– A picture of the Newport Bridge, located in Newport, Rhode Island, taken at sunset –
June / July 2015.
Following Elizabeth’s funeral, we stayed in Rhode Island for about two weeks.
We were surrounded by my extended family, whose company and fellowship was a welcome distraction from our loss.
The command I was assigned to, at the time, would have allowed me to stay longer; they even offered to temporarily give me orders to the base in Newport, Rhode Island. In a few short months, I’d be going right back anyway, to report for officer indoctrination, following my commissioning on September 1st.
As generous and gracious as the offer was, I had to decline. Our responsibilities tethered us back to North Carolina and the Hampton Roads area. Isabella needed to finish 1st grade, and Erica had a job back in Virginia Beach. Besides, we still had financial obligations, namely the house.
Still, so much of my heart wanted to stay in Rhode Island. I didn’t want to leave Elizabeth. In some strange way, as long as we were there, I felt close to her…yet I knew she wasn’t really there.
The long drive back to North Carolina is still a blur for me. The only memory of that ride, which really stands out, is when we approached the Rhode Island / Connecticut border.
As the ‘Welcome to Connecticut’ sign came into view, Erica broke down in tears at the thought of leaving Elizabeth behind. Each passing mile on our journey back to North Carolina, without Elizabeth, was another micro-step on our road of grief, mourning, adjusting to Elizabeth’s absence and eventually…our healing.
During the initial days and weeks following our loss, we began to feel the real weight of our grief. The colossal width and depth of the hole left behind became painfully real. When we returned back to our house, it no longer felt like home; instead, it felt like an empty shell. The place which was formerly our family sanctuary and a safe place had become ground zero for the most devastating loss imaginable.
Elizabeth’s room was nearly the same way, as when she had left it on the day she passed away. All her earthly possessions were still in their place where she had last put them. Her toys, trinkets, and gadgets…every little token and tome that reflected her unique personality sat untouched and motionless; as if frozen in time as a reminder of better days.
All her jackets and sweaters still hung up in her closet, and her dresser had all her clothes neatly folded inside of it. Her bed remained unused with her blankets neatly folded at the foot. Everything about her room echoed with the silence left by Elizabeth’s absence. Even her soft and gentle smell lingered; a mix of light floral perfume and hairspray.
Her room was right next to the laundry room and Isabella’s room. This meant that every time Erica and I went to do laundry or Isabella would go into her own room, we would be forced to walk past the place which had become a heartbreaking memorial.
The second and third order effects of Elizabeth’s absence permeated and shaped our daily lives. Meals, shopping, and even the most mundane of tasks were reminders that she was gone. Our lives revolved around Elizabeth. Her emotional and mental health needs added an extra layer to that orbit because she was on such a strict schedule of medication. I can’t count how many times Erica and I would suddenly stop and check to see if it was time for Elizabeth’s medicine, only to realize that she no longer needed it. Those moments were bitter reminders of how and why our little girl was gone.
She needed the medicine to keep from hurting herself, but because she hurt herself, she didn’t need the medication. It was a repetitive and vicious cycle of regret, pain, and grief.
Bedtime was also difficult. As the distractions from the day’s events came to a close, we were once again faced with the eerie silence. While the nighttime hours drew close, Erica, Isabella and I would all pile in the master bedroom and watch television for a couple hours before closing our eyes and laying our heads down to rest.
The ripple effect of losing Elizabeth sent shockwaves of both fear and loneliness into every family routine…including bedtime. Our youngest daughter Isabella, who was only seven years old at the time, was too scared to sleep by herself. Before Elizabeth passed away, Isabella would often bunk up with her big sister. She admired and almost idolized Elizabeth; to have her big sister torn away, so suddenly and tragically, had a massive impact on Isabella’s sense of security and safety.
For several months, Isabella was too scared to sleep by herself in her own room so we would let her snuggle up with us. Those times when she was able to fall asleep in her own bed, would often result in her crawling back into our bed while Erica and I were still asleep.
The deep wound to our minds, bodies, and spirits had left our souls feeling raw and sensitive. So much so, that we unconsciously began to filter out the former things which we used to find entertaining.
The types of music we listened to and the movies and television we used to watch, took a sudden and drastic shift. Suddenly we pushed out anything which seemed to graphically depict or glorify violence, substance abuse, greed or dysfunctional behavior.
It was as if our hearts and minds could only process the most innocent and pure of entertainment. Our senses couldn’t handle the harsher varieties.
