In Memory of Colton Tanner Rohlf
"You are my sunshine my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are grey..."
March 25, 2017. It’s a day like any other day, right? A Saturday. The first Saturday of spring if I’m not mistaken. Maybe it’s beautiful where you are, maybe you’re facing some less than ideal weather but hey - it’s a Saturday. A seemingly easy peasy day that is just like any other Saturday during some month of the year. I wish for me that were the case. I wish for my sister and her husband, for my family, for the Special Olympics community and for oh how many others - I wish this was just an average day. But for many of us - it is anything BUT average.
Today, March 25, 2017, is the one year anniversary of a loss. My nephew, Colton Rohlf, died one year ago today in a single car accident on his way back home for the night from college. A freak accident that ended a life. There was no negligence, no speeding, no texting, no nothing. He was following all the rules. It was just circumstance, a patch of hail that if you tried a hundred times may never catch on the wheel of a car. I lost a nephew, my children lost a first cousin, my parents lost a grandchild, countless others were devastated by the loss. Devastated. My sister, her husband - they lost a son. Their only son. Their only child. One part of their three part triangle. And devastated doesn’t even come close to how the loss has affected them.
We wish and dream the time away
We sit here often as parents and we watch our children grow. We talk and we dream about how when they are six - can you imagine them in Kindergarten. I can’t wait until my baby can talk and we can have a conversation! I wonder what Lexi will look like when she goes to her first prom? I wonder what their first true love will be like? How will we help them with a broken heart? As parents, we wish in one hand for them to reach those stages because the road that we know they have ahead of them is so GREAT! And as they grow older and we wish for the next stage and the next chapter we start to slow time down and page back through the older pages of their story and our "can’t waits" turn into "remember whens". Natural circle of parenting without question. But what happens when you have no more "I can’t wait until…" What happens?
Colton was 23 when he died. 23 oh so young and so much ahead of him years old. And when he died not only did a part of all of my family die with him but so did all of the "I can’t waits". All of them. They have been replaced with "why’s" and "if only’s" and "I wish I would haves". Oh how I wish I would have. My sister and her husband - their life stopped that day. Sure, they get by day to day but trust me when I tell you they are not the people they were. Nor will they ever be again. Death has away of ripping your identity right out of your body and flushing it down the toilet. Because most parents, myself included, part of who we are, the breath in our body, our purpose, our drive, our commitment is grounded in our families, our children. And if a part of that leaves you - well it’s like being unbalanced. Like placing your forehead on the end of a bat and walking around in a circle head down as fast as you can and then trying to walk a straight line. Every single day.
Grief is NOT a process... It’s a marathon
You read all about how grief is a process, a certain number of stages that a person goes through and that in time you move toward hope. I’ve done the research, I’ve written about it, I’ve talked to people smarter and more knowledgeable than myself about it. Let me tell you - it’s not that cut and dried and NO ONE is running the same race. Grief is a singular journey that is completely and totally individual to every single person. And there is no hurrying it along. Grief is definitely the tortoise in the race to the finish line.
I have learned that grief takes on other forms. It can come at you like a tidal wave when you least expect it, wash you up on the truth shore and batter your body and your heart until you just can’t take it any longer. And then it slowly ebbs away. Grief is also like a thief in the night. It sneaks up on you when you least expect it, maybe in the form of a song on the radio, a picture that sits on your island, a memory on your Facebook feed that pops up and invites you to share when you just could never share. And grief, well it reaches in and before you know has a fist around your heart that squeezes so tight that you can’t breathe for just wanting to cherish the memory and make the memory stop.
Grief can be like a blanket too. That favorite old sweatshirt that wraps you up, smells like home and makes you feel safe. Sometimes the tears bring comfort, the realization that although you will never have those times again that you did have those times. Grief has been the wind that has blown away the memories for just a moment so that I can get through a task where the mistakes that I made and the things I wish I’d said - they just blow away and caress me with forgiveness and it’s okays.
