Keeping the Family Together After Tragedy

two women mourn at the grave
two women mourn at the grave


My name is Amber Kreiger and I am sharing my story of how I lost someone extremely close to me, and how my family and I dealt with the tragedy. First of all, I should start by telling you that I come from a blended family. Now, I know what most people think when they hear this term; a chaotic mess of a family that comes from several “broken” families. Whether or not this is true for most, it couldn’t be further from the truth for my family. Before my very unexpected entrance into this world (My siblings were 14, 11, and 10 when I was born. SURPRISE!) Both of my parents were married prior to coming together in their now 27 years of marriage.

This is how the “blended” part goes. My mom was married when she had the oldest of the 4 of us, my brother Randy (9/10/74). A couple of years later, she welcomed my sister Kimmy (6/18/78.) So from my mom’s side came my brother Randy and sister Kimmy. My dad, who was also married before, had my sister Tricia right in between Randy and Kimmy (2/18/77.) Divorce is tragic, for anyone, and I do not wish it upon my worst enemy. However, all 3 of my siblings had to go through the struggles of a divorce at a young age. Although this is not what either of my parents planned, it couldn’t have ended better. They then got hitched just a couple of years after they both went through troubling marriages, and will be married for 28 years in November! I, the youngest of the 4 of us, came along after my parents tied the knot (10/9/88)

The point of me rambling about my crazy family is to let you all know a bit about how we have come together. Although it wasn’t the easiest of transitions (obviously I only know what I’ve heard because I wasn’t around just yet) we are ALL extraordinarily close. We’re not blended, we’re just put together like a puzzle. One of those puzzles that drives you a bit crazy at first, and at times you want to cry because it just doesn’t seem to fit, but at the end, when you have it finished, it’s so beautiful and you couldn’t be more proud of it. That’s my family. We laugh, we cry, we fight, and in the summer we get the cops called on us for being “too loud” while we are dancing and loving life in our parents’ garage.

Sound perfect? It is. Except for one thing. One of our pieces of the puzzle got taken. Stolen from us and we can’t have it back. Not until our time comes. Or maybe never, depending on what you believe.

I can remember being very small, and being at my grandma Mac’s house with my parents. We were having dinner with her. My siblings, being much older, were out doing “big kid things.” Then the phone rang. My parents darted out of the door and left me with Grandma. I had no clue what was going on, I just remember screaming because I wanted to go with them. After that, I can only remember bits and pieces. My brother had been in a car accident. Right across from Aldi on Lincoln Way. My mom still gets choked up when we drive by. He was only 18, and he wrapped his truck around a telephone pole. Before anyone assumes, absolutely ZERO drugs or alcohol were involved. Just a stubborn 18 year old who bought a truck with no seat belts, despite the opposition from his parents, and a rainy night. He was in a coma for 7 weeks and I hated it. I didn’t understand why my bubby couldn’t just come home. He was my best friend. He took care of me when my parents were working or just went out for the night. He swung me around in pillow cases. He was my protector and he couldn’t come home. He had severe swelling of the brain. I don’t even know what that means. Why won’t he just wake up? When he finally did, after those long 7 weeks, the doctors said there was a high risk of amnesia. My mom was terrified. After all this pain and waiting for him to wake up, he might not even remember us. My mom and her sister, Aunt Lisa, were with him when he woke. They began asking him who this was and that was. All was good. My mom still tells me how terrified she was to show him the picture of me, because I was only 3 at the time and could have been part of his short term memory. She showed him my picture and asked, “and do you know who this is?” My mom said he basically rolled his eyes and said, “uhh….my baby sister!”

What a great story, right?! Tragic accident, wakes up with no amnesia! Sadly, this is false. He was 100% different. I never quite know how to explain my brother after his accident. He wasn’t necessarily “mentally disabled,” but he was “slow” for lack of a better word. He gained a ton of weight. His voice changed. He cried about everything, like a child cried when he didn’t get his way. He had trouble controlling his bladder and bowels. He had so much scar tissue in his brain, that he would often have seizures. He took several pills to help him with many of these things. He was very obsessive about things too. He would make someone watch him put the pills on his tongue, and swallow them. Then he had a small book that he would write down what time he took them, and who saw him. Eventually he did live on his own, but everyone was constantly on their toes knowing he was alone. My brother, the “stud” that all of the girls liked, the kid who used to skip school to go hunting and fishing, and the very popular, free spirited young man was now gone. He was, as said before, a whole different person. This was extremely difficult for my family. He had a very high temper, which made things even worse. Unfortunately, the atmosphere had changed during every family event because it was difficult for us to handle him. It was difficult for everyone. Even through all of this, we made it work. It wasn’t easy, and at times the puzzle got knocked around and pieces would get misplaced, but we always figured out a way to put it back together. He was still my brother, the brother to my sisters, and my parents’ son/step son. We loved him just as much as we always had.

May 5th, 2001. No. It wasn’t Cinco de Mayo. It wasn’t a party day for margaritas and celebration. It was the worst day of my life. I vividly remember being at a friend’s house outside. It was beautiful out. Summer vacation was almost here and I was having a blast. We were playing circus. My oldest sister, Tricia, pulls up and tells me we had to go to Grandma and Grandpa’s. I remember thinking it was strange because I didn’t remember my mom saying we had a birthday party this day, but I was 12, so what did I know? My sister was in the front seat, and her boyfriend at the time was driving. I couldn’t really see her face, but she just sounded….different? My poor sister. Here I am, her baby sister asking her all these questions. Why are we going to their house? Is it a party? Is anyone else there? Is there a surprise? Bless her heart, she held it together for me as best as she could, but I could still feel the sorrow in the air. We pulled up and I saw lots of people. But she said no party? Something’s wrong. I immediately ran in the house and looked for my grandparents. They were older, so it was the first thing that came to mind. Not one, single ounce of me thought about looking for my brother. He was just there, because everyone else was… Only he wasn’t.

