See the Happy

Healing Family Relationships

***My sisters and I are pleased to have Lisa Kay here on See the Happy, sharing her story in our “See the Happy” Series.

My older brother passed away nine years ago.  He died when I was eighteen years old, so I’ve spent 2/3 of my life with him and 1/3 without.  And there are plenty of days it still hurts.  There are days when that number really hits me: nine years…that can’t be right.  Didn’t it just happen last year?  Last month?  Last week?  How can nearly a decade have already passed?

Other days it feels like that happened a lifetime ago.  So much has changed since then.  I’ve changed so much since then.  Would he even recognize me today?

But I’m not writing this to dwell on his death.  Instead, I’d like to tell you about our relationship and how it changed—how I changed.

My older brother and I are a year apart and when we were little we were inseparable.  Nearly all my happiest childhood memories include him: digging holes in our sandbox and filling them with water to make mud pools, watching Disney movies, playing Uno and Clue and Monopoly, building blanket forts, playing with Legos, and jumping on the trampoline.  We were best friends and we were happy.

Healing Family Relationships

As we got older, that started to change.  We gradually drifted apart, mostly because we simply developed different interests.  By the end of elementary school we weren’t very close at all, and sadly that divide only widened as the years passed.

Joe was a typical boy: athletic, rowdy, and a bit of a thrill-seeker.  He was also quite the trouble-maker and often got in trouble at school.  He was very bright and usually finished his schoolwork early, but then got bored and entertained himself by distracting his buddies from their own work.  And, of course, there were less-innocent occasions when he’d talk back to his teachers or call them names.  He had quite the attitude sometimes, and I don’t think he held certain authority figures in very high regard, to put it lightly.

He was a natural athlete and took pride in his physique.  He loved to skateboard, he played soccer all growing up, and later played on the high school basketball team.  He was also incredibly social; he always had lots of friends and was the life the party wherever he went.  He was super popular in school and was always the height of cool.

Healing Family Relationships

In many ways I was the complete opposite.  I was rather quiet and a bit of a nerd.  I had only a small handful of friends and didn’t mind spending my evenings and weekends alone.  I was dismal at anything athletic and instead spent my time reading, drawing, and writing stories.  I did well in school but never would have dreamed of breaking rules or talking back to a teacher (except for one particular World Civ. Teacher, but that’s a story for a different day).  Joe often teased me for being a “goody-goody,” which drove me crazy at the time, but looking back it was a pretty accurate description.

While most of our interests and personalities naturally differed, we had one particular trait in common: we were both incredibly competitive, particularly toward each other.  As we got older, this led to a lot of…shall I say…tense moments.  We were constantly trying to outdo and beat each other.  Everything was a competition, and we grew increasingly nasty to each other over every win or loss, no matter how minor.  We weren’t nice to each other for years, and that’s something I deeply regret.

To be completely honest, I lost many of those petty competitions.  Joe was just so much cooler and stronger and better at everything than me, and he certainly didn’t hold back in telling me so.  On the few accounts that I actually came out on top, I retaliated against him all the more fiercely for it.  But I hated that we treated each other that way.

I became very afraid of him, afraid that he’d tease me if I messed up, afraid that he’d be mean if I said something wrong, and afraid that he’d outshine me if I tried something new.

I don’t think I can really pinpoint an exact moment when our childhood closeness disappeared, but in middle school we definitely weren’t friends anymore.  We barely spoke except to tease each other.  If we crossed paths in school, we ignored each other and looked the other way.  I always felt that he, the coolest kid in his grade, was embarrassed by my nerdiness and didn’t want to be associated with me.

But the biggest wedge between us wasn’t our nasty competitiveness nor his huge popularity: it was our view on religion.

My parents raised us as devout Mormons and being the goody-goody I was, I followed (and still happily do!) the religion faithfully.  Not only did I participate in all the meetings and activities, but I loved it and made lifelong friends there.  I looked forward to Sundays and to weekly church services.  I loved my savior Jesus Christ, read the Book of Mormon, attended a seminary class during the week, and served in my ward as a pianist and class president several times.  I thrived in my religion and I loved it!

