Saturday, May 16th, 2015
96 hours had passed since Elizabeth died. My wife and I had just lost a daughter – our youngest daughter had lost a sister.
The days and weeks which followed Elizabeth’s passing had become a sleepless and tear-filled blur. Everything was moving so fast; our minds and bodies buzzed with fatigue fueled by grief.
The little girl, who 15 years prior I had helped bring into this world, was gone.
As parents, Erica and I were suddenly absent a child; someone whom we had been responsible for. Every aspect of her life was part of our parental decision-making process.
Elizabeth was our oldest child. That mere fact was a center of gravity for our family. The emotional and spiritual struggles which she wrestled with only deepened the orbit. But, in a sudden collision, our world was spun out of control, and our family climate was forever altered.
We were stunned and reeling from the shock of losing her.
So many choices to make, so much to get done and very little time to spare. Each decision and task were a painful and chilling reminder that my eldest princess was gone from this world.
During those initial days, we were surrounded by friends and family. Erica’s extended family had come from Houston, Texas and several of my fellow military warriors, who I had the pleasure of serving with, were also there; one of whom I consider a close brother-in-arms.
The day of the memorial service, I wore my dress blue uniform. So did my military friends. Our deputy sheriff friend came by the house in his squad car and escorted us to the church where the service was held. As we neared the intersection leading to the church, he put his lights on and stopped traffic so we could proceed to the church parking lot.
As Erica, our youngest daughter Isabella and I walked into the church, our friends and family followed close behind us. My warrior-brother sat close to my family and I. During the memorial service, my wife and I wept; it was another step in the surreal goodbye we were forced to say to Elizabeth. A couple of songs, which were special to her, were played on the church sound system while the pews were filled with many of her high-school friends and their families. There were so many people that there was standing room only.
After the service, so many of Elizabeth’s friends came up to Erica and I and hugged us. The sadness and pain in their eyes echoed our own.
Monday, May 17th, 2015
A private viewing was held at the funeral home the next day. Erica’s family joined us, along with my warrior-brother. His presence was a point of solidarity amid the painful chaos. The entire time he managed the phone calls and daily taskings that my wife and I had neither the patience or heart to deal with.
I remember walking into the viewing room where Elizabeth’s body was laying. As I walked in, my heart raced, and my breath was shallow. The last time I had seen her was five days prior. Considering what had happened, I didn’t know what to expect.
Turing the corner into the viewing room, the first thing which caught my eye was Elizabeth’s thick beautiful hair. The warm dark brown color was showing through the last bit of maroon hair dye Elizabeth had used a few weeks prior. She wore a long green dress that our neighbor friend helped pick out. As we walked up to the table where she was laying, Erica and I began to weep uncontrollably.
Looking at our little girl lying there, it was a tangible and very real reminder that our daughter was really gone. Erica and I stood by Elizabeth’s body for a few minutes; Isabella joined us moments later. As a way for us to connect with Elizabeth, even though she had already departed, Erica and I placed in her folded hands a small family photograph and Isabella gave her big sister a little plastic figurine of Elizbeth’s favorite fairy tale princess.
Our family had been broken…so were our hearts. This would be the last time we would look upon Elizabeth, on this side of eternity.
Meanwhile, my warrior-brother stood close by and slowly ushered in the other close friends and family who were there to show their respect.
As the viewing came to a close, Erica and I spoke to one of the funeral home directors. Following the viewing, would be the actual funeral and burial up in Rhode Island.
The director explained to us that, within a matter of hours, Elizabeth’s body would be transported, via airplane.
Erica broke down and began to cry. “She’s going to be all alone…on an airplane…by herself.” The heart of a mother was breaking for her lost baby. Erica and I felt so helpless and powerless; everything about what was happening was counter to our parental and nurturing instincts. We were still trying to take care of and look after our child, even though we knew she was already gone.
Erica’s tears and pain were mine as well. We both wanted our little girl back. We both hoped that we would wake up from this living nightmare.
Even though we lived in North Carolina, we were not from there. Aside from our neighbors and a few friends, we had no roots or connections there. Erica is from Texas, and so is the rest of her extended family. I, on the other hand, am from Rhode Island, where the rest of my extended family is also.
