The Friend Who Went

After a full day at a choir contest, I climbed into my mom’s van looking forward to sharing our success with her. However, when I opened the door to the van I felt that something was off. My sister, who got out of school later than I did, and my dad, who we had been expecting would finish work late that day, were both in the car. My mom asked me how the contest went, but I could tell her mind was elsewhere. There was no music playing. Music was always playing. It wasn’t until after we got home that they told me what had happened. My 20-year-old cousin, Chester, was dead.

Chester’s death didn’t seem real until family came over to offer their condolences. I broke down, and I felt that I had no one to turn to because everyone else was also seeking comfort. I have never cried as much as I did that night. The next morning, I was sure I would make it through the school day without crying, since I was sure I had cried all I could the night before. I made it through half of the day, but when I walked into the cafeteria, I lost it. I looked at my classmates and overheard all the same conversations that I had heard the day before. Nothing had changed for them; no one else was aware of what the world had lost.

Chester was a very compassionate, optimistic, and loving person. In pictures, he would proudly pose with a thumbs-up, reflecting his optimism. He always went out of his way to make sure those he loved were having a good day. I remember when our nanny was bedridden and, while all the other cousins were chasing each other around, Chester stopped playing to keep her company. Seeing my classmates oblivious to my cousin’s death made me angry. But I knew it wasn’t their fault he was dead. It was God’s.

Growing up, my understanding of God was very one-dimensional: He was good, loving, and just. Through second grade Sunday school, I learned that God was good and loving because He sent His only Son to save us from our sins. I learned that He is a just God through biblical stories in which He punishes horrible, sinful people. My cousin, however, was a good son, brother, and friend. Why would He take away my cousin? His death didn’t align with my image of God. There was nothing good in not letting Chester live a long life and nothing good in God taking him away from us. There was nothing loving in the way he passed away, the impact of the accident dismembering him almost beyond recognition. And there was nothing just about God taking the lives of my cousin and two of his friends, but not the perpetrator’s. My eighth grade mind was clouded with confusion and anger.

Soon the anger began to consume me. I was angry that others could continue with their lives while my life had been turned upside down. I was angry that no one could explain why my cousin had passed away. I was angry that nobody else in my family seemed to be angry. I was angry that I would never see Chester again and that he would miss out on so much; he would never get to dance with his sister at her quinceañera, or ever have kids and see them grow up. I was angry that I was expected to continue to thank God for what I had and to pray to Him even though it was His fault we were all suffering. This anger felt liberating and just: since my cousin couldn’t be angry at God, the least I could do was to be angry for him. In my mind the only way to do Chester’s memory justice was to constantly express this anger because it showed that God had been unfair to us.

A few weeks after my cousin’s death, it seemed as if everyone else had moved on. Dinner was once again a social time. My parents shared memories of when my cousin was younger, like they had done before. It was as if he was still with us. I didn’t understand how these memories seemed to bring them joy when they only brought me pain. The confusion grew after a conversation I had with my mom. I asked her why God had taken him away, to which she responded, “I know it hurts to not have him with us but God is so great that He let us see him one last time,” referring to when my cousin and his family came to visit us a few months before his passing. I couldn’t even respond. All I could think was, “How dare she say God is great? If He really were great, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now, because Chester would still be alive.”

My mom was the first person I noticed to express this gratitude. I remember thinking she was crazy. But in subsequent conversations with relatives, I noticed that my perspective was out of place, not my mom’s. Seeing everyone able to think and talk about Chester with joy made me second guess my anger. Slowly I started to realize that my anger was keeping me from appreciating my cousin’s life, keeping me focused instead on the pain of his death. I realized that I had been viewing Chester’s death in terms of justice, and that this mentality was the reason why I was stuck in anger and unable to heal. I was so focused on doing his memory “justice” that I didn’t realize that my cousin would not have wanted me to remember him by expressing my anger with God. He would want me to remember him by his life, not by how unfair I thought his death was.

As I started to let go of this anger, the pain that was associated with my cousin’s memory began to loosen its grip on me. I began to take joy in past memories. Still, it bothered me that I didn’t know why God had taken him from us. My mom told me once that perhaps God took him from us because His plan for Chester was too big for this life. His mom and sister have told me that although it still hurts, they feel as if he is now our guardian angel watching over us. Even though I didn’t want to at first, thinking about his death in these terms made it easier to handle, and I was slowly able to feel grateful for his life. I accepted these reasons because I trusted these people and I saw the peace they brought to my family – a peace I wanted to have myself.

As I’ve gotten older, my individual relationship with God has grown and I have learned that even when we are suffering, He is still with us and has good intentions, even when it doesn’t seem to be that way. Chester’s close relationship with the Lord encouraged the rest of his family to grow in their faith. It was surprising to see that even in the midst of their suffering, they were able to thank God for the time they had with him. In an unexpected way, his death brought spiritual healing to his family.

I am still in my own healing process, although it has been a little over five and a half years since my cousin’s death. I don’t know how long this process will take, and sometimes it feels as if I won’t ever be completely healed. Whenever the pain of his death comes to me, I try to remind myself that it is okay for me not to know how long this process will last. Just like God knows why He took away Chester, He also knows how long this process will be for me, and I’ve come to accept that as enough.

 

Raquel Rodriguez ’16 is from Carrollton, Texas and a potential French and Psychology double major. She loves spending time with people, wearing cowgirl boots, and is easily freaked out.

 

Image: Sorrowing Woman by Vincent Van Gogh.

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