Healing Family Relationships

“Me at the LDS Logan Temple for Youth Conference, age 15.”

Joe did not.  Quite the opposite, in fact.

Remember he often butted heads with authority figures, and I think he didn’t like being “made” to go to church by my parents.  I remember plenty of tense Sunday mornings watching the power struggle between him and my parents play out.  I don’t know that he had anything against the church itself or its teachings; mostly I think he was bored with it and didn’t like being told what to do.

I always assumed this was the only reason: he was a rebel, a sinner! Gasp! Oh the horror! I felt very ashamed, actually, and thought my family was permanently marred by his disobedience.  Just as he was embarrassed by my nerdiness, I was embarrassed by his rebelliousness.  I thought he was a sinner and nothing more, a lost sheep who needed to be handcuffed to a church pew.

Looking back, it’s easy to see now how completely wrong I was, how unnecessarily harsh and unforgiving I was toward him.  I completely misunderstood the entire issue, which again, caused a lot of angst between us.

Now I understand that his true aversion to church was probably so much simpler than I ever imagined: he didn’t have many friends there.

I made and kept two of my closest teenager friends there at church, both of whom were equally active and devoted religious girls.  Even outside of my specific ward, nearly all my friends were active members of the church.  Having such good friends there was like the cherry on top of learning about the Gospel.  Why wouldn’t I want to go to church?

Joe never really had that cherry.  Remember how popular he was in school?  He was so social all the time and totally bored and miserable unless he had an entire pack of loud and rowdy friends having a magnificent party.  Unfortunately he only had a couple of friends in our ward, and most of them were only mildly active anyway.  Understanding that and knowing his personality, it’s so much easier to accept that he quickly lost interest in the church.  If only I wasn’t so dumb for so long.

Whatever his reasons, he quit going to church entirely while I lived as religiously as I could.  But that put me in a tense situation.  As he grew less and less religious, I began to worry for his immortal soul—people who don’t go to church go to Hell, right?  That thought terrified me and I worried a lot about it and about him.

We reached a certain turning point when I was in ninth grade (Joe was in tenth), or perhaps it would be more accurate to say I was pushed toward a certain turning point by Joe.

Joe’s issues with certain authority figures finally got him into a spot of trouble with the law.  Police were involved.  I was a witness.  It wasn’t pretty.

I was devastated and even more terrified of my brother.  Now I was certain that he was going to Hell.  That affected me very negatively and I began to completely despair for my entire family.  The LDS church promises eternal families, that we can be with our loved ones for eternity; I didn’t understand how that could apply to my own family if Joe continued down the path he was on.  I thought he was putting our eternal family in jeopardy.

Oh, how wrong I was.  For such a religious person, I understood very little of Christ’s true love and mercy for us.  We aren’t damned for our mistakes; repentance is real.  Forgiveness is real.  Love is real!  But fully understanding those beautiful truths was a bit of a journey.

A few months after that, our church held a General Conference where prophets and church leaders speak to all the members around the world.  My seminary teacher challenged everyone in my class to prayerfully think of a gospel-related question and he said that if we had faith and listened to the Lord’s prophets, we would indeed receive an answer.

I wasn’t feeling particularly positive at this time, remember, so I took the challenge with a bit of a snarky attitude.  I decided to really put this challenge to the test and I asked Heavenly Father such a specific question that I was positive I wouldn’t hear any kind of answer in General Conference: “What should I do about my brother?”

I thought I’d beaten the system and I was prepared to tell my seminary teacher how wrong he was—surely not everyone can get an answer from General Conference!

Or so I thought.  Goodness, I certainly needed some humbling, and I sure got it!

Imagine my shock when my question was indeed answered.  A prophet of the Lord stood up and counseled the church in regards to loved ones and family members who have strayed—my ears perked right up and immediately I knew this was my grand, amazing answer!

“Love them.  Serve them.”

That was it.

