Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Grieving Heart

I've been absent from the blogging world for a bit due to a unexpected tragedy in my life.  My brother, Alex, was killed in a car accident on his birthday, March 19th.  I feel the need to share the story on this blog.  Part of me wishes to remember every moment and part of me hopes I can forget the nightmare of that night and never think of it again.  It has been very hard for me to understand why this happened and hard for me to stop asking "what if..." I'm hoping that by writing about his last day I'll be able to try to move forward knowing that the story is here when I need to remember it. I constantly think about the events of that night and hope that by writing this it will help with my grieving process.

On Thursday, March 17th life was good.  I hopped on a flight to Tennessee to spend a quick 4 day weekend with my family. My work schedule had just changed from 5 days per week to 4.  This meant that every three weeks I'd have a 4 day weekend. It was a trip planned very last minute. I only bought the flight the week before - paying way too much and more than I would usually be willing to pay.  For some reason it just worked out and I had an urge to come home.

That Friday my mom and I went shopping in Memphis to find a birthday present for Alex and get some party stuff for his birthday cookout planned for Saturday night.  We had a great day with beautiful weather. That afternoon I got to see Alex for a few minutes back in Somerville before we both went to dinner - he with his girlfriend and me with some high school girlfriends who I hadn't seen in a while.  We decided to try to meet up later that night. After dinner he sent me a text to see where we were and we both ended up at TJ Mulligans.

At TJ Mulligans he introduced me to Lauren, his girlfriend who he had been dating for about 3 months. Alex and I talked for a few minutes, made plans for the next day to see our niece Maggie play soccer, and then I went on the patio to visit with some high school friends that I hadn't seen in a long time - thinking I'd be seeing him most of the day Saturday.  While getting ready to leave I was stopped by Lauren who said she and Alex had gotten in an argument and he had left upset.  After ensuring she had a ride I got her phone number and told her I would let her know when I got home that he was alright.

Thinking to myself that everything was fine, I started to drive off towards Somerville.  About 5 or 10 minutes later I came up on a vehicle on fire that had run into a tree on the side of the road.  It appeared the vehicle had careened off the road just as the road began to curve after a long straight segment.  Honestly, I didn't think it was Alex. I guess it was in the back of my mind as I was slightly panicked but I kept thinking it couldn't be him.  As I was dialing 911 a fire truck pulled up coming from the other direction.  The car was so engulfed in flames, I couldn't tell what kind of vehicle it was.  I pulled over and ran up to the site, only to be ushered back by a fireman. 

Soon I noticed that there was a couple who had stopped just before me that called 911.  I asked the man what kind of car it was and he told me he thought it was a white hummer. My heart sank. I just couldn't believe it. This was the vehicle Alex was driving.  I think I went in to shock about this point. I remember dropping to me knees and watching it burn. I started yelling that I thought it was my brother, trying to find out from firemen and policemen if anyone was in the car, had been thrown from it, or was hurt.  No one could tell me anything.  Alex had recently moved back home, so I ran back to my car and grabbed my phone to call my parents, still hoping that it wasn't him and that they would tell me he was at  home already. They hadn't heard from him so they got in their car to drive out to the scene.

At this point I sat down and watched as the car burned.  It took about 30 minutes and 3 fire engines to put the fire out.  A few cops came and asked me questions then left me alone.  The sweet couple who stopped before me stayed until my parents got there. I didn't talk to them, but they were there which helped keep me calm.  I had the strangest feeling- like I was having a bad dream - like this couldn't possibly be happening. I wasn't even crying. I barely remember how I felt at the time or what I was thinking.  I remember not being cold, but my whole body wouldn't stop shaking.

After they put the fire out, my parents arrived.  We struggled for a while trying to find out if it was Alex.  We kept trying to find out information from the cops, but they wouldn't give us any definitive answers and they wouldn't let us walk up to the car.  I think we all sort of knew it was him, but as awful as it seems we were hoping it was someone else. 

Alex was a diesel mechanic and often worked on friends cars. He had a bunch of my dad's tools in a large metal tool box in the back of the hummer.  My dad kept asking the cops and firemen if they had seen a toolbox in the car.  Finally one of the cops came up to us and told us there was what looked like a large metal box in the vehicle.  Hearing this, we were all devastated. 

I come from a very large, close family.  My parents, grandparents, and most of my aunts, uncles, and cousins all live within a few miles of each other.   While we were still in shock, we finally started to realize what had happened and that we needed to let the rest of our family know. My parents called each of their parents who started spreading the word and within about an hour most of our family was there.  We remained at the site until about 4:30 am. For some reason we just couldn't leave until he did. They wouldn't let us see him and even held up a sheet while removing his body from the car. I know they were trying to protect us, but we still wanted to see him. 

