What Is it About a Funeral?

Why is that funerals always lead to some of the best family reunions? Sadly, I think it’s because many of us don’t make time to spend with family members unless it’s literally forced – like a funeral – it’s just something you must attend. I’m just as guilty as many others for not making and taking the time to go on vacations and visit with family. My past 4 years in college seemed to be selfishly all about me – and if I could go back and make changes, I sure would.  This past week on July 4th, I lost my grandpa, 84 years old – a witty, happy, smiley old man – who I loved dearly. Not only was it his death that affected me so much but I think it was the fact that one more piece of my own dad had been taken away from me, again – 8 years later. Besides that point, I got to actually spend some quality time with my grandma, cousins, aunts and uncles. And twenty-two years later I finally take the time to get to know a side of PopPop I didn’t know about. The fact that he swept my grandma off her feet (while she was engaged to another man who was in the war oversees) is something I would have never imagined him doing! Nana and PopPop met on New Years Eve and a mutual friends party at age 18 and became happily married just a few short years later. It’s simple details like these that I wish I would of learned more about while he was still around.

Nana and PopPop in their prime 🙂

Death is never an easy thing for anyone, and I feel like so many questions tend to follow. Especially losing a dad at 14, I was constantly wondering “why me?” “why now” “why so early?” “why can’t he see me graduate?” “who’s going to walk me down the aisle?” endless questions, with no answers. I think a lot of people have mixed emotions, anger, sadness, emptiness and many times depression. I struggled with a lot of this – however, I knew it was time for my grandpa to go, especially with his recent condition. The first thing everyone in my family said was that PopPop couldn’t be more ecstatic and happy to be up there in Heaven, back with his son (my dad), sippin’ on scotch on the rocks and casting a line out for some deep sea fishing. I’ve been told by many of my friends that I deal with death really well. I don’t know that I deal with it well, I think it’s just that I convince myself that they are in a better place, I’ve gained a few extra guardian angels to look down on me and there’s something to look forward to after my time here, seeing my dad and grandpa again, happy and healthy.

PopPop and my Dad (or for those of you who are familiar with The Hangover it could very well be Zach Galifianakis for all I know)

Anyways, the idea of writing this post was triggered after my friend passed on a story to me – a story full of words that have brought more comfort to me than I’ve ever felt in the past 8 years. I believe the words are actually from a book called 90 Minutes in Heaven, which I’ve yet to read. For those of you still struggling with a recent death – or even if you love an inspirational read – take the time to read some of the portions of the book that my friend passed along to me. I know it’s long but I guarantee you’ll walk away with a new feeling of comfort and happiness – and I think a lot of questions can be reassured and possibly even answered for you 🙂

“I died on January 18, 1989. Paramedics reached the scene of the accident within minutes. They found no pulse and declared me dead. They covered me with a tarp so that onlookers wouldn’t stare at me while they attended to the injuries of the others. I was completely unaware of the paramedics or anyone else around me. Immediately after I died, I went straight to heaven. While I was in heaven, a Baptist preacher came on the accident scene. Even though he knew I was dead, he rushed to my lifeless body and prayed for me. Despite the scoffing of the Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs), he refused to stop praying. At least ninety minutes after the EMTs pronounced me dead, I returned to earth.”

“When I died, I didn’t flow through a long, dark tunnel. I had no sense of fading away or of coming back.” “Simultaneous with my last recollection of seeing the bridge and the rain, a light enveloped me, with a brilliance beyond earthly comprehension or description.”

“In my next moment of awareness, I was standing in heaven.”

