The grief caused by losing a loved one is one of the heaviest burdens anyone will have to carry in life. In this conversation with my eldest sister Denise R. Beckom, she shares how her faith and deep connection with God allowed her to manage grief. As we wrap up our Family Series, we talk about her steadfast support to me after my husband passed away. Denise also opens up on how faith impacts how she looks at death, sharing her experiences after losing her beloved grandmother and a very close cousin.
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Dealing With Grief Through Faith With My Eldest Sister Denise R. Beckom
We are wrapping up the family series and going to have a conversation with my older sister, Denise. My sister is so amazing and I’m glad that she allowed this opportunity to share her experience being with me when my husband passed and other experiences that she’s had with death and being a person and living in this world. You are going to enjoy the conversation. She has some great nuggets, advice, and things that you will find helpful and also inspiring and encouraging. Let’s get right into the conversation.
We are wrapping up the family series and my guest is my oldest sister, all of our oldest sister, Denise Beckom.
How are you doing, Tina?
Good. If you could share a little bit about yourself with our readers.
My name is Denise and I am Tina’s eldest sister. We share the same father. I am a retired teacher. I live in Chicago and yeah, that’s me.
There’s so much more. She’s holding back. Things you like doing, like the place, about the things you’ve done since you retired. You’ve been jet-setting, girl.
Tina is not my only sibling and her siblings. I have another set of siblings on my mom’s side and my siblings are all over the country. I am the only sibling of seven, of which I have two sets and I’m the only one that lives in Chicago of all my siblings. It’s funny that I now have two siblings in Dallas, one on each side, which is funny. I have one brother also who is also the youngest sibling on each side, which is also an anomaly.
I have taught middle school reading and social studies and have written several grants which were targeted toward struggling readers, pretty much taught in the African-American community for a large number of my years of teaching. After that, I went to a school where it was more multicultural and I’m okay either way, children or children for me. What I like to do in my spare time and mostly enjoy is going to New York to see Broadway plays, eating at New York restaurants, and walking downtown Manhattan. That is so much fun to me.
The other thing that I do when I’m here in Chicago is to volunteer at the theaters that are in the Black community as an usher or in whatever capacity they may need me. I am an advocate of sibling bonds. I did not grow up with Tina and her siblings, but when I became of age to start driving, I sought them out because siblings are important to me and I wanted to bring all of them in, whether we had the same dad, same mom, or whatever. They’re my siblings.
Thank you. That’s something I wanted you to share about. If you recall how you sought me out in some of those first interactions and what that looked like or what you recall.
There are six years between Tina and me. When I started driving at 16 and probably by the time around 17, I’m venturing out past two blocks that my mother said for me to go and come right back. Now I’m venturing out on my own and between where we lived and where Tina and my dad and her siblings and mom live, I don’t know, it’s probably a good twenty-minute drive. I can only “sneak” over there because I’m still a new driver. When there was someplace that I was supposed to be going and I could go, I figured out how to zig-zag away and try to cut down on some of the time.
My initial interaction with Tina probably began when she was in about eighth grade. I’m trying to think about that. I remember one of our first interactions as it is, unfortunately, for colored girls, was around the hair. Tina wanted a perm and her people weren’t necessarily sending her to get a perm, so I came over. I think she had bought the perm herself. I bought it with me or whatever. That was our first interaction. I came over and I put a perm in her hair.
Was it the Dark and Lovely box?
Yes, it was. That was around the time they had products that were specifically for African-American. Either I brought it or she went and bought it.
That began a lifelong sisterhood and friendship going back to the place. What was the place I went to with you? Was it New York or where did we go?
We went to New York. One of my colleagues’ daughter is an actress. I love the idea of “jet setting.” I have always told my friend and her daughter that wherever she is at a play, I will come. She was in a play in New York and at that time Tina was living in Pennsylvania, which was two hours from New York. She came in. We stayed on the New Jersey side, which was our second round of staying in New Jersey together because we had started this thing of trying to have a sibling trip. On our first sibling trip, we went to New York.
I remember the whole thing.
