Kennedy & Grief & The Land of the Living

It is almost five years ago that my friend, Kennedy, died unexpectedly. She was only 18 years old when she died from sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP). I have written a lot about Kennedy since she died, but have never shared any of it publicly. It all seemed too close, too private, too messy with grief that I can’t verbalize.

Kennedy and I were not especially close if our friendship was to be defined by the stereotypical idea of high school best friends forever, but we had a quiet, comforting friendship, and had just begun to grow into deeper friends. Kennedy had helped set me at ease during my first year going to church youth camp at age 13, and we had shared a cabin every year since. In the couple of months before her death, we had coffee dates in the church kitchen during the Sunday school hour, laughing together and learning each other. We shared a love of practical jokes and making fun of our youth pastor. Before I went to Papua New Guinea in 2016, Kennedy had written me the sweetest letter, which I carried between the pages of my Bible. The last time that I had seen Kennedy, about a week before the LORD called her home, we had talked about starting to meet up together for Bible study. I was excited to become deeper friends as we waded the waters of early adulthood.

Then the day came when the phone call reached the church on a Sunday afternoon, where many of us were gathered for choir and drama rehearsal. I remember hearing Kennedy’s name said together with the words “found dead just a little bit ago”. I still don’t know how to describe what that moment felt like, but it is unlike any other experience of my life. I didn’t cry until later that day, but by that time, the shoulder of my sweater was darkened and wet to the touch from all of the tears of those who had wept in my arms. 

The day Kennedy died I changed my phone wallpaper to a black background with a white coffin. It had some Bible verse on it, but I don’t remember what it was, because the image of a coffin with a skull on it was all my heart could take. It was the only background that didn’t make me feel like a fraud. I didn’t change my wallpaper for another two years. 

Three months after Kennedy died, I flew across the ocean with her brother and cousin to live in Greece for the summer. There was an afternoon in Athens when her brother and I walked to a nearby café to get coffee and spent the next hour trying to remind each other of God’s goodness. We really were a mess…I spilled an entire pitcher of water all over our table and couldn’t quit crying, my tears dripping off my face into my espresso. We had our Bibles on the table between us and turned to all of the verses we clung to amidst the storm of confusion. I’m sure everyone in that sidewalk café thought we were losing it, and we kind of were. We just had to hang on to hope any way that we could.

Six months without her hit me hard, on a weekend trip with other Bible school students. How could I tell them why I was so quiet that trip? How could I tell them what I had lost when my life routine had been left relatively unchanged, only my heart being ripped apart and scrambled. My outside life looked the same, while my inside person would never be the same Emma that I was before March 11th, 2018. So I continued to hide my grief, observe it by myself in quiet ways–I didn’t know how to talk about Kennedy or about my sorrow. 

I don’t know why I was so compelled to go to the cemetery to find her grave, but went several times, unsuccessful in finding it until the spring after she died. The cemetery bells chimed a quiet hymn as I stood over her burial marker with nothing to say, only a desire to not forget. I don’t want to forget my friend or the things God taught me through her loss. 

Grief changes your heart, the whole structure of your life, and every single thought you have, conscious or not. Maybe that is why I couldn’t nap for over two years–I could lie down to rest, but I couldn’t bring myself to sleep, afraid of how I would be awakened. My body remembered its loss. It still remembers–I still can’t hear the familiar refrain of In Christ Alone without a lump rising up in my throat. 

Why did the LORD call Kennedy to Him so suddenly and at such a young age? I can’t pretend to begin that I know the answers that our hearts all still ask, but I know that to our Heavenly Father, her arrival to glory was neither a surprise nor a moment too soon. He called her exactly when it was intended and right. She trusted in the LORD for her salvation and forgiveness of sins through Jesus Chris, and we that love her trust that she is with Him even now and forevermore.

In the five years since I last saw Kennedy, the LORD has used my grief to show Himself as the compassionate and gentle Shepherd of my body and soul. He has caused me to remember that each day this side of glory is a gift. He has helped me learn how to walk with others in their griefs. Through pain and sorrow, He has taught me how to know and love Him more than I would’ve been able to learn through bright, joyous days. He has put a deep longing in my heart to pass through the veil to eternal unclouded communion with Him.

I still miss Kennedy. I still grieve her earthly death. But I am eagerly awaiting the day that we shall sing the praises of the LORD together in the Land of the Living.

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