Olympics, UNK Gold Torch Society, and Nebraska Children’s Heart Foundation. She enjoys attending her children’s school events, substitute teaching, and traveling with her husband.