Instead, our television viewing became a form of a security blanket. In the evenings Erica, Isabella and I would all huddle up together and watch re-runs of old, black-and-white, family-oriented shows from the ‘50s and early ‘60s.
Without us consciously trying, worship and praise music filled our home and car radios. It was a way for us to reach out to Heaven and keep God close to our broken hearts. We desperately needed His healing touch and wanted to invite Him close. My little family and I drew closer to God and leaned on our faith deeper than we ever had before.
The grief and pain, that the loss of Elizabeth carried with it, were something that words can scarcely describe. There was a huge void left in our family. A part of us had been ripped away, suddenly and with no explanation or warning. I knew that to survive, I would have to depend on the Eternal Arms of One who is bigger than the loss.
When my little brother Benjamin died from an overdose in 2004, I tried to walk that road alone. It almost killed me.
I knew that the weight of Elizabeth’s passing would be too much for me to carry on my own; so, I reached out to the one constant which I knew would never fail me…God. I leaned on Him, not just for my survival, but for the survival of my wife and youngest daughter Isabella.
A few short months after we buried Elizabeth’s body up in Rhode Island, I had to go back to my home state once more. I was selected to be commissioned as a Naval Officer; something which had been a heartfelt desire of mine for many years.
I had been in the Navy a little more than 17 years. After climbing the ranks as an enlisted Sailor, I had been selected for commissioning as a Naval Officer. It was a career-long dream of mine, and it was finally happening. My commissioning ceremony was held on September 1st, 2015. It was a big, momentous occasion which was attended by many of my shipmates and friends, who I had served with over the years; even my wife’s brother and his wife drove up from Houston to join us. It was an important event held aboard a battleship-turned-museum…the decommissioned USS WISCONSON (BB-64), located in the harbor near downtown Norfolk, Virginia.
Many of the people who I care about were there…except for one – Elizabeth.
As the guests arrived and every chair was filled, minus one. In the very front row, next to Erica, there was one chair which remained empty. That’s where Elizabeth would have sat. This would be the first significant life event, for our family, which she wouldn’t be attending.
Elizabeth had been a constant presence in our lives for almost as long as Erica, and I had been married. Her fingerprints were on nearly every major family milestone.
From our first apartment in San Diego to our first overseas tour, to our first house in North Carolina…Elizabeth had been part of it all, until now. My commissioning ceremony would mark not only the beginning of a new phase in my military career, but it would also become the first of many special moments, holidays and birthdays where her absence would be sorely felt.
A few days after the ceremony, I would be returning to the place where I had enlisted in the Navy back in 1998. As a newly commissioned Naval Officer, I was ordered to report to Officer Training Command, located on Naval Station Newport, Rhode Island. The irony of it all seemed surreal. Almost 17 years prior, I had left this place as a young man seeking to discover myself. This was the same place I had lost my father and my little brother. This was also the place where my extended family and I had buried precious other loved ones…this was the place where I had laid my oldest daughter to rest.
One day, while my fellow officers and I were on the main parade field finishing our daily physical fitness training, the reality and gravity of it all hit me. The warm September sun was accompanied by a cool breeze flowing off of Narragansett Bay. There I was, the man who had left so many years prior, returning to the same place where so much of my heart had been laid to rest and gone into eternity.
For the rest of my fellow classmates, it was just another training environment. For me, there was so much more. It had only been four months since we buried Elizabeth in a cemetery, which was only 15 minutes away.
Throughout my military career, I always imagined going to the Naval War College in Newport and receiving training as an officer, but it never occurred to me the long road I would have to travel to get there…yet there I was; back where it all started.
It was a long six weeks of training. Erica and Isabella stayed back in North Carolina. I was by myself in Rhode Island, but I was never alone – God was with me.
On several occasions, when the training day secured, I visited the cemetery. The broken ground of Elizbeth’s grave was still fresh, and the grass was barely growing back. She still didn’t even have a headstone. That was something that Erica and I had a hard time coming to terms with and doing. A headstone represented accepting the fact she was gone, and it was a form of a final goodbye that we were not ready to say.
About half-way through my officer training, I was visited by a close friend and Christian Brother of mine. This is the same Brother who had taken me under his wing, back when we were serving aboard a warship together and engaged in Bible studies with, along with the ship’s Executive Officer, Supply Officer, and Command Chaplain. He is someone who supported me when my uncle had taken his own life, back in 2012.
I took my friend to the cemetery where not only Elizabeth is buried, but where my dad, little brother, uncle, and cousin are also buried. The tears in my Brother’s eyes welled up. The magnitude of so much loss was almost incomprehensible.