For years, Erica and I planned to move to Texas when I retired from the military. Back in 2010, we bought a house near the Virginia/North Carolina state line, because my duty assignment had stationed us in the Hampton Roads area. We didn’t have deep relationship roots nearby. No family and our closest friends were either our neighbors or some of the fellas I had been assigned with.
The heartbreaking decision of where to bury one of our children never factored into the equation: yet there we were…faced with that terrible choice. Were we going to bury Elizabeth there in North Carolina? A place where we were only transients and didn’t have any family?
What about Texas? Sure, we planned on moving there and calling the Lone Star State home someday, but where exactly in Texas? It’s a very big place and, at that time, our plans to move there were just a faraway whisper.
The tragic irony of having laid to rest so many others in my family in one location led Erica and me to a painfully logical choice. Elizabeth was going to be buried somewhere I had become all too familiar with. A place which had been visited too many times by others in my family, for the same reasons we were laying Elizabeth to rest. Elizabeth would be buried in Rhode Island.
I called my oldest uncle and told him about what Erica, and I decided. He agreed that we had made a sensible choice in the most senseless of situations.
There was so much to be done, and much of it actually needed to take place up in Rhode Island.
My uncle selflessly took it upon himself to liaison with the funeral home in Rhode Island and was willing to make some tough choices for us: picking the burial plot and choosing a casket.
Tuesday, May 18th, 2015.
Early that morning, Erica’s family had started on their drive back to Texas. My cousin (who is really more like my older brother), flew down from Rhode Island to join Erica, Isabella and I on the 11-hour drive from North Carolina to Rhode Island. Our grandmother, Nanny, was expecting our arrival and she had everything prepared at her house, for our stay. I would be returning to the place of my origin and roots. The same place where I had lost my father so many years prior. This time I’d be returning to bury my daughter.
While we were on our journey towards the final stages of saying goodbye, the magnitude of Elizbeth’s passing was having a rippling impact back in our local community. Her former classmates at the high school she had attended wanted a way to express their grief and say goodbye as well.
Out of concern, the school faculty had expressed trepidation about memorializing Elizabeth; they didn’t want to draw attention to how she had died or glamorize suicide, but at the same time they also wanted to be delicate and respectful of Elizabeth’s memory.
As we were driving north to lay Elizabeth to rest, the school and student leadership decided to organize a butterfly release. That afternoon, thousands of delicate little wings rose to meet the warm sunshine and fluttered in the breeze toward heaven.
Wednesday, May 19th, 2015.
The day of Elizabeth’s funeral. The warm sun and mild ocean breeze seemed to almost soften the somber and sad feeling that hung in the air.
I made some last-minute phone calls to my uncle, who had been coordinating many of the specifics with the local funeral home. Erica and Isabella got dressed up; I wore my dress blue uniform. As we drove to the cemetery, my heart was pounding. I had taken this ride before, and I knew every turn and detail. Every time I had gone there, it hurt; but never this bad.
Each funeral had brought with it a hope, that it would be the last one caused by the same thief who had stolen all the others.
Yet, there we were, heading to a place which had come to represent many of the unfulfilled hopes and dreams within one family.
As I pulled into the cemetery, I could see the rest of my family had arrived, as well as a few of the people who I knew from church, growing up.
Alongside I saw the hearse. My heart sank; I knew that in a few short moments, Erica and I would say our final goodbye to Elizabeth.
I parked the truck, and we walked over to the grave site where the rest of my family was standing. Awkward greetings were shared between us. We all knew why we were there – we had done this before. Everyone looked tired; each time something like this happened, it took a piece from all of us. The only thing we could do was stand and be strong for one another. A stiff upper lip and a sense of solidarity were the only things that helped us hold onto our collective family dignity and kept our emotions from coming unglued.
The funeral home had set up a small table with a few of Elizabeth’s photographs, as a way to give a visual memorial. The funeral director walked up to me, gently shook my hand and explained what was about to happen. He then shared a few words with the rest of my family before we proceeded.