I felt properly chastised for my prideful snarkiness, but also a little confused.  Love and serve them?  Really?  Could that really be the whole answer?  It sounded too easy.  That surely couldn’t stop an inactive brother from going to Hell, could it?  I was still leaning toward the handcuffing-to-the-church-pew idea, with maybe a good smack around the head.

Well, I’d already put my seminary teacher’s challenge to the test, so I begrudgingly agreed to put this counsel to the test as well.

It wasn’t easy.  Whenever we weren’t fighting, Joe and I simply ignored each other, even at home.  We didn’t even make eye contact, ever!  We simply pretended the other didn’t exist.  How could I go from that to loving my brother?  It seemed impossible, so I decided to focus on the second part of my instruction instead: serve him.

Months trickled by and slowly, so slowly, I found tiny ways to serve him.  Mostly it started by not fighting with him, by trying not to be so darn competitive.  Then I began helping him in little ways I could find, a few chores here or there.  I took his laundry down to his room.  I cleared his dishes after dinner.  At first nothing changed and I didn’t think my efforts were doing any good, but I kept trying.

A short while later he got into trouble with the law again and as a consequence had his driver’s license revoked.  Again, I spiraled down in despair, convinced that my efforts were worthless and that he was doomed for all eternity.

It turns out that losing his license was a blessing in disguise.  Suddenly he needed a service that I could easily provide almost daily—rides!  I decided that driving him around would become my service to him.

I drove him to basketball practice often, and on days he was late he’d be frantically putting his shoes on in the car and yelling at me, “Drive faster!  Coach makes us run ladders for every minute I’m late!”

I drove him to endless parties at his many very cool and very popular friends’ houses.  I’m sure he was embarrassed to be dropped off by his little sister in a minivan, but he let me do it anyway.  Sometimes I drove him to Carl’s Jr. or Wendy’s to buy a burger.  He often wanted a ride to his favorite video game store and asked me to wait in the car while he went in and shopped, which I did without question.

For a while still nothing changed.  Then gradually, so, so gradually, I started to notice a difference.  First he let me choose the radio station (our tastes in music differed greatly and we often argued over what to listen to).  Then he bought me a shake at the drive-through.  Then we started talking while we drove around together—not arguing, but just talking.  Then he invited me into the video game store with him.  He even invited me to actually play video games with him a few times.  Another day we stopped after school at Apollo Burger and shared fries and a shake.

Healing Family Relationships

“When our family visited Zion National Park, my dad, Joe, and I hiked Angels Landing together. Joe, the natural athlete, practically ran up the mountain while I huffed and puffed up the switchbacks, but we had a great time.”

One day he invited me into Jamba Juice with him where he ordered both of us smoothies.  He always thought he was so hilarious when he messed with people, so when the cashier asked for a name for the order he told them, boldly and loudly, “Stallion!”  We laughed and laughed together when the worker called out, so confused, “Two for…Stallion?”

He graduated and started his freshman year at college while I started my senior year of high school.  He took the train downtown to school and I happily gave him rides to the station as often as I could.  I bought him a birthday present for the first time in years, an arm band to hold his iPod while he played basketball and went running.  “It’s too small!” he joked with me, smiling very genuinely.  “You should have bought the extra large bicep size!” and flexed as hard as he could, both to show off and to be funny.  It was funny.  I laughed.  I was glad that he seemed so pleased.

We went snowboarding together.  We’d both learned to snowboard years earlier when we were in middle school (my one great athletic feat that I both worked really hard at and really enjoyed for years), but finally we started going together.  We didn’t race or try to outdo the other this time.  Due to his skateboarding background, Joe was a natural snowboarder and I never stood a chance of beating him, which in the past had caused a lot of tension between us on the slopes, but not anymore.  We chatted on the ski lift and led each other down our favorite runs.  I even braved some more difficult trails with Joe and he was excited and encouraging, even when I didn’t dare try the jumps like he did.