We went to New York and we stayed on the New Jersey side because the hotel prices were very different from staying on the other side. Plus, we both were still young and money wasn’t quite there yet. We were trying to be economical, but at any rate, Tina came with me because it was only two hours away and she went to the play as well.
That was pretty fun. That has been a good experience being open to different things. That is a great part. As you talk about the relationships with siblings, we have similarities, but there are a lot of different nuances for each individual person. To be able to embrace that has been pretty cool. Another thing that is very important to you, Denise, is your faith in how that guides you. Can you expound a little bit on that? That is a huge component of who you are.
My mom has always sent me to church. I grew up in our community here that’s called South Shore. I can remember as a little girl and when I say a little girl, so I’m dating myself a little bit here. In the ‘60s, it was very different. I can remember, if you can imagine this, in 2nd and 3rd grade, going to the community church in my neighborhood and my mother would send me.
She probably walked me downstairs and waved and I would walk to the church by myself and come back and forth by myself. At that time, I was only going to Sunday school. I did not go to the regular service. As time went on, my mother started joining me. I was the only child at this time and my mother had bought me books to read. Several other books that she had bought were Christian books. Back then, they didn’t have them like that for kids. It was a book of prayers.
I remember as a kid, it was one of the first books that I read over and over again because again, I’m an only child so I have to do something to keep myself engaged. I remember reading that prayer book over and over again. Something about it appealed to me. Later on in life, as my mother’s growing, I’m growing, one of the first churches that she went to with me. with the Reverend Dr. Johnnie Colemon. You guys may or may not be familiar with this minister was. This is before it had “blown up” to a megachurch.
My mother started going there and from there we moved to a different neighborhood, which was Jeffrey Manor. They had a community church and my mother started going there. Ultimately, we ended up when the small Baptist church moved into the big building. That is where I got my major foundation in the church.
I remember when my mother joined the church and she talked about it. All this was new because when I was going to church before, I’m going and she dragging me along but at this point now I’m thirteen. She tells me that she’s going to join. We had this conversation. When she went up, I went up because I knew I was going to have to go and I didn’t want to go by myself. I went with her and went through the protocol or whatever it is, which was all weird.
At that time, I also had conversations about being baptized and what it meant for me as far as being baptized, saying the type of person and type of life I was choosing to live. That once I got baptized, I needed to conduct myself differently. What am I doing at thirteen? I had too much going on anyway, but that set the trend for started going to Sunday school or continuing to go into Sunday school.
I got very active. I don’t know if you could call me an officer, but I was one of the Sunday school individuals that counted the money after Sunday school. I also worked on the Sunday school bus with probably the first “love of my life,” because his mom and he also had gone to the community church. They changed along with my mother and they knew each other as well. He also worked the Sunday school bus.
I want you to continue because that’s still an integral part of that of your life.
We were in Jeffrey Manor and the Sunday school bus pretty much drove around in the Manor, which is like a maze. There were children. There were no adults on the bus. The church was evangelizing to the community. My mom sent me when I was a kid. That’s what the neighborhood folks were doing. We would have anywhere from 25 to 50 children and my job on the bus was to keep them engaged while they were still on the bus in the Christian way.
I would sing songs and then Ricky, who was heading toward the ministry, would maybe do some scriptures or maybe do a talk, whatever because again, we were dealing with kids. I would do different songs. It’s so funny. I don’t remember that song right now, but that’s what we did. Along with that, I was also in the adult choir, which was a big deal. If anybody knows anything about Baptist churches, you know how we get down. That was a big deal to be in the adult choir.
How has your faith continued to be a part of what you do in your life?
What I’m doing in my life in retirement right now. I’ve always done this. I heavily believe in the power of prayer. Prayer for me means communion with God and I’m in commune with God. It doesn’t mean asking God to do this or do that. That’s probably the least thing that I do. Most of my time in prayer is spent for other people and communing with God on how I might be an example or how I might say something that will help somebody else. Unfortunately, I’m all about “servitude” and helping others. I’m constantly in communication with God. That’s my everything. I don’t know how to function without that. That’s like my second first voice or whatever inside.
