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Opinion: Grief leaves scars, but there is hope to be found in loss

Kirsten Brehmer’s grandma and mother are pictured holding her as a newborn baby. (Courtesy of Kristen Brehmer)

By Kirsten Brehmer

June 10, 2024 4:22 p.m.

While I love sticky, warm summer days and the smell of saltwater and sunscreen, my mind can’t help but drift back to the events that unfolded less than a year ago and permanently altered my outlook on life.

Last June brought a feverish excitement that I had never felt before. I had just finished my last semester at community college and was counting down the months, weeks and days until moving to UCLA.

It felt as though my stars had aligned. Everything I had wished for and worked toward was coming true. I got accepted into a university I never foresaw myself attending.

I was escaping the quiet suburbs for a big city. I was gaining a new sense of freedom and finally taking a step forward. My future felt bright – until it suddenly didn’t.

First, it was my grandmother. She was a spunky lady who lit up a room with her spitfire commentary and sense of humor. At the end of her life, she was diagnosed with lung cancer and dementia and died at the end of May.

When I think about her now, I can’t help but admire the unique way she loved my grandpa. There was no one else in the world she loved as much as him, and she wasn’t afraid to hide that.

My grandma always spoke her mind, but she was also a deep listener. She was the ears to my grandpa’s rich recollection of memories, always listening to his stories with intent, honesty and love.

My grandma taught me that every good story needs a good listener.

Her celebration of life ended up getting scheduled on my birthday. Initially, I felt uncomfortable and unhappy. I didn’t want to turn 22 years old at a funeral.

I felt angry and selfish at the same time. These feelings were confusing and they hurt. Underneath everything, I was still dealing with the initial grief of losing her.

Next, it was my aunt. I never knew anyone who was as warm, kind, intelligent and strong as her. She encompassed the goodness of humanity and the empathy that we all hope to feel from someone else.

She died a year after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of stomach cancer. I was crushed. My dad – her baby brother – was crushed. For everyone who knew her, this loss was heavy, and it will be felt for a long time.

Her passing came two days after my grandmother’s funeral, two days after my birthday.

My aunt lived across the country my whole life, and in recent years, we mostly chose to communicate through phone calls and handwritten letters. She was and still is everything I want to be as a person. And yet, I never got the chance to tell her that or even say goodbye.

Kirsten Brehmer and her mother's aunt are pictured in the last photo they have together.(Courtesy of Kristen Brehmer)

The same day that my aunt passed was the same day I was scheduled to attend the Taylor Swift Eras Tour with my mom. Not only did I feel my grief piling up, but my guilt was growing as well.

I was going to the concert of a lifetime while my dad flew across the country to say his final goodbye to his sister.

I wonder what that flight must have felt like. Being confined on an airplane, while experiencing overwhelming emotions likely felt suffocating. Although my dad urged us to attend the Eras Tour, it still didn’t feel right.

Hours later, that guilt disappeared for a moment when Taylor Swift performed “marjorie” from her ninth studio album “evermore,” a song I now associate with my aunt every time I hear it. I interpret “marjorie” as a tribute that paints a portrait of a woman who learned to accept herself in a world that tends to stifle what women can say or do.

In a letter my aunt wrote to me, she shared a dose of her everlasting wisdom: Life is like a cup of tea – it’s all about how you make it. Her love for me is immortalized in the letters we exchanged, and I will always be grateful for that.

Then, it was my mom’s auntie. She was a woman who was soft-spoken, angelic and ultimately shared her love with all those around her. I received a birthday card from her the day before she passed away. Her heart and soul embodied empathy and grace in all their beauty, and the cursive letters I received from her every August were a testament to this.

The losses surrounding me brought feelings of grief that soon became insurmountable.

It was a summer riddled with losing loved ones, and I no longer felt ready to leave home.

There was no way this hole in my heart was going to heal itself before starting this next chapter of my life. Not only was that very clear during my first quarter at UCLA, but it is still clear now.

I go home on the weekends fairly often, realizing that visiting my family is more than just an opportunity to catch up on sleep or take a break from the chaos of Los Angeles. Instead, I need to see my family. I need to be with them.

The 90-minute drives on Interstate-405 to get home have been stitches to a wound that was very fresh when I entered UCLA. My grief is beginning to scar over, and I’ve noticed that the three women I lost last summer continue to make themselves present in the thoughts and memories that cross my mind every day.

Ultimately, it is imperative to emphasize that grief may not be something that necessarily goes away. You won’t wake up one day and think, “I have finally stopped missing this person who meant so much to me.” Grief becomes a part of your identity. It is not a wound that will ever fully heal – instead, it leaves a scar.

As humans, we will all inevitably bear these scars.

I want to dedicate this to the butterfly I saw a few days before losing my aunt: I saw you lying on the ground with your wings spread open. I saw that you no longer had a heartbeat.

I dug a small hole in the dirt and buried you as I knew your beauty would once more blossom up from the ground. A few moments later, you were flying – the wind was your surface.

You let me know that in death, there is still life.

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