“Joy pulsated through me as I looked around, and at that moment I became aware of a large crowd of people. They stood in front of a brilliant, ornate gate. I have no idea how far away they were; such things as distance didn’t matter. As the crowd rushed toward me, I didn’t see Jesus, but I did see people I had known. As they surged toward me, I knew instantly that all of them had died during my lifetime. Their presence seemed absolutely natural. They rushed toward me, and every person was smiling, shouting, and praising God. Although no one said so, intuitively I knew they were my celestial welcoming committee. It was as if they had all gathered just outside heaven’s gate, waiting for me. The first person I recognized was Joe Kullbeth, my grandfather. He looked exactly as I remembered him, with his shock of white hair and what I called a big banana nose. He stopped momentarily and stood in front of me. A grin covered his face. I may have called his name, but I’m not sure. “Donnie!” (That’s what my grandfather always called me.) His eyes lit up, and he held out his arms as he took the last steps toward me. He embraced me, holding me tightly. He was once again the robust, strong grandfather I had remembered as a child. I’d been with him when he suffered a heart attack at home and had ridden with him in the ambulance. I had been standing just outside the emergency room at the hospital when the doctor walked out and faced me. He shook his head and said softly, “We did everything we could. My grandfather released me, and as I stared into his face, an ecstatic bliss overwhelmed me. I didn’t think about his heart attack or his death, because I couldn’t get past the joy of our reunion. How either of us reached heaven seemed irrelevant. I have no idea why my grandfather was the first person I saw. Perhaps it had something to do with my being there when he died. He wasn’t one of the great spiritual guides of my life, although he certainly influenced me positively in that way. After being hugged by my grandfather, I don’t remember who was second or third. The crowd surrounded me. Some hugged me and a few kissed my cheek, while others pumped my hand. Never had I felt more loved.

“One person in that greeting committee was Mike Wood, my childhood friend. Mike was special because he invited me to Sunday school and was influential in my becoming a Christian I knew…”

“…Never had I seen Mike smile so brightly. I still didn’t know why, but the joyousness of the place wiped away any questions. Everything felt blissful. Perfect.

“More and more people reached for me and called me by name. I felt overwhelmed by the number of people who had come to welcome me to heaven. There were so many of them, and I had never imagined anyone being as happy as they all were. Their faces radiated a serenity I had never seen on earth. All were full of life and expressed radiant joy.”

“Time had no meaning. However, for clarity, I’ll relate this experience in terms that refer to time.”

“I say my great-grandfather, heard his voice, and felt his embrace as he told me how excited he was that I had come to join them. I saw Barry Wilson, Who had been my classmate in high school but later drowned in a lake. Barry hugged me, and his smile radiated a happiness I didn’t know was possible. He and everyone that followed praised God and told me how excited they were to see me and to welcome me to heaven and to the fellowship they enjoyed.

Just then, I spotted two teachers who had loved me and often talked to me about Jesus Christ. As I walked among them, I became aware of the wide variety of ages—old and young and every age in-between. Many of them hadn’t know each other on earth, but each had influenced my life in some way. Even though they hadn’t met on earth, they seemed to know each other now.”

“As I try to explain this, my words seem weak and hardly adequate, because I have to use earthly terms to refer to unimaginable joy, excitement, warmth, and total happiness. Everyone continually embraced me, touched me, spoke to me, laughed, and praised God. This seemed to go on for a long time, but I didn’t tire of it.”

“…greatest family reunion of all.”

“Everything I experienced was like a first-class buffet for the senses. I had never felt such powerful embraces or feasted my eyes on such beauty. Heaven’s light and texture defy earthly eyes or explanation. Warm, radiant light engulfed me. As I looked around, I could hardly grasp the vivid, dazzling colors. Every hue and tone surpassed anything I had ever seen.”

“With all the heighted awareness of my senses, I felt as if I had never seen, heard, or felt anything so real before.”

“…that I felt as if I were in another dimension. Never, even in my happiest moments, had I ever felt so fully alive. I stood speechless in front of the crowd of loved ones, still trying to take in everything.”

“…no sense of time passing. I gazed at all the faces again as I realized that they all had contributed to my becoming a Christian or had encouraged me in my growth as a beliver. Each one had affected me positively. Each had.“ I wasn’t conscious of anything I’d left behind and felt no regrets about leaving family or possessions. It was as if God had removed anything negative or worrisome from my consciousness, and I could only rejoice at being together with these wonderful people.They looked exactly as I once knew them—although they were more radiant and joyful than they’d ever been on earth. My great-grandmother, Hattie Mann, was Native American. As a child I saw her only after she had developed osteoporosis. Her head and shoulders were bent forward, giving her a humped appearance. I especially remember her extremely wrinkled face. The other thing that stands out in my memory is that she had false teeth—which she didn’t wear often. Yet when she smiled at me in heaven, her teeth sparkled. I knew they were her own, and when she smiled, it was the most beautiful smile I had ever seen. Then I noticed something else—she wasn’t slumped over. She stood strong and upright, and the wrinkles had been erased from her face. I have no idea what age she was, and I didn’t even think about that. As I stared at her beaming face, I sensed that age has no meaning in heaven.