“Mr. Mattera, I’ll need you and someone else to come and assist us.”, the funeral director said as he opened the back of the hearse. Slowly he rolled Elizabeth’s casket a few inches out. My cousin (the one who flew down to North Carolina and rode back with us) walked up next to me.
“I’ll need you two gentlemen to get on that side while my assistant and I get on the other side, and we will lift together.”, the funeral director instructed.
The funeral director and his assistant grabbed one side of the casket, my cousin and I grabbed the other. With one of us on each corner, we lifted and pulled my daughter’s casket out of the hearse.
I can think of a thousand horrible things in this world that no father ever wants to do…being a pallbearer for their own child is undoubtedly one of them. It’s an experience which left a massive scar on my heart, and one I’ll certainly never forget.
After a few short paces, in unison, we placed the casket onto the lowering device. My mother’s pastor shared a few short words and said a prayer.
A short while after the eulogy, the guests began to slowly leave. My aunt and uncle had arraigned for a quiet reception a few miles down the road, so they went on ahead. Erica and I stayed behind at the gravesite a few more minutes.
As the groundskeepers walked up to lower the casket, tears welled up in my eyes. My lip quivered, and body trembled. I snapped to attention and slowly raised my right arm, forming a salute.
“I love you Elizabeth…I love you…d-d-d-daddy loves you.”, I stammered as tears rolled down my cheeks.
This was my final goodbye to Elizabeth – but somewhere deep down, amid the howling winds and torrential rain which plummeted my soul, a small but unquenchable, white-hot flame of hope crackled and burned. It was as if that little flame defiantly resisted against the raging storm. I knew this wasn’t the end…in fact, it was far from over and the beginning of something so much bigger.
Death no longer has the final say…the grave has lost its sting.
For a parent, the death of a child is a reminder of how illegitimate of an intruder death really is on the human experience. Somehow over the years, humanity has become uncomfortably accustomed to elders preceding their juniors in passing through that invisible veil; in fact, we expect it and accept it as a normal part of the cycle of things.
Yet there is still an internal reminder of how foreign death really is. It pings deep within all of us, every time a loved one dies, no matter how old they were or how expected the passing was.
Still, we celebrate the life of those who lived long and fulfilled lives. We grieve their loss and miss them in their absence, but their passing is an accepted fact.
On the other hand, the death of a child resonates deeply with anyone who has a heart. A child dying is completely counter to the accepted order of things. It is a parent’s worst nightmare. Children are to be nurtured, protected and guided…they are our greatest legacy, for they carry with them a piece of us into tomorrow.
In addition to the massive and nearly indescribable grief, I felt from Elizabeth’s passing, there was a painful irony which surrounded her funeral. In that very cemetery, are the corporeal remains of precious loved ones, including my own father and little brother, who lost their battle to the same invisible darkness which had lied to Elizabeth and stolen her from us. Their lives had been cut short, leaving behind so much unrealized potential and so many unfulfilled dreams.
For my family and I, the weeks and months following our deepest loss would be some of our darkest hours. The complex waves of emotions which came crashing would solicit a variety of physical and psychological responses.
Our family had suffered a major loss. An irreplaceable part of our lives had been ripped away from us. There was an unexplainable vacuum left by Elizabeth’s absence; the silence she left behind echoed loudly. Her empty room and all her worldly possessions were a constant reminder that she wasn’t there anymore.
For 15 years Erica and I raised and nurtured that little girl. Everything about our lives was tailored and adjusted to the fact that there were four people in our family. Then all of a sudden there was only three. Little things, that most people take for granted, like grocery shopping, laundry, and cooking all of a sudden served as a reminder that someone was missing. We no longer bought Elizabeth’s favorite foods, our grocery list became smaller, her clothes weren’t in the washer and dryer, and our nightly family meals became nearly non-existent.
In fact, after Elizabeth’s passing, our house ceased being a home. A home is supposed to be a place of peace and safety; instead, our worst nightmare had taken place, right at the very center of it all.
I spent many nights waking up crying in my sleep from the nightmares caused by the things I saw that terrible day. They never really go away…the nightmares just happen less and less.
Through it all, there was one constant: God.
He is truly near the broken-hearted in their darkest hours.
During the following year, we discovered how near He really is…