Following my training at the Naval War College, I reported for about a month of advanced technical training related to my new career field as an officer. During this season, my family and I pressed into the Hands of One far more capable than ourselves.
While I was in the advanced technical training, I was reunited with yet another old shipmate of mine. A fellow officer, and also a fellow Christian…someone who I had also worked with back aboard my last shipboard assignment.
By a stroke of Divine Providence, he was assigned to the same class as me. His wife became close friends to Erica and was a shoulder for her to lean on as we continued to traverse our road of healing.
My friend and I carpooled to and from class every day. During those car rides, I discovered what a great listener my friend is. We talked and prayed together; sharing in Brotherly fellowship.
I consider this particular season the beginning stages of something vital. It was in this season that a calling from Eternity, which had been placed on my heart as a young boy, began to take shape and form. I knew that as long as I stayed pressed into God, He would reveal to me what the next steps were.
As the final week of advanced training drew to a close, Christmas was on the horizon. This would be our family’s first Christmas without Elizabeth. Erica and I planned a vacation to Houston, Texas so we could spend the holiday with her family.
After a two-day road trip, we arrived in Houston and at Erica’s mom’s house.
While we were there, I had a powerful and compelling experience…one which I cannot shake.
I had a dream which echoes in my mind to this day…
Our hearts were heavy. How does a parent possibly process the loss of their own child – how does a little girl process the loss of her big sister?
In the months which followed, we discovered that we weren’t alone. The road of healing has no road-map. Instead, it’s navigated through trust and vulnerability, accompanied by many tears.
I knew that the size and scope of what we were traversing were too big for myself or family to hold onto. Only God and His healing touch would carry us through.
Ever since I was a little boy, I always felt God’s Hand on my life. I knew that He is always near. Through my early adult years, I pushed against Him. I carried so much pain, caused by traumatic life experiences and all the losses I had navigated through, especially the loss of my dad and little brother; but none of that compared to losing my own child.
Through these darkest hours, there was a Divine Invisible Hand which held us close. Deliberate engagement by seeking our comfort in the scriptures and prayer were the two main things which kept my family and me afloat amid our sea of grief.
In addition to securing ourselves in the healing arms of God, we found comfort in the empathetic company of friends and family who made themselves available 24 hours a day; seven days a week. We were covered with around the clock support by people who genuinely cared for us. Most of them were fellow shipmates who I had served with over the years, including several people from the chain of command aboard the last ship I had served on.
Chief among these people is my friend, and mentor; the same one who had visited me while I was up in Newport, Rhode Island at Officer Training Command. He’s someone who, to this day, is especially close to my family and I. We spoke on a near-daily basis. His prayers and listening ear were two of the best medicines for my family’s broken hearts.
Sadly, for as many people who showed sympathy and support, there were others who seemed to pull away. For whatever reason, these were individuals who, in better times, seemed to be friends and some are extended family. They never came by to show their condolences, give us a phone call…not even a sympathy card.
A crisis has a strange way of revealing a person’s depth of character and capacity for empathy. In the middle of the battle, there are those who run towards the fight and seek to help…then there are others who shrink back and hide. Tragedies, like the one my family and I were facing, can make some people feel uncomfortable. They don’t know what to say or do. For them, it’s simply more comfortable to step away and try to pretend nothing happened.
But it’s those initial days, weeks and even months, following a crisis that are the most critical.
A piece of advice: If there is someone in your life, whom you even remotely value having a relationship with, I recommend being willing to step out of your comfort zone to be a resource of healing. Don’t feel pressured to say anything. In a loss as massive and horrible, like the one we were facing, there are no words to make the pain go away.
Just listen…plain and simple.
If you’re not a good listener but live close by, at least offer to help out with simple daily things like cleaning, grocery shopping or other household chores. Simple acts of kindness are a priceless investment.
Remember, a friendship which is advertised with words in the good times must be followed through with action in the bad times.
During the weeks and months following Elizabeth’s loss, my extended family in Rhode Island and a few close friends stood by us from the very beginning.
But there are also those who are outside of my family tree and immediate circle of friends who I owe a debt of gratitude that I can only hope to repay, by paying it forward to others who are hurting.
These are special people, whose names and tender acts of love and kindness I’ll never forget. The selflessness and bravery they showed, were instrumental in helping us cross through our darkest valley.
Throughout that first year, as my family and I continued to grow stronger and press into our faith, a purpose and plan began to take shape. Although I didn’t know it at the time, something was forming and rising inside of me. The clarity of what that was wouldn’t become evident until several of months later.