Stay with Me

The days that followed were rainy.

I had gotten a cold earlier in the week, before the world caved in. Every piece of normal life that continued on the same as before seemed fundamentally wrong in Ethan’s absence, even a cold.

The rainy days, the persistent cold, the endless tears, all added up to feeling washed and rubbed raw. I looked in the mirror and saw a woman who had been scrubbed from the inside out. No make-up for days and tears that used to never escape past what Ethan had called my “brave face” now seemed to flow without end. My voice grew terribly horse.

I went on, meeting with family, funeral planning, sharing stories, and looking at pictures, unaware of when the tears where flowing and when they were not. All I knew was that I was fully there, embodying the moment, feeling it all, protecting myself from nothing, and that was exactly where I had to stay if I wanted to know God in this. Ethan had taught me that. 

The night before the accident, when I felt all tangled and distraught with fear, sitting on Ethan’s lap, he had caught the subtlest of shifts in my “brave face” and he had said, “I know you have a tendency to retreat, don’t. Stay present. You have done so well at choosing not to isolate.” He leaned in until our foreheads were touching, “Just stay with me,” he whispered.  And I knew then that if I wanted to let his strength show up for me, I had to stay present where he could reach me. 

And somehow now, I knew that was also true of God. Retreating, isolating, numbing out from all this pain and relational turmoil and grief was not an option. I needed God’s strength, and so I needed to not hide anything from Him or myself. I had to stay present, open to His strength, close enough for it to cover me. 

The Cutuli home was grand central station for family and friends coming from near and far to walk together through this valley in the shadow of death in the weeks that followed. There was a camaraderie and warmth to the grief that even now, I cannot fathom the grace of God in this. 

I was unsure, at first, as to how much to insert myself into things. After all, the girlfriend of the deceased is a very difficult position to find oneself in. On the brink of joining my life forever to his, and yet not even on the inside of the family circle, at least not technically. But to my relief, Ethan’s family took me in as though I were one of them, never making me feel like an outsider or someone who had not yet earned their trust. It was as if the respect and love that everyone had for Ethan was simply extended to me. I had not earned my place with them, I had inherited it from Ethan’s love. 

(I don’t know if I’ll ever find the words to adequately express my gratitude for the love I have found among the Cutuli family. They are my people. They have become my family and I shall love them always).

To be in the Cutuli house, during those first few weeks was to be held within an embrace of shared grief and a hope that lit up the night. God was with me. There was the chaos and hysterics as grief hit at unexpected moments for so many people, but this was not a lonely place. This was a painful place that was overflowing with love. 

So many people, each brought with them some unique gift of their presence.

I think of the way I had been waiting for Ethan’s cousin, Steven to arrive from out of state and the way his presence brought just the strength and comfort I had been waiting for as he walked in the door and took me in his arms and later told me about hope inspiring and wonderful things Ethan had said in the last conversation the two cousins had shared.

Ethan’s aunt Kim, a fellow writer, was another powerful place of connection for me. Through conversation with her, God whispered reminders of specifics only He and I knew, things of purpose, things from my past. In Kim I found a kindred spirit, an easy conduit for God to remind me of some of the secret places of my own heart. On one  particular evening Kim and I had shared a long conversation in the Cutuli den. I told her how back in August when Ethan had been up North visiting family, he had called me one night to tell me what his aunt Kim had shared with him at the kitchen table of his grandma’s home. I told her how her words had compelled us both in the days that followed to do with greater certainty exactly what we both knew we were created to do. 

In addition to these newfound kindred spirits, there was also a great overlap between Ethan’s history and mine. Cassie and her family, for example, had been in my life when I was a young teen, having grown up in church together. Cassie was an especially welcome addition to the house in those days, there to make sure food was out and the kitchen stayed clean so that the full burden of hosting so many people would not fall on Ethan’s mom. Her presence in the Cutuli house that week felt like something sure and solid. When everyone else forgot life’s most basic necessities, there was Cassie, keeping us alive with food and hugs and a compassionate smile. 

And of course, Sarah. I had not recognized her at first, she had grown into such a lovely women and I had not seen her since we were kids. Sarah and I had gone to school together, played sports together, gone to church together. She was a couple of years younger than me, and I had not known she was one of Ethan’s sister’s dear friends. Sarah’s presence in the house was a grounded vibrancy that met me like a much needed breath of fresh air. She embraced me as soon as she saw me and within her embrace I found the compassion and heart of an old friend. It seemed to me, that Cherise was sn endlessly strong support of life and love to any who needed it in the wake of her brother’s death, so I was exceedingly grateful that she had a number of friends like Sarah there to lean on. Sarah stayed for several days and every time I entered the Cutuli house and she was still there, some inexplicable sigh of relief found its way across my lips. 

And at the heart of it all there was Kelly, David, Jared, Katie, Robby, JoEllen, Cherise and Scott who held me like a tightly knotted net of support. Planning Ethan’s memorial together kept us in constant connection, texting, calling, praying, talking, hugging, laughing, crying, planning, and praying and crying some more. 

Cherise and Scott worked tirelessly on shaping the most amazing memorial, in my opinion, ever conceived. Hours and hours spent in front of computers, hunting down all of Ethan’s video content, editing together clips from a plethora of movies, and shaping it all into something that honored their brother, while at the same time told The Story. 

In all of the warmth and chaos and grief that was the Cutuli home in those days, there was one moment that sticks out to me as most unexpected.

I had been in the den with a handful of my friends, the ones I had inherited through Ethan. I was sitting on the love seat, once my favorite spot in my favorite room of this house. I looked to the spot where Ethan always sat next to me, and instinctively put my hand on the cushion and let a tear spill out. I wiped it away and looked up at my friend as she began to speak. She was sitting on the floor in front of the entertainment center and she was talking about The Grief Cycle and its stages.  

The Grief Cycle… looking into something like that seemed wise by my own reasoning. I figured finding some healthy roadmap to this process was probably a good idea. I should take a look at The Grief Cycle, I thought to myself. 

And just as soon as the thought was formed in my mind, I heard the Lord gently say, “Not for you.” 

I was surprised, but I understood His voice so clearly. I knew I had to listen. Still, I wondered, if The Grief Cycle was not for me, then what was I supposed to do?

My only option now was to trust that God, Himself would walk me through this. Staying present wasn’t just about getting through to the memorial. If I had no roadmap of what my grief was supposed to look like, I would have to continue to stay present, to grieve present, keeping everything always open before the Lord and the people He was loving me through.

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