And grief has taken on colors. Red most often. Rage at the unfairness of it all and how much it has hurt so many. And why him? Why a good kid? Why why why?? Sometimes grief is blue because it reminds me of the sky and the outdoors which Colton loved. Makes me wonder if Colton is up there and if he’s looking down and whispering put away the work and take your Jackson fishing.
How have we coped
Coping is such a terrible word for what the past year has taught but I don’t know what other one is more fitting. We have existed, we have forged ahead, we have lived. The months after Colton died brought about a lot of firsts - the first Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, the first month anniversary, the first days back at work, the first day when one of us didn’t cry. And we’ve coped.
We didn’t conquer but we made it through his first birthday - without him here. We gave thanks at Thanksgiving and had to search to find what we were thankful for because he should be here in our circle of thanks with us and holding his mom’s hand.
And his dad found a way to simply be thankful for the gift of the family that has been there in support of him and Heather. The holidays were not the same. We got through them, we made some memories but all was not merry and bright. Not even close.
A new year meant a new year without Colton. And the realization that life continues to move forward no matter how much we want to stop time, how badly we would give anything to turn back the clock and redo March 25, 2016. And that no amount of raging, praying, begging and pleading will make that happen. And we have to cope with that.
We have been there for his parents, as best as we could. Often times that falls short of what is needed. Not by anyone’s fault but because it is an individual marathon for his parents and no one, not one of us, understands that marathon. The nightmare and the heartache and the inconsolable grief that is like a dark fog that they are forced to maneuver through daily. My mom reaches out to my sister every day and puts aside her own feelings as a grieving grandmother because her role as mom to a grieving child has to come first. And it is so hard.
What I have learned
The lessons have been great for me this year and humbling. Some might even say that some of the lessons I learned shamed me a little. And I accept that. I’m not a perfect person and this is a book I had never even wanted to think about checking out from the library but here it is in my lap, pages wide open.
Talking helps. I have had to talk at times. A lot. Sometimes to my mom, at times to my husband, sometimes I just rely on my Gus to get me through the day. I lean on my brother because he understands as a sibling to my sister that it is hard to not be able to help. But I try to get the words out, the hurt, the pain so that when my sister does call on me it is her pain that I can focus on and not my own.
Listening is imperative. I am a fixer and if you’ve got a problem - hey come to me and I will fix it for you. I can’t fix this and furthermore, I don’t think my help is really wanted to fix it. What is needed is just an ear, a shoulder, a sounding post. I have listened a lot this year and tried to just not offer my opinion no matter how badly I want to say what I think or what I think should be done. Because often what fixes things is just that - an open ear and a closed mouth.
Life is precious. I knew life was precious but I try to live more now as if life is precious. I try to make less of the irritations and turn the other cheek and think to myself - will this slight irritation REALLY matter tomorrow? It’s hard and I have no doubt my family will tell you that I have a long way to go but I am trying and I am cognizant.
Words hurt so choose them carefully. This is a big one for me and it’s hit home this year. How many times have we said something we regret? Not said the thing we wish we had? If you don’t need to say it, if it’s going to hurt someone’s feelings, if it doesn’t bring value - swallow the words. If you can lift someone up, remind them they are loved, cared for, even if it’s through clenched teeth - DO IT. Choose your words, your actions, all of it - carefully. None of us know when those words are the last ones that another person will hear from us. What would you want those words to be?
Make time. I am a multi-tasker, high stress person. Give me a deadline, pile things on my plate and the more stress you can add to my table the more productive I am. And those ‘things’ often take precedence over time with family, face timing with my older two, sitting down and having dinner with my Rob. No one is going to remember how much you did for them or how much you got done every day or how many deadlines you made or missed. What they will remember is how you made them feel and the time you spent together. Especially your children. Make the time. Read the book, have the conversation, engage.
So how can you help someone that’s grieving
This has been a huge education for my family as a whole. We all have busy lives and things going on and places to be and so on and so forth. And by nature of that our lives had to forge ahead - while my sister and her husbands life remains rooted in the ground from March 25, 2016 on. Stuck. And that doesn't mean that we’ve forgotten Colton - it means that life is happening all around us as well and it’s a giant juggling act to take care of our responsibilities as family members to our own families, be a means of support to Heather and Tim as well as cope with our own grief. It’s not easy.