My mom made me a beautiful dress to wear to the Valentines dance that year.  I eagerly got dressed and all dolled up for the dance and as I left, Joe stopped me.  He looked me up and down, then simply nodded his approval.  “Mom did a good job on that dress,” he said.  I was quite shocked at the compliment and glowed all night long.

And do you want to know what?  I stopped worrying about his salvation.  He didn’t magically return to church or anything like that, but I realized I didn’t need to worry about it—to put it simply, it wasn’t my job to save him.

I realized that I’d been trying to be his savior of sorts, instead of leaving that up to Jesus Christ, the true Savior.  My responsibility was to love and serve him like a sister would and that’s it.

Three months before I graduated high school, he was in an accident.  He died.  It was so sudden, so unexpected.  He simply left for school that morning, normal as ever, and never came home.

I’ve never more devastated and angry in my entire life.  I was angry at God.  Why would He do this to me?  Mine and Joe’s relationship was getting better every day.  We were kind and friendly to each other and, dare I say, even enjoyed each other’s company.  We were a real brother and sister again.

But we were far from perfect and I felt like I’d been gypped, cut off from the opportunity to continue down this beautiful path I’d started.  Why would God rip that away from me?

Healing Family Relationships

I wish I could say that healing from something like this happens overnight, but unfortunately it’s a long and painful process.  To this day my mind sometimes slips into a dark place and I play the terrible, terrible What-If Game: What if it had never happened?  What if he were still alive?  What if he could meet my husband and my children?  What if…what if…what if?

It’s a horrible game, the What-If Game, because it doesn’t lead anywhere except sadness.  Perhaps the only worse game in existence is the I-Should-Have Game: I should have done better.  I should have been kinder.  I should have done something sooner.  I should have…I should have…I should have…

But gradually, with a lot of prayer and relying on the Atonement of Jesus Christ, healing has come, as did a lot of forgiveness.  First I had to forgive my brother.  Yes, we were mean to each other, but that doesn’t make him a mean person.  He had his own issues and struggles that are so clear in hindsight, but that I was totally oblivious to at the time.  He made bad choices, but so did I, and he is just as worthy of Christ’s forgiveness as I am.

Next, I had to forgive myself.  I was so mean, so stubborn.  Even when I first received that glorious answer to love and serve my brother, the one that ultimately changed our relationship for the better, I took my sweet time getting started.  I dragged my feet and grumbled about my new assignment.  I wasted so much time and I was so, so angry at myself for it.  But I’m not perfect either, and I had to accept my mistakes and learn from them.  Nowadays I very much believe in acting now.  Don’t let a chance to be kind to someone slip by.  Don’t waste those moments.

Lastly, I had to forgive my Heavenly Father.  This was especially tricky for me.  Little by little, I began to understand more of Heavenly Father’s plan, of our own agency, and of the nature of this world.  I’d been so convinced that God had done this to our family, to Joe.  Somehow he’d reached down with a conniving chuckle, “Muah ha ha ha!” and made that train hit him.

Now I know that isn’t true.  We are imperfect people who live in an imperfect world; accidents happen, sometimes for no other reason than that they do.  And, as painful as it is to admit it, mistakes were made.  It wasn’t God’s fault, but Joe’s.  Even writing those words cuts me right to my soul.  How dare I say something like that?  How dare I accuse my dead brother like that?  I’m sorry to have to say it, but it’s still true.

Healing Family Relationships

God gave us incredible freedom, and with that freedom we can make bad choices just as easily as we can make good ones.  Sometimes our choices hurt other people.  Sometimes our choices hurt ourselves.  Sometimes our own minor mistakes cause big accidents.  None of that is God’s fault: it’s ours.  It’s a hard, hard truth to swallow, but it is truth just the same.

God doesn’t cause suffering, I learned, but He provides solutions.  Heavenly Father knew exactly when, where, and how my brother would die.  He knew well in advance, and what did He do about it?

He told me to love and serve my brother.

He put me on a path that would provide healing and happiness and friendship between the two of us.

He provided that miracle for me and I am indescribably grateful.

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