How would you say your faith impacts the way you look at death and maybe conversations you or see other people looking at death?
When I was a sophomore, my mother sent me to a Catholic high school for my first two years, which meant that there was some religious connotation to it. One of the classes I had taken was on death and dying. At that point, I had not experienced anyone that was close to me that had died. The whole thing of death and there was an option to learn about it. I was curious. In my faith, I don’t necessarily change that. I don’t see death as a negative. It is hurtful and painful for those of us who will miss that individual. I believe in an afterlife.
You mentioned at that point in time someone close to you had not transitioned or died in your lifetime. Who are some of the people that you were saying that have been very close to you that have left this world that you think of often?
Ironically, as it turns out, the very first funeral I went to was my dad’s father’s funeral. That was the first funeral I ever went to in my life period. I was fourteen. I remember it because afterward, we came to the house that I’m living in now that I own. It was my grandmother’s house, which was my dad’s mom. I remember my mother and me walking down this long street because again, I’m a kid. I’m being dragged along to this house. I remember my mom and dad being outside and that is one of my first-ever memories of my parents being together.
Other people have died but the first closest person that died was my grandmother, which was my mother’s mother. She died when I was sixteen and that was horrific. At that point at sixteen, even though I had this class at that point, I was not thinking about my grandmother’s gone on because it was unexpected. It’s not like she was sick. She was young. She had a massive heart attack and left. It was extremely painful and hurtful because I spent the first year of my life on the planet with my grandmother. I was very much so attached to my grandmother. Every weekend up until I was ten, I was at my grandmother’s house. It was extremely startling and I didn’t know what to do.
Is anyone else that you want to mention that’s been close to this passed over?
I would say one that has definitely impacted our family was my cousin Tanya. She was my first baby doll. That is what I referred to her. Before I had sisters, I had her. There are eight years between her and me. She was at my grandmother’s house with me. She was my little playmate. I called her baby doll because she was so petite. It’s eight years’ difference between her. She was the first one I’m carrying around on my hip. That was very impactful because again, it was unexpected. She’s younger than me. Not that I want to go first, but you think the older people would go first and she was very young when it happened. To this day, our family is still traumatized by it.
What does that trauma look like?
Missing that person and the memories of that person. They are so strong and because we grew up and we spent the holidays together, I grew up with her my whole life. It’s missing that person and where that person is in your day-to-day life, where they fit when you’re planning, the role that person has when you’re planning, and what that person did. It’s almost like being out in the sun and you don’t have a shadow. How does that work?
In that conversation of death and what that looks like, I like to transition as far as what we’re focusing on in that conversation. Knowing you being a huge part of my hood, being my sister, how did you find out about Mark’s situation? How did you come to know about that?
One of the other siblings had called me and told me what was going on. For a minute, they were interceding and passing the word. They were talking to you and then passing the word to the rest of us.
How was that received on your end? What were your thoughts? What was in your mind when hearing that? That was hearing he had a heart attack initially and then how that progressed.
As the conversation going, people’s perception of things is different and people’s relationship with other people are different. Even though I’m getting this information, it’s catastrophic. I needed to talk to you. I needed to hear from you as opposed to perception and trying not to, at the same time, come to you because it has to be catastrophic again. At the same time, I needed to hear from you because the way that people may translate stuff wasn’t enough. I needed to talk to you.
We waited a long time and in the meantime, as I’m getting the language and the words that someone is telling me, I have a couple of friends who are in the medical field, one being a doctor, and one being a nurse. I called them. “Translate this language. What does this mean?” When I talked to one of my doctor friends, I said, “What does that mean?” She told me what it meant and that that was it. At that point, that’s when I knew that I needed to talk to you myself and the means of trying to give you something because, at that point in time, I knew what that meant for Mark.
Did you call me?
I did, eventually. Once I talked to my friend and then going back and forth with the sibling that had shared, then it had gotten to the language that was used. I don’t even remember the words at this point, but the language that was used once I talked to my friend, I thought that’s what it meant. That was mind-blowing because we are not that far in age. I wasn’t aware of him being ill. Once my doctor friend told me what that meant and I hear her take a breath and say, “That means that he was gone. That’s it.” Once that happened then I’m pretty sure I probably called you directly myself.