“…Even thought some of their features may not have been considered attractive on earth, in heaven every feature was perfect, beautiful, and wonderful to gaze at.”

“…and no matter which direction I looked, I saw someone I had loved and who had loved me. They surrounded me, moving around so that everyone had a chance to welcome me to heaven. I felt loved—more loved than ever before in my life. At some point, I looked around and the sight overwhelmed me. Everything was brilliantly intense. Coming out from the gate—a short distance ahead—was a brilliance that was brighter than the light that surrounded us, utterly luminous. As soon as I stopped gazing at the people’s faces, I realized that everything around me glowed with a dazzling intensity. In trying to describe the scene, words are totally inadequate, because human words can’t express the feelings of awe and wonder at what I beheld.

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My Best Friend is a Survivor

Just a quick post but for those of you who don’t know today was National Cancer Survivors’ Day, and I had an amazing opportunity to take part in the 18th Annual Cancer Survivors’ Celebration and Walk here in Chicago, with my best friend and survivor, Mandolynn and her family. It turned out to be a beautiful morning, the rain subsided and the sun quickly shined down on all the beautiful survivors that were out there today. We sported some adorable custom made shirts and walked the 4 miles as a team, and more importantly as a family! 🙂

A Very Small Part of Mandolynn’s Support Group

At the end of the walk, an extremely inspirational woman stepped up to give a brief speech on her battle with cancer. It didn’t take long before she had myself as well as 4,000 others in tears just hearing about her struggles and the frustration she had endured over the past 8 months. Jenna Benn, a 29 year old amazing survivor of a rare Grey Zone Lymphoma cancer gained numerous followers with a blog Kill It In the Butt taking her family, friends and other survivors through her journey with cancer. In the end she quoted her path as “Twisting to Fight Cancer.” So today the one thing she asked of us was to join her on the dance floor and Do the Twist. It was literally the most touching 5 minutes of the day, standing in a field surrounded by some of the strongest people in the world, all cancer survivors ranging in ages from 2 to 80 – dancing and twisting with happiness. I myself was dancing in pure joy that my best friend was now 100% happy, healthy and cured.

Aunt Minny and Rylee

After the dance ended, survivors gathered to take one large group picture, and following that moment is when the family members really expressed their love. Watching mothers embrace their children and spouses holding on to one another the way that they did – just thankful that they came out strong and healthy – was another tipping point for me where I couldn’t even begin to try and hold back some tears. Today was truly a beautiful day, and in many more ways than one.

I love you Mandolynn, you are beautiful, amazing, inspirational, strong and the best big sister I could ever ask for!

Two More Worthy Causes…

(Read prior post titled: “Blessed” for this one to make more sense) I just recently came across two more foundations/organizations that I’m passionate about and that really hit home for me in which I would like to donate to. First one is something my mom actually informed me of. This will be her second year riding in the Wish-A-Mile 300 Bicycle Tour taking place at the end of July (visit the website to see more about the history of this specific WAM ride. It’s a three day trek across Michigan where my mom along with the rest of her team will ride 300 miles to grant wishes for the Make A Wish Foundation. All riders must raise a minimum of $900 to compete in the ride, while my mom’s own personal goal is to hit $2,300. In the words of my mother, “I am hoping you will help me – by giving up a few lunches out this week, a few lattes or a new pair of shoes just to help a family in need – so that this wish of their deserving son or daughter’s may be granted.” I know this is something extremely important to her and because of that I find it a wonderful organization to donate to!

My mom’s little hero from last year, said Christopher was truly an inspiration to her.

