Recently, I watched Oprah interview singing superstar Jennifer Hudson on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). In a segment of the show titled “Next Chapter”, Oprah invited Jennifer’s sister, Julia, to discuss their horrific family tragedy. In 2008, the sisters’ 57-year-old mom, 29-year-old brother and Julia’s 7-year-old son, Julian, were brutally murdered in their home by Julia’s estranged husband, William Balfour. Balfour was found guilty of three counts of first-degree murder in May 2012. Jennifer and Julia attended every single day of the two-week trial.
What touched my heart, and is a lesson worth sharing, is how the sisters took something so dark and ugly and turned it into light for others. For the past two years, they have celebrated Julian’s birthday as “Hatch Day”, a term the young boy invented. It was his idea to have a birthday celebration where he would be the “giver” of gifts, instead of the recipient. In honor of his memory this year, 5000 low-income Chicago school students got to take home valuable school supplies. The sisters also plan to turn the home where their family was murdered into a transition shelter for single moms and children. They aren’t simply aiming for impressive sound bytes when they say it gives them joy to turn their personal tragedy into blessings for others.
Consider the backstory for a moment. Jennifer confessed to the “creepy” feeling she had about Balfour when he was a sixth-grader. Much as she warned her sister about getting entangled in a relationship with the man later in life, Julia ignored her. She married Balfour…with disastrous consequences.
This single act had the power to divide the sisters for a lifetime, engaged in a bitter blame game. Jennifer would have been well within her rights to lash out at her sister and hold her responsible for the murders. So effortlessly could a ton of guilt have been dumped on Julia for ignoring several red flags.
Instead, what is heartwarming is how the sisters have bonded over the loss. They act as a pillar for each other and function as a team. They use their darkness to bring light into other people’s lives. The truth is, it is in serving others that we heal our deepest wounds.
As a hospice volunteer, I connect with bereaved family members all the time. A common thread I encounter in their stories is the bitter feuding and rivalry that follows the loss of a parent. Blame and finger-pointing spiral into high drama over property issues. Relationships fall apart, especially at a time when people need to be holding each other in love and comfort. Take Monica’s story, for example. She was the primary caregiver for her mom who suffered from a terminal illness. When her mom passed away after 2 years of care, Monica’s siblings, who had been content to stay in touch on the phone all along, showed up at her door. Not just with their bags, but a bunch of accusations about how Monica hadn’t done enough, how she should’ve handled matters differently, and demanding their share of the estate.
Unfortunately, Monica’s story is just one in a long line. When we’re confronted with the death of a loved one, we prefer to turn away from our pain. Unspoken hurts and betrayals bubble up to the surface and mud-slinging is the messy result.
If there’s one thing I’m hoping you’ll take away from this post, it is this: Nobody can delay death. It never comes a moment too soon or a moment late. All our lamentations remain just that. “If only I’d consulted another specalist…” or “If only she’d waited until the weather cleared before she drove home…” or “If only I’d called last night to check on him, I could’ve rushed him to ER…” or “Why didn’t I spend more time understanding his treatment options?” Control is a grand illusion. We don’t control when souls arrive and depart. Death arrives right on time–even if we disagree with that timing.
So the next time you indulge in self-blame or finger-pointing at a spouse, sibling, cousin or aunt, ask yourself this: Did they really have the power to reverse the outcome had they done something differently?
Acceptance is the only way to peace. Accept that there’s not a thing you could’ve changed: the manner of death, or the timing. What is within your power is how you choose to honor your beloved’s memory with gratitude, love and peace.
Please leave a comment if this post was meaningful in some way.