Do you recall what that conversation was like or what we discussed?
I remember you saying to me, and I could tell that you were scrunching, you said, “I love him.” I know there were other conversations but the one thing that says that I hear is I hear you and I could almost picture you with the phone holding it up. I’ve seen you hold the phone so I know how your body is and what you’re doing and you’re going, “I love him.”
I remember us talking about that later. In my mind, when I said, “I love him,” it was supposed to be this protection mechanism that would not allow for him to be dead because I love him. How could those two correlates in the same space of the world? When I look back, that’s what I was articulating, “I love him. He cannot no longer be here.”
That was devastating and still to this day is the reality of that. This conversation and the others are wanting to bring honor to his existence in our marriage to be able to take, like you said, a very horrific experience and try to use this to help other people that are grieving and hurting. You and I now had the conversation. What was in your mind trying to get there to Pennsylvania? What was it like when you first saw me?
I know who we are as a people and I’m saying that means our family and we’re pretty stellar. I’ve seen you. Even though it is no comparison, I saw you when you had to put your dog to sleep whom you loved very much. I also knew that you have two children and I had a feeling for you. When I got there to see you, once we did the initial greeting, but I probably was very standoffish because I needed to observe and to see where you are to see what I needed to do for you, where I needed to be able to fit in.
There are a whole lot of people all over the place now that are coming in because you had unbelievable major support. I know that I was in the cut trying to see, “All these other people are doing all these other things. That’s not what I need to do.” I was very conscious and observant of you to see what would happen.
I watched the movie, The Best Man, and they replayed the part there where the character’s wife has died. These are the best friends who’ve had issues throughout the movie. The guy is still standing there and then his best friend is still walking away and then he sees him. He’s almost getting ready to jump into the grave with his wife. The way they do the scene, he turns around and catches.
That was my stance that because of all these other people around and doing all these other things, there’s a way in which you and I connect. I was standing back the whole time, even at the funeral, the seat that I consciously chose, nobody couldn’t tell me where to sit. “You don’t get me this way. I’m going.” That was my attitude because I needed to be at a place where I could observe you 24/7 in case I needed to catch you.
I know praying the entire time in that process for strength for Catherine, Alexander, and me. As you’re watching me, what do you recall as far as my disposition or my mannerisms compared to what you know to be normal?
No, yet operating in the automatic, going through the process of what it is we have to do because you have children and this is life. Life goes on and you have all that understanding and knowing, “I’m getting ready to grieve. I am grieving.” This is a part of life unfortunately as well. Love is grieving. I know that you had that understanding and you conducted yourself in that way. I can tell that it’s like gut-wrenching.
Throughout this whole time, you are gut-wrenching yourself as far as praying and asking God to help you, which is the same thing I know I, among others, was also doing. I was looking at my phone and I was going back. There are several different prayers that I have. I put my prayers in notes before I sent them to people. I saw several of the different prayers that I had for you, Catherine, and Alex. That’s how I labeled them based on what was going on.
Do you have any of those handy? Would you mind reading one of those?
This is one of the times, it’s Tina’s family prayer and this one was in 2018. That’s a year later. Still, prayer is going out. I started it out with God’s word in Psalm 34:18. “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted. He rescues those whose spirits are crushed.” Matthew 5:4. “Blessed are those that mourn for they shall be comforted.” Ecclesiastes, “There’s a time for everything and a season for every activity under the sun, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” This is how for sure that last one is how I depicted you. I’ve seen you in a death situation before and know how you function.
The prayer was, “Lord, we thank You for Your everlasting love and constant grace and mercy. We know that through You, all things are made possible. Comfort the minds and hearts of Tina, Catherine, and Alex as they come to terms with the loss of Mark. Relieve their anguish and emotional strength as they go through this day, carrying out their life duties. Help them to function at their best and to take refuge in the peace of God. Lord, we thank You for hearing and answering our prayers and supplications. In Jesus’ name, we pray.”
