Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Good-bye for now Rob: One Year Later

One year ago, on July 25, a member of my extended family by the name of Rob Koger had passed away. He was only 35 years old. He suffered a severe head injury which, 2-3 days later, proved to be fatal.

Over the next several months, I had the privilege of corresponding to the Koger family. And it just so happened that during this time period I had become acquainted with about 4 or 5 people who had lost a loved one through death. Although I have never personally experienced such as loss, I learned a lot about grieving and the hope that sometimes accompanies.

For instance, I talked to a co-worker by the name of Dave. He lost his wife through brain cancer. A brain tumor had developed, and because of medical treatment, her cancer had gone into remission for 6 years. But sadly, the cancer returned; and aggressively so. Just a week before she had passed away, while she and her husband Dave were driving, she asked her husband to reminisce about their marriage. “Talk about us,” she said. And so he did. But at that point, Dave instinctively knew that her time was drawing near. Later he found out that nothing could prepare one for such a loss.

After his wife’s death, Dave told me it was like a big part of his heart was ripped out. However, he had two kids- a son and a daughter that he had to be strong for. He could have easily have been overwhelmed and paralyzed with sadness. But his duty as a father had bid him to rise above his natural inclinations. In response to what he shared with me, I told him that I had once heard that the healing begins when you start remembering the deceased loved one’s life more than his or her death. Therefore, I was surprised when he told me that his healing began when he stopped feeling sorry for himself. I had never heard that before.

Another thing he shared with me about the grieving process is that there can be a tension between two tracks: One track is the outside world; it continues to move on. The other track is where his world had abruptly stopped. As for the latter track, if you will, life is never the same when a close loved one dies. It’s like the World Trade Center building falling on 9/11: When those two buildings collapsed, it was difficult to even believe what our eyes were seeing. It was surreal. On the other hand, in the aftermath, that is, in the absence of the two skyscrapers, NYC skyline was forever changed. In the days to follow, it was hard not to stare at such a sad spectacle.

So there you are! A big part of your world stops rotating because the scenery is just not the same. It’s hard not to stare. And to be sure, it is impossible not to think about such a void “all the time.” After all, your deceased loved one contributed to who you are. Moreover, God shared apart of Himself through that person that no one else can communicate. Indeed, that person is irreplaceable.

"There is a new kind of normal” that replaces the old normal. Still, the world that exists outside of your grief continues to move. It continues to impose the same demands upon you. In other words, it doesn’t stop to grieve with you. And as for friends and family who sincerely want to support those who are grieving, they can make the mistake of never mentioning the deceased loved one out of fear that it might elicit tears. Yet, it is the deceased loved one that is constantly, if not, frequently, on the minds of those who mourn. Surprising to some, talking about our deceased loved ones is one of many means of healing.

In any event, Dave is a Christian. And to be sure, more than anything else, he is comforted knowing that his wife is with him in spirit and that one day they would be reunited in heaven. Although his friends will sometimes avoid the topic, he likes talking about his wife. In fact, he smiles when he mentions her name. Despite his loss, he is a man of hope. You can see it on his face.

And then there is Adam, another co-worker of mine: He lost his 3 year old daughter in a car accident. His wife was driving with their daughter in the car when they tragically got into an accident. Adam’s wife survived but his daughter did not. Just as unfortunate was that his wife could not forgive herself (although the accident wasn’t really her fault). Things went from bad to worse and the loss of their daughter ended up tearing apart their marriage. However, through group counseling, Adam managed to work through his grief.

A lesson can be learned from this story in that if we are to reach out and accept God’s forgiveness for whatever wrong or mistake we have made, it follows, not so much as a natural consequence but as a matter of moral obligation, that we have to make a choice to forgive ourselves. Only then can peace come to us. Adam was able to forgive but his wife could not bring herself to do so. She still suffers from this to this day.

Interestingly enough, one night Adam had a dream of his daughter. It was short but it was enough to bring him some consolation. In his dream he saw his daughter in a beautiful field of sorts. She was very happy and at peace. So touched by this, he woke up crying. But this was enough for him to believe that his daughter was in Good Hands.

Finally, I had the opportunity to talk to my daughter’s volleyball coach who had lost his 20 year old son, Dan, through cancer. The coach's name was Roger. When we first met, it had been 10 months since his son’s passing. My daughter’s volleyball team was celebrating the end of their season at a Pizza Hut. As such, they wanted to thank their coach in a special way. After giving him a gift, the coach fought back the tears and talked briefly about his son. The gift was a donation to Dan’s House of Hope; a charitable foundation created by Roger and his wife to honor their son and to give aid to those young men and women who were suffering from the same cancer Dan suffered from. Although Roger and I talked briefly about his son at Pizza Hut, it wasn’t until after Rob Koger passed away that we were able to talk in depth about his experience of loss. By this time, it had been 2 years since Dan had passed away and only a few months after Rob’s death.

After my conversation with Roger, I realized two things with greater clarity:

First, I realized how important faith is. He told me how he struggled to come to terms that his son could be in heaven; that he really could be in a better place. Faith really is a gift. For some, the gift is accepted with greater ease; yet for others, seizing it requires courage of venturing into the unknown. It can be a real struggle to reach out and lay hold of this gift from God.

Second, Roger told me that by creating Dan’s House of Hope, it brought him and his wife closer together. It gave them opportunities to talk about their son, Dan. This is when I realized that losing a loved one can be a kind of calling from God. I have talked to numerous people who took their grief and used it for a higher good; to serve others or to offer their pain of loss as a kind of spiritual sacrifice for the conversion of family members and/or friends. With Christ, suffering is never wasted. Thankfully, grieving can join forces with charity which, in the end, can gave meaning to profound loss. It was if they, who grieve, could now say to those in need, “Friend, I see that you are suffering. I too suffer. How can I help?”

As for the Koger and the Luder families, Rob’s passing on July 25, 2011, created a big hole that no one else can fill or compensate for. His uncle told me that when Rob used to walk into a room, he lit it up. And when I paid tribute to him by writing a short blog about what he meant to all who knew him a year ago, hundreds of people clicked in from all over the country to read it. It was then I realized how much he was loved and how good of a man Rob Koger was.

It might be easier for me to believe this than for others who were closer to Rob, but in my heart I believe that just as his life had meaning, so too does his death. It just so happens that the Catholic Church celebrates the Saints, not on their day of birth, but on the day they died. After all, it was on that day they inherited their eternal reward. And as for Rob, he received what is known in the Church as the “Apostolic Pardon” at the Wesley Medical Center. It is a special blessing by the Church that makes a soul immediately ready for eternal happiness. This is why July 25 has great meaning for me and hopefully for those who love Rob. As Pope Leo XIII said, "...when we have given up this present life, then shall we really begin to live...He [God] has given us this world as a place of exile, and not as our abiding place."