Secondly, this coming Sunday morning I’ll be walking beside my best friend, Mandolynn Ostertag at the 18th Annual Cancer Survivors’ Celebration & Walk along Chicago’s beautiful Lakefront. The four-mile walk is said to draw nearly 4,000 participants who will come together to support and donate to a research fund conducted by the actual doctors who saved my best friend’s life. It’s for obvious reasons alone why this donation will be one of the most important ones I can make. I remember it like it was just yesterday, she was texting me while I was on a late serving shift at Bdubs. I knew she had been in and out of doctors for the past 6 months with “mono-like symptoms,” but still had no clear diagnosis. After recently undergoing surgery to remove a swollen lymph node in her neck, I knew the news had the potential to be devastating, but attempted to remain positive. I called her as soon as I was out and that was when she told me that they had found cancer in her lymph gland after the surgery at Northwestern here in Chicago. So that’s when it all started – February 9, 2010 Mandolynn was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma. At that point I don’t think either one of us knew exactly what the next few months were going to have in store. I remember her dreading the thought of going through chemo, the thought of losing her hair at 23 is not something any girl in their 20’s should ever have to think about. It was so unfortunate during this hard time in her life I happened to be on my way out to LA for an internship for the summer. So although the summer flew by for me – it seemed to be the exact opposite for Mandolynn and her family back home. By the time I arrived home in August, she had finished her 6th month of chemo and was considered to be in remission shortly after. At the time she chose not to know what stage of cancer she had when they did the initial scans, but come to find out she was actually in Stage 4 (cancerous cells in her lymph nodes, spleen, lungs and bones) with no signs of any symptoms, which is why it took nearly a year to diagnose her with the Hodgkins Lymphoma. Considering there is no Stage 5 with this type of cancer, knowing she fought back from Stage 4 only goes to show the true strength and positive thoughts she had going through the process. I commend this girl immensely, she is one of the strongest woman I know. Not only did she get herself through this “icky” 6 months, but she was the sisterly strength and support that I’ve needed for the past 8 years since I’ve lost my dad. She’s been by my side through thick and thin and because of that I know she’ll continue to be there for me as will I whenever one of us is in need. Love you forever and always Mandolynn! Looking forward to seeing you this weekend! 🙂

Down visiting Northwestern for a check-up. Learning to rock the new dark brown, krimpin’, short hair 😉 You do it well!

Mandolynn visits me at MSU for the first time – why did it take us so long to organize that trip?

Blessed

For those of you who don’t know, I was extremely fortunate enough to have an uncle who put me through the majority of my 4 years at Michigan State. However, you may also be unaware of the fact that I had to endure and go through a lot of pain – including the loss of my father at 14 – who would have been the primary provider for both the personal and financial support that I needed to get through a 4 year university. In short, without my uncle behind me these past 4 years, it’s hard to imagine where I would – or wouldn’t be – to this day. I owe a great deal of thanks and appreciation to my mom as well. She not only remained strong through those years, but she continued to exemplify the type of person I want to be – independent, intelligent, supportive and always passionate about her work, family and friends.

Figured I’d give a quick briefing of where my thoughts are stemming from.  Over the past few weeks I’ve been brainstorming different ways of how I’d be able to “pay it forward” to others who may be in need. My uncle has done more than I could have ever asked for in terms of supporting me financially and encouraging me to set goals for myself. And because of that continuous push he’s had on me, I have yet to ever fall short of any my goals. I’ve come up with one main idea that I think will help to “return the favor” –  a very small favor compared to what my uncle has done for me overall – but I still believe it’ll show the appreciation I have for everything he’s done.

I’m still in the process, as I’m waiting for more feedback and more opportunities I have of networking and meeting certain people. But I’d like to find various charities or organizations that I’m passionate about in the Chicago area that I could donate both my time and money too. I realize the amount of money I’m able to donate is very minimal in comparison to many of the contributions they receive on a daily basis. But knowing that I could possibly make a difference and/or impact on someone’s life is gratifying enough for me, as my uncle had a huge significance in mine. Paws Chicago, Chicago’s largest No Kill humane organization, focusing on preventing pet homelessness, is the first organization that came to mind for me. I came across this organization after one of Oprah’s shows focused on the advantages of adopting a pet rather than buying one from a breeder. I myself happened to adopt two different dogs from the local SPCA in Kalamazoo – making a pact to myself to always adopt any pet I may obtain in the future. With animals being something I’m truly passionate about, this organization will surely be one I donate to.

My Happy Zoe Zoe

Paws is really the only one I’ve looked into in depth, but after meeting with someone over coffee last week I have a few more in mind. In total I’d like to find at least 4-6 organizations that have an effect on me as a person, ones that I think very highly of and can really relate to. I’m hoping this will be a really unique and fun opportunity for me to get to know individuals in Chicago and allow me to feel a sense of happiness. Helping someone in need and having an impact is a different feeling of satisfaction than you feel when you accomplish something on your own. It’s almost an indescribable feeling, but yet it still leaves you with a smile on your face and a warmth in your heart, knowing you’ve done something good.  If you have an contacts or any feedback – please feel free to let me know – as this is something I’d like to do over the course of the summer.