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Seven Years - A Pandemic, a Song, and a Bear

Spring arrived and with it came a global pandemic.

At first, it was the panic and isolation that every family felt. But then the mood turned to sadness with the realization of all the things we would miss. Parents fretted over proms and graduations cancelled, while weddings and parties were postponed. With the reality of our new situation, there has been bargaining – trying to sneak in some moments of “normal” in this crazy new world. Anger set in around month two with some people not believing this is real, fighting with their neighbors and fellow citizens. And as time passed, most have accepted that things would need to change in order to beat this virus.

The pandemic hit our shores and the world turned upside down. Society was grieving for the loss of our life as we knew it. All the feelings people have had these last six months reflect the same emotions of grief that I have lived with for these last seven years. These feelings are not anything new for me or for any parent that has lost a child. We know them all too well. We manage our emotions, learning to adapt at even the slightest bump in the road.

I have found this year particularly difficult. Something about the isolation and not being able to do as much in the outside world for Julia’s foundation hit me hard. I admit it, there are days when I think working to help other families through Julia’s Grace is the only thing that keeps me going.

I found myself being less patient. I would become annoyed when I saw people complain about feeling like they are being “robbed” by not being able to see loved ones in-person or complaining that their child was missing out on school activities. “Welcome to my world! I live this every day”, I would think. I would take a deep breath, think of Julia, recalling her kindness and her words, and my patience returned.

Like many families, John and I made the decision to spend quarantine working around the house. It would keep us busy and pass the time. First, we focused on gardening and then we moved to remodeling bedrooms, turning one into my new office. It was good therapy and it got me out of my funk. My sadness slowly turned to acceptance once again.

At the beginning of August, we began to remodel one of the bedrooms. My job was to paint the woodwork, so I woke up early one Saturday to get a head start. “Alexa, play my favorites”. I was a few songs into my playlist, when Billie Joe Armstrong’s voice rose from the speaker and I became paralyzed…

“Summer has come and passed The innocent can never last Wake me up when September ends

Like my fathers come to pass Seven years has gone so fast Wake me up when September ends…”

For those of us that live with grief, it is just like that. One day everything can be fine, you are in the acceptance stage and a little thing happens. Acceptance becomes an afterthought. This September it will be seven years since Julia left us. A song plays and the lyrics, words that I have heard and sung so many times before, take on a different meaning. And with that, I am drowning again.

Seven years, how can that be? I look for a sign, an answer to once again help me get through this pain.

A week ago, I went to the post office to pick up the foundation mail. I was surprised to find a large box being delivered. We rarely get anything more than letters delivered so my curiosity was spiked. I carried the box to the car and decide to wait until I get home to open it. I set the box on the kitchen table when I arrived home and cut open the tape to reveal the contents. And there it was, a Build-A-Bear. I recognized the gently worn bear smiling up at me. There was the special t-shirt embroidered with “Julia Grace” in bright pink letters and the green vest with badges sown on it.

Shortly after Julia died, the local Girl Scout Troop went to Build-A-Bear together to create a bear in honor of Julia. Many of Julia’s friends were in this troop and it was used as a way for them to deal with their grief. The “Julia Bear” went everywhere with the troop. She was lovingly cared for by each girl on a regular rotation in their homes. “Julia Bear” helped to sell cookies in the cold, went to troop meetings and on camping trips. Julia’s spirit went on each adventure, helping the girls remember her and deal with the loss of their friend.

The last time I saw the “Julia Bear” was when the girls “bridged” to Juniors and I was invited to watch as they carried the bear over the symbolic bridge to the next step of scouting.

I haven’t thought much about the bear in these past years, but there it was on my kitchen table, seeming to appear out of nowhere. Inside the box, I found a note from the leader of the now disbanded troop. She wrote, “I hope that this bear carries with it some of the love that the girls poured into it, all for Julia.”

The tears begin to roll down my face, a combination of sadness and relief that I have my sign. “Julia Bear”, a stuffed animal made to help Julia’s friends deal with their loss, is sent to us after all these years.

During this last week I have wondered if her friends will remember Julia as they grow older. Will it just be a mention to someone that “I went to school with a girl who died from cancer” or will it be more? Will they remember her kindness and joy, recall her wisdom and laughter, think of her list and how she loved being their friend, how she loved life?

This morning, as I sit writing this on the anniversary of Julia’s death I wonder, as the memories begin to fade, what will be left, what will be remembered? Seven years. It is hard to fathom that Julia has been gone for so long. The grief doesn’t go away. It just changes. We find a way to get through it, learning to manage all the emotions that go with this pain.

I look up from my computer as I wipe away some tears. There sits “Julia Bear” in her new home on the corner of my desk. My heart mends a bit, seeing how worn and loved this stuffed animal looks from the years of being carried on all those adventures. And I smile, somehow knowing that everyone who knew Julia, or has heard her story, will always carry a part of her with them.

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