Be understanding and patient. What I learned this week is that it’s been a year and that it’s only been A YEAR since Colton died. What seems like a lifetime to us is a moment in time to the parents. They are entitled to their grief. That was very humbling to me. The parents or those closest to the deceased are ENTITLED to their grief. And a year is not a very long time. Understand that and be patient and then be patient some more.
Take nothing personal. I’ve seen my sister and her husband lash out, be angry, shut down and turn away. From friends, from family, from people that just want to help. And what I’ve learned is that it is far from personal to the person - it’s only personal to Heather and Tim and what they are feeling. Maybe they don’t want to see your smiling face or go out to lunch or hear about what is going on in your life. Because for them their life is not happy, they aren’t smiling and they don’t want to. And that is okay. Maybe they don’t want to talk on the phone, answer a text, respond because it took every effort they had to get out of bed and go to work. And they have nothing left for you. Not even a text. And that is okay. Don’t take it personal, keep making the effort. Be there.
Your pain is not insignificant but theirs is significant. What I mean is - and I say this from experience - your loss is not insignificant. Not in the least. You are hurting, you loved them, you cared for them. Their loss however is all consuming - a living breathing monster that they have to wake up and face each and every day. Understand that they know and appreciate that you loved their loved one too. And it matters. But your loss is not the same as their loss.
Don’t forget their loved one. I am hesitant to bring up Colton’s name or the memories. But someone told me that to those that have experienced the loss that can be taken as that their loved one has been forgotten. So share the memories, speak of them, share the tears and the laughter, the pictures, the memories. If they ask you to stop that’s one thing. But try not to be afraid to mention them - no one wants to think someone they loved more than life itself has been forgotten by others when it’s all that they can think about.
One year anniversary
I’m really not sure how I want to remember Colton today. I am grateful that I will have my children home with me, all of them, and my Rob. I will cook a meal that I know that he liked - steak and mashed potatoes. I will get through the day. Maybe I’ll sit down and write him a letter and tuck it away and some day give it to my sister. Maybe balloons that we can write on and send up into the sky. I’m not sure but there will be something to commemorate the day.
I wish I lived closer to home because I would like to visit the accident site and say a prayer for Colton. Tell him I love him so very much, my first nephew. And that his loss was not in vain. Relationships have been repaired in our family, fresh starts that I would’ve never thought possible, rekindled friendships and bonds. He would be so happy about that.
I would let him know that I am so sorry that his mom and dad are hurting so much. And ask him for guidance on helping them get to where they need to be. I will promise that I won’t give up on them and that I won’t let him be forgotten.
I’ll tell Colton all about the kids and how Seeley Lake has never been the same and that every year, his presence is felt. l would let him know that his cousin talked about him in her senior speech and through his loss she has tried to live her life as if each day is a gift. And at her graduation party this summer he will be missed.
I’ll fill him in on how he touched so many lives in such a short span of time. One of his Special Olympics athletes raised over $18,000 at the Polar Plunge this year and is racing for him on the slopes of Austria and in fact won his first Gold Medal. And Colton, oh honey, you would be SO PROUD! You made such a difference and continue to leave a lasting impression, a legacy of friendship and kindness that has spread to so many.
Colton would be told how the 16th Annual Camp Walleye camp was renamed the Colton Rohlf Memorial Camp Walleye 2016 and that never, not once, has he been forgotten.
March 25, 2017. A Saturday. A not so average day in my life and in the lives of so many. Today, I remember and I honor the life of my nephew and do so with a promise to do better at living my life with purpose, to be a better friend and to make the most of each opportunity I have to spend time with those I love. I miss you, we all miss you, mom and dad more than anyone. We will continue to run our marathon and be there to reach back behind us or slow down and walk with those that are just to weary too run. You were magnificent, Colton, and know that you will Never Be Forgotten!
"You'll never know dear how much I miss you
Please don't take my sunshine away."