Losing Justin. It Is So Unfair.

My first cousin was killed in a freak accident. Yeah, I know this isn’t a great way to start off a blog post. But I don’t know what else to do or how to write about it. He was 44. A great dad to two sons, ages 12 and 13. His mom, my Aunt Nancy, my Baba Yaga, is “my person.” She is perhaps the one I am closest to in the world. In a mother-sister-best friend kind of way. No one will ever understand our connection. And that’s okay. We kind of like it that way.

In 2007, Nancy and I went down to Florida for what we called “Rehab Tour 2007.” My mom had been in a drunken blackout for a year. Crack, alcohol and god knows what else. There were dog feces everywhere. There were three huge talking birds with feathers and sh-t covering every surface. There was a dead rat embedded in the carpet.  And this is just the quick summary. It was too much for us to tackle alone.

We went to the bank, pulled out as much cash as we could, then picked up day workers and begged them to clear out her place. Even the refrigerator and stove went. We hired cleaning ladies who worked side by side with us, pouring buckets of bleach on the walls. We went to thrift stores and bought replacement furniture. Nancy had just survived Hurricane Katrina and we kept saying, “Pretend we are helping Katrina victims.” It made it more of an out-of-body experience.

That mantra and some amazing martini’s got us through.

At one point I said to Nancy, “If we can tackle Mount Mom, why don’t we climb Mt. Kilimanjaro?” A friend had suggested the trip to me the week before.  Nancy said she’d think about it.

After three days of hard labor, we picked up my mom from rehab. We took her shopping for groceries; we put together a “schedule” for her to follow; we went to AA meetings (I loved them so much, I briefly wished I was an alcoholic). But as we said goodbye, neither of us were that optimistic.

Ten days later she got on her scooter, went to the liquor store and bought a bottle of vodka. She was hopeless.

But Nancy and I had each other. Even though our mission ultimately failed, we felt invincible for what we had done. The Mountain was now calling.

Fast forward six weeks. We are in Tanzania, caked in mud, trekking up the Shira route. For 7 days we battle rain, wind, snow, sleet and bitter temperatures. Nancy is 64 years old and has lived at sea level most of her life.  Our guides call her “Super Mama.” I could tell on summit day they were skeptical if she would make it. But on March 7, 2007, she was the first to reach the summit. At 19,343 feet we stood on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, arms in the air, touching the wind. We knew we could do anything. Or so we thought…

But burying your son isn’t supposed to be part of that equation.

Justin was so proud of her for climbing that mountain.  He, too, had his mom’s sense of adventure and determination.  He was a kindred spirit in that way. Words can’t describe the  loss. Healing–even acceptance–seems like an insurmountable mountain to climb. But carry-on we must. What choice do we have?

Mothers aren’t supposed to bury their sons. Children aren’t supposed to bury their fathers.

We hurt. We grieve. It’s the price you pay for having loved so hard.


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  1. by Courtney

    On August 20, 2012 at 4:00 pm

    Your post gave me chills. What a tragic loss. My heart goes out to you, your aunt and Justin’s family.

  2. by Holly Barstow

    On August 20, 2012 at 5:11 pm

    So very sorry for your loss, Jill. Justin sounds like a really good man. And how lucky your aunt is to have you – and for you to have her. My thoughts are with you.

  3. by Meg Coe

    On August 21, 2012 at 7:28 am

    Beautiful post– Climbing a mountain and mourning a loss of this magnitude is a good analogy. Give women like your Baba Yaga a challenge, and they will push forward, grit their teeth, do whatever it takes to meet it. Give her the impossible and she will make it happen– which makes this type of loss all the more devastating– accepting our limits when it is one of our children is the ultimate mountain. You are right, it is the price we pay for loving so hard.

  4. by Cassandra

    On August 22, 2012 at 9:31 am

    I’m so sorry. Especially for Aunt Nancy and Justin’s kids. I can’t imagine what they all must be going through. I’d be interested in reading a post from you sometime about what you enjoyed so much about AA meetings!

  5. by Cassia

    On August 24, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    So sorry you lost your cousin. I have never lost anyone like that. I’m glad your aunt has you and that you have her.

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