Amen. I did not know that. Thank you. I know you prayed for me and as I prayed for you, but there’s something impactful about hearing that. That was important to me a year after Mark passed, connecting with people and understanding what was happening in their world and understanding that because when you are in the deep of that you are only considering yourself. The other people in my hood were impacted to a different degree and a different way, but it was still impactful to their lives. You shared with me that there are points where you randomly still think of Mark.
I’m sure at least once a week, I think of Mark and I think of him because of who he was as a person. He was funny, with dry humor. I see the faces that he makes and when he’d be sarcastic. I think about the first time that I met Mark and the first time I came to visit you all in your first apartment because me being the oldest, I was the only one necessarily able to even do that. As it relates to family, I was probably the first one and the only one at that point who could embrace Mark and where you all were. The other ones were too young. They were still kids.
Going back to that, we lived in an apartment building next to each other. Any memories of that or things you recall of that experience?
It was different because it wasn’t a big city. One of the times was Mark was very comfortable for me to be around. He was a good guy. I remember this was when the time when you all had bought the first house. Mark and I end up spending an entire day together because he had to do some stuff at the house and I was with him and we were together the whole day doing whatever it is. I think we were sanding bumps off the wall or something.
I have some pictures of us doing down doing all that work.
I also got to know Mark’s mom and she was a teacher and so that gave me another connection because at this point, I’m getting ready to go into the teaching field, and here’s someone in close proximity who’s already doing it and has been doing it for a long time at that point. I was listening to all that she had to say.
In fact, Barbara, Mark’s mom, and I came out to visit and stayed with you. Was it for grandma’s birthday that we came out? Did Mark even come to that trip?
Just you and the kids and Barbara. Barbara and I spent the day together. While you went and did something else, Barbara and I went and hung out. It’s one of the highlights of my life because this is someone who’s very different and at that point, I hadn’t been exposed to a whole lot of people, but it was a good experience, I believe, for her and me.
I do believe so. That is when the lives of each other are able to blend together. Now I want to move forward a little bit. We’ve had the service for Mark, the cremation and now trying to live life. I came to Chicago a few times. You came to see me. How did I look or how were you seeing that grieving process show up in my life as you saw me in different increments?
You were robotic, but clearly, you had the weight of a mourner because there’s a time for every season and you were very heavily, even though you had put in place some steps and things that you need to do because you still are alive and needed to live. In order to live, there are some steps and some changes and things that need to happen. You were still mourning as you do that because it’s a process and it was going to take time.
As you talk about the siblings, I’m grateful for that, our ability to huddle around someone in their time and give them space for that. Mark passed and then two years later, our dad then passed. How was that experience different for you of dad passing than being there for me as Mark passed?
I had not even put that connection. That’s why I’m like, “What are you talking about?” Mark wasn’t sick and so, it was sudden whereas our dad had been going through changes for whatever they were for a while. Somewhere throughout that, it was on the table. It was not as stunning as Mark’s was. Going through dad’s loss because of how it was, I think it was very different.
I’m sure you and some of you guys may have witnessed, there’s a place in which I feel that when a person is older, sometimes they get tired and they will themselves out of here. They no longer want to be here. They want to have life on the other side. That was the difference between our dad and Mark. With Mark’s situation, God called him home. That’s not to say he didn’t call dad home, but dad might have been at the door knocking, “Can I come?”When a person is older, sometimes they just get tired. They no longer want to be here and looks forward to living on the other side. Click To Tweet
How has death impacted how you live?
Knowing that tomorrow is not promised to me, even the next moment and the next second, having that is based on my convictions and knowing that I have lived a life that is in accordance with the way that I believe God wants me to live. Based on that, if I make my transition, then I will be with God. Knowing that for other people around me, what can be better than being with God? There’s nothing stronger and better than being with the Creator. On one hand, I’m at peace, but on the other hand, it could be scary because at this point, most of my life I’ve only had one parent. I still only have one parent but I’ve tried to prepare myself for that knowing that death is going to happen.
Any advice for someone whose sibling has lost a spouse? From your experience, what are things that you have found that can be helpful in being in that space with somebody else?
