On the Other Side of Grief

Working Through the Tragic Loss of Her Brother, One Woman and Her Family Come Together to Find – and Share – the Joy of LifeOn the Other Side of GriefWorking Through the Tragic Loss of Her Brother, One Woman and Her Family Come Together to Find – and Share – the Joy of Life

By Kimberley Jordan

When my brother Ash was diagnosed with AIDS in 1993, my already close family drew even closer. We knew what his devastating diagnosis meant, and we vowed to make the most of every moment.

We got together several times a week. Interspersed with the lighthearted moments were the trips to the doctors and hospitals for tests and treatments that grew more frequent as his disease progressed.

Banding together, we made sure he never spent a moment alone. That last Christmas was spent in his hospital room, sharing a tin of cookies as our holiday dinner and visiting with his friends, who streamed through the door by the dozens. When Ash died on New Year’s Day 1996 at the age of 26, we all were there with him.

Ash was one of the good ones; he had a dynamic personality, coupled with a mischievous sense of humor and a smile that lit up the room. He was the kind of person everyone loved, and he genuinely cared about everyone in return. A hopeless animal lover, he had a big heart and gravitated to people in need, turning his concern into action through a social-services career cut short by his early death. I’ll never forget the Christmas he disappeared shortly after we opened our gifts; my parents found him hours later distributing his presents to the homeless people living under the interstate overpass.

At first, I wasn’t sure how we were supposed to live without him. I felt amazed, and resentful, that the world and everyone in it just continued as if nothing had changed. Didn’t they know that everything had? Doing normal and mundane things, such as shopping for groceries, felt strange. If I let a stray laugh slip out in response to something funny said by a friend, I felt guilty, as if by enjoying life I was somehow dishonoring Ash and diminishing his life and death. We had no choice but to go on living, but the “life” had gone out of it.

As a way to heal and find some meaning in what we had experienced, my family got involved in AIDS philanthropy and in other causes he had championed. My parents established the Ash Jordan Memorial Library at the North Central Florida AIDS Network, and more than 50 of his family and friends raised money and wore “We’re Walking for Ash” T-shirts as we participated in an AIDS awareness walk shortly after his death – a tradition that continued for several years.

In late spring that first year, we designed and sewed (yes, even my dad!) a 3-by-6-foot panel in Ash’s memory and took it to Washington, D.C., to be placed in the national AIDS quilt.

And as a family, we participated in the somber quilt unfolding ceremony and in the reading of the names of those memorialized within it.

Over the years we have worked as a family in homeless shelters, and we adopted a section of a roadway in his memory from which we (OK, mostly my dad) regularly pick up litter.

Last year we decided to forgo exchanging Christmas gifts with each other and instead provided presents and a homemade holiday dinner to a single mother and her five children.

Ash’s death was devastating for our family – as the loss of a loved one is to anyone. Eleven years later, I’m still sad for a world that no longer benefits from his generous and loving nature. I’m sad for all the things he didn’t have a chance to do and for the fully realized person he never had the chance to become. Grief changes you, I think; you’re never quite the same as before it came in and left its indelible mark, even when life goes on.

But while they don’t bring my brother back, I think our philanthropic activities have strengthened our family and have helped us feel connected to him. I believe that is the gift Ash left us – as a family we not only have grown closer, but we have found comfort in celebrating his life over the years by trying to carry on his legacy of helping others. Even in death, Ash still is giving, helping us put the joy of life back into our living.

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