When I was 13 years old, we had a beautiful Norwegian Elkhound named Princess. Appropriate breed of dog, considering our family heritage. It was the first dog we ever owned.
One late Friday morning in the fall of my 8th grade year, we had been practicing some songs at our church across the road. After we were finished, our teacher, Mr. Rude, dismissed us and we ran out the door. The first thing I saw was Princess lying in the road between the church and school. My brain didn’t correctly process the information that my eyes had seen. I walked toward her thinking how strange it was that she had decided to take a nap in the middle of the road. As I got closer, it slowly dawned on me that she was not moving. Then I saw a small pool of blood next to her open mouth. Her eyes were open and lifeless. I realized at that point she was dead. Apparently she had been struck in the head by a passing vehicle. Mr. Rude picked her up and carried her to the side of the road.
I ran across the lawn to my house, flung open the back door, ran upstairs and went into the bathroom. I slammed the door, sat down on the side of the bathtub and started bawling. My dad, whose office was upstairs and down the hall, heard the commotion. He walked into the bathroom, saw me crying and asked what had happened. All I could say is, “Princess is dead. She’s in the road in front of the school.”
That was the first time I experienced the loss of something that I really cared about. I was devastated. I didn’t go back to school that afternoon. My mom let me stay home, and I sat in my bedroom and cried. At the time, I didn’t think I would ever get over it.
Gradually, I began to feel better. We wrapped Princess in an old blanket and buried her in the back yard. We even put a small cross made out of sticks at her head. Eventually we got another dog of the same breed named Milla. She was a disobedient terror. She wouldn’t go in the garage at night; she would scavenge dead chickens covered in cow manure from a neighboring farm and drag them back to our house; she would dig holes around headstones in the cemetery next to the church. I remember thinking more than once that it should have been Milla that got hit by a car instead of Princess.
My grief gradually subsided. I moved on but never forgot that first dog of ours.
In the past year-and-a-half I lost my sister to ovarian cancer, my mom to non-smoking lung cancer and my father-in-law to bleeding ulcers. Grieving the loss of a loved one—parent, spouse, sibling, child, friend—can take many forms. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, the five classic stages of grief, form the framework of learning to live without the ones we loved.
But grieving also takes the form of many subtle, personal practices. If you asked a dozen people how they grieved the loss of a loved one, I bet you’d get a dozen different answers: I eat. I exercise. I sing. I pray. I write. I help. I drink. I meditate. I cry. I share. I travel. I cook.
When my older sister Becky was first diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer, she and her husband embarked on a long, challenging journey together. She weathered the disease much longer than her doctors expected. In the end, however, her body succumbed to the ravages of cancer.
I recall listening to her husband talking about the ordeal after Becky died. Somebody asked him how he managed to stay so strong and positive throughout her final days and her funeral. His answer really made sense. He said that he and Becky had been grieving together for the better part of six years. When the end came, they were both at peace because they knew she was going to heaven.
For Glenn, part of his grieving process took the form of writing. After Becky died, he wrote a wonderful book about their journey together—a journey of faith and hope that ended in sadness but also in joy. When he asked me to help him prepare his manuscript for publication, I happily obliged. I knew my sister’s message would resonate with people and hoped it would be helpful to others who found themselves in similar situations.
We had a title ready to go until a week before the book went live. Glenn had sent me some pictures that a photographer had taken of their family before Becky died. When I saw the picture of Becky dancing with her two oldest granddaughters who were wearing white dresses, I thought to myself, “She’s dancing with angels!” I contacted Glenn and suggested that we change the title of the book. He agreed and the change was made. Obviously, the title has a double meaning. Becky was not just dancing with angels on earth; she was bound to be dancing with angels in heaven as well.
Dancing with Angels by Glenn Lussky is the story of my sister’s cancer journey. It’s a story of pain and disappointment and loss; it’s also a story of faith and hope and learning how to live again after the loss of a loved one.
That’s the story behind the story!