Several people came to talk with me and my parents - policemen, EMTs, the medical examiner.

An ambulance arrived, but left empty.

Most of the night is a blur but somehow I had been at the scene for over 4 hours.  I don't think I said a word on the way home.  I was in disbelief, but couldn't shake the image of his truck in flames from my mind.

The next few days our home was filled with people coming over to support us. Our kitchen, 2 refrigerators, and a deep freezer were overflowing with food by the first afternoon. I am blessed to be from such a loving small community that truly embraces those in tragedy. I can't even begin to guess how many people stopped by my parents house, but the number must be in the hundreds.  The whole time it felt like a bad dream - it still feels like a dream. 

David, back in Salt Lake City, desperately tried to get to Tennessee. He was finally able to fly in Sunday night.

The first few days were definitely the hardest. For days I had thought I had watched him suffer and burn to death from afar. I don't think my body relaxed until we heard from the medical examiner that Alex had definitely died instantly from a massive head trauma.  While still devastated, I had some relief with this news.

The following Monday we began planning the funeral. I had no idea what this all entailed, but it took a while. We had to choose music, pictures to display, the coffin, flowers, where to bury him, the pallbearers, ect.  It was a lot to think about and decide so quickly. I share this so that you blog readers might try to decide special things you would want and let your family know.  If we knew exactly what Alex would want it would have made the day easier.

The funeral was tough, really tough.  Though it was a blessing to see how much Alex was loved and how many lives he touched during his short life. The funeral director, Mr. Peebles, estimated that 2,000 people attended.

I am a nurse practitioner and because of my line of work I have experienced death.  I've watched my patients pass away before my eyes.. I've helped families through their grieving process.  I've watched and cared for parents holding their dying children.  But nothing had prepared me for this.  In my training as a nurse and as a nurse practitioner I've learned all about grief and the grieving process, but I'm still struggling with my own grief. Now its been over 3 weeks and I still think about Alex and that night constantly. I'm taking life day by day with the help of my family and friends who continue to support me in many ways.

While the memories of that night and the image of his vehicle in flames continue to haunt me, I know that with the help of my husband, family, and friends I will make it through this tragedy.  I'm touched by the generosity, love, and support of the people in my life.  Alex is loved and missed by many and it helps me to know how many lives he touched during his short time in this world.

It is still hard.  My life is forever changed by this experience, but I know with the passing of time my grieving heart will learn to live with the loss.

"Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted." Matthew 5.4


  1. Oh Julie, I am in tears again reading this. My heart is so heavy & hurts for you. Like I said yesterday, I am praying for y'all constantly. I love you!!!

  2. I am so sorry Julie! Praying for you and your wonderful family!

  3. This was so hard to read, JulieBug. My heart is in knots. I'm a huge believer in writing things out and verbalizing stuff as a part of the healing process. I just don't know how you go from here. You're right-- you do your best to live with the loss. And I think heaven and death look a heck of a lot different now. Duh. Obviously. I know you know the verse about the Lord being close to the brokenhearted. And I just keep praying that He would hold you so close. That you'd be able to experience that peace that passes ALL understanding. I can remember during a particular hard time of my life (Which is nothing in comparison to this really) laying in bed and crying out from the depths of my gut for God to be real and to be big and to comfort me and hold me so so tight. For hours crying and begging. And I can remember telling myself that He promises to never leave me or forsake me and that He is close to the brokenhearted over and over again. And verses pertaining to comfort and hope and peace would freaking hit me upside the head. I'm praying that for you... That in the times of your deepest despair that the Lord would throw some verses into your head... From when we were little and memorized them so well...and that His word and promises would carry you into the next day. Day after day. Because I just don't know how else one can survive such a loss other than to cling full force and to purposely wrap yourself in eternal promises that you know are true. I admire you my friend. Your bravery to write this all out and to follow through with it as a step of healing and remembering... Blows my mind. I've witnessed your love for Alex and I know how special he is to your family. I promise I can still hear him yelling "julieanneeeeeee" just like it was yesterday. Know that so many are continuing to pray for you guys. I love you and am praying everyday throughout my days.

  4. Julie, I admire you for being able to speak from your heart. Writing instead of verbalizing always helps me, so I hope this helps you relieve some of the pain from such a loss. I think so much of you and your family and this tragedy really broke my heart for you guys. It's still so unbelievable. I can't begin to imagine what all you are feeling, but hope the love and prayers coming to you are felt and help while you grieve and take on each day. Your ending verse is so true and I hope you feel God's love and comfort more than ever.
    Lots of love to you, Amanda

  5. sweet Julie, I am so, so sorry! We're still praying for you and your family.