The first thing I would say is to take cues from that person and that it’s about them and not about you at that moment in time, even though clearly life goes on and you’re going to have things that are going on with you yourself. Given at that point in time what that person is going to do, depending on, again, the moment in time, it may trump what you have. You have to be patient and understanding.
It wouldn’t be bad to read some literature on your own about the steps of grief that a person will go through, whether they formally go through it or not. These are the steps of grief. This is what’s going to happen. That you be there and follow their lead. Support them as much as they can, and do not take how they may respond to you personally. It’s not about you getting over yourself and being supported by taking their lead.
You bring up a good point about not taking how they respond. You’re not in your right frame of mind. Your mind is in a fog. You’re trying to process what’s going on. Sometimes it’s such a strain to process what’s happening at that very moment, not even taking into consideration someone else. Those are some good points.
Having been a retiree, even though I talk big stuff before I retire, I now realize, which is mind-blowing, that there are other losses that we have that are not the death of a person. As far as giving advice to someone else there, our loss is loss on one hand, but it’s a human. Surely, it’s a different loss than a job. Both of them took up space and time in your life. It is a process. If you don’t know the process, read. Get you a book. Get into a group and find somewhere to make a connection. Don’t just sit, but find a way to figure out how to get yourself because you’re still living. Figure out a way to get yourself through the process. In order to do that, you got to know what the process is.Losing a love one and losing a job are vastly different, but both take up space and time in your life. Dealing with them is a process. Click To Tweet
What I hear you saying is to search for information to help understand what it is you’re going through. What you’re going through is unique as it relates to you as an individual and a unique person. There are similarities that if we understand the process, it lessens the impact. There’s the idea of realizing I am not the only person experiencing it.
That alone empowers you to realize there is a bigger group of people that I can lean into in this pain, in this loss, and in this situation. It takes it from being in our heads to connect. There’s something about connecting with other people and articulating what we’re experiencing and allowing them to share their story with us and our story with them. That strengthens us in the process. Those are some good examples. Thank you.
In addition to your family, and if you don’t have your family, I would also say get a connection with a faith-based organization. Whatever that might mean for you, getting in touch with your spirituality, higher being, because you’re not going to always be able to be around people 24/7. You are going to need something that comes from the inside. That inside, based on my belief, is God.
That right there is solid also because even though I may have called somebody at 2:00 in the morning, somebody’s on the West Coast on the East Coast, at the end of the day, it became my personal journey and I needed to walk through that. If it was not for my relationship with God, I don’t know how I would have been able to endure that, to be able to hold onto that, to have that guidance in that direction. It’s important for people to leverage their faith at this very critical moment of their life. This has been some good conversation. Is anything coming to mind that you feel like you wanted to talk about or we didn’t or some final advice or sharing for everyone that’s joined us?
You are going to miss that person forever but it doesn’t mean that you cannot live without them. I know that sounds again horrific because we don’t want to live with the ones that are our loved ones, particularly ones that we consciously chose to be our loved ones, not just those families that we were born into.
You made a decision to be with that person and you’re going to miss them for the rest of your life. It may not always be at a level ten, but you will always miss them. You will get through it as you press your way and strive your way. It’s possible. You can do it. You will get through it. Don’t push yourself. Give yourself time because time is part of the process. It’s a process. Don’t beat up on yourself.
Thank you, Denise. Thank you for this conversation. Thank you for your time and thank you for those words of wisdom and nuggets. Thank you everyone for joining us.
We have wrapped up the last episode of the Family series in the show. It’s amazing. As long as I’ve known my sister that we still had a conversation, I found out things I didn’t know about her. I appreciate her even more now after this conversation. She was able to share a prayer that she wrote for Catherine, Alexander, and me that I didn’t even know to that degree.
I’m grateful for the people in my hood to welcome you into their hood and share their experiences for you to know and to be able to connect that you are not alone. We are all going through this struggle of grief together. Our community is strong. We are here. We are loving each other, and we are learning to live. Thank you, and I hope you enjoyed being with us.