“Randy’s gone, baby.” That’s what my mom said. At least I think it was her, but honestly, I can’t be sure because it hit me like a ton of bricks. “Gone?” I can remember not grasping it instantly. I thought to myself, I don’t think I’m going to cry. After about another 30 seconds, I hit the ground. My Aunt Lisa, whom I’ve always been very close with, said that I just kept repeating myself, “NO! Stop saying that! He’s not dead! He’s not gone!” I was 12 years old, and I felt the worst pain I could ever feel. My stomach ached, and I could physically feel my heart hurting. I have no children, but other than the pain of losing one of your own children, I truly believe losing a sibling may be one of the hardest things to deal with. I dread the day I lose my parents, but they’re supposed to go before me. They’re older in age, and it’s just expected (obviously losing them early on would be much more devastating, though.) Losing a sibling is not that simple. I didn’t just lose my big brother; I lost a mentor, a friend, and someone I shared all of my life with up until this point. How could this happen? We JUST had dinner with him last night. He had several seizures right in a row they said. My GRANDFATHER found my brother, after breaking in through his apartment door, and he was gone. Lying on the floor. Alone. My other older sister, Kimmy, was visiting their dad out of state when it happened. My mom did not want to tell her over the phone, for fear of a reckless drive home, and she was not prepared to lose another child. Other than finding out myself that my brother had passed, this was the next worse thing. I was sitting with my cousin Megan, who was my exact age and helping me cope, when we heard my sister pull in. I waited. We waited. And there it was. The scream and the sobs that must have come out of my mouth too after first finding out. Myself, Kimmy and Tricia, had lost our brother. He may have been Kimmy’s full blooded brother, my half-brother, and Tricia’s step brother. Wait, no. He was JUST our brother. All of ours. We lost a sibling. My mother lost her first born child. My dad lost his step son who had been in his life for 15 years. Our puzzle? Destroyed. Broken into a million pieces. Torn apart by death. But, still all in a close pile. Destroyed for a while, but not completely unfixable.

The next few days, months, years really, were very tough. I watched my mother, the strongest woman I know crumble to pieces. I saw my dad cry for the first time ever. I watched my sisters try to explain to their young children what happened to Uncle Randy. And I, this 12 year old middle school girl, was left so confused. Not only did I lose my brother, but my entire family was lost. I can remember hearing my mom cry in her bedroom asking my dad why it had to be him? Why her son? What could she have possibly done to deserve this? She doubted so many things. Her faith, beliefs, love for so many things. I know some people might read this and think how dare she question such things? But how couldn’t she? A parent should never bury their children. Ever. I don’t care what the circumstance, and I will stand by that forever.

Now you’ve heard how tough it was. And it was, and IS tough. But somewhere through the hurt, the pain and the sorrow, a strong family and support system finds a way to push through. You start to help each other put the pieces back together. At some point you remember what it’s like to laugh. You start to make jokes again and the hurt starts to fade away. Please, don’t get me wrong. The place in my heart that my brother held is gone. Forever. But in that place is his memory. His curly hair and beautiful brown eyes. The way he used to call me “little shit.” I know! What a nickname?! But I would give everything I had to hear that just once more. It never completely goes away, but it DOES subside.

After many years of him being gone, the pain has eased, and the hurt isn’t consistent. We have picked up the pieces, and together, as a family have put the puzzle back together. There is still one piece though, right in the middle that is broken in half. One half is still the pain and sadness of him being gone and the fact that, well, that’s just reality. But the other half of that piece, the one that’s still there, is the part where he made us even closer. How this tragedy that we will never FULLY get over, has pulled our family even closer. We make sure we always say goodbye and I love you. We try not to stay mad at one another for too long. We come together during birthdays, holidays, and many weekends when we are all free, to laugh, play silly games and be a family. We have since added to our family since my brother has passed. I now have a husband as do my sisters. Only one has gotten the privilege of knowing my brother, and he misses him as much as we do. As for my husband, that is one thing that I will never be able to share with him. As many times as I try to tell him how great my bubby was, he will never really know.

I will admit, as I get older I have realized that it is a bit harder at some points. Like how my brother was not there to share my wedding day with me, or how he will never meet my children. But I do my best to hold it together. I try to stay positive and make some good of it, like how my kids will NEVER have any bad or sour memories of my brother. Their memories will come from the stories I share with them. Letting them know how kick ass he was, and how I used to put a wad of gum in my lip and spit just like he did with his chewing tobacco. They will know the COOLEST uncle there is to know.

I’m writing to tell you this. It is hard. Excruciatingly hard. But only for a while. I hurt at times still, especially on the important days. But I lead a very normal life, as does my family. Of course my mom still breaks down, but that’s normal. Our daily lives now consist of cleaning, homework, cussing at the alarm clock on Mondays, and playing on the weekends! We have fun! I don’t know what you believe, whether it’s God, luck, karma, or nothing at all, but for me, I have been blessed. Blessed by the grace of God with a beautiful family, loving husband, and two wonderful pooches! Although this life threw a HUGE curveball by taking my brother, myself, along with my family are happy. I now choose to believe he is at peace, and that helps me get through. It helps my family get through. Our puzzle is not perfect, but we made it fit. And we love it. We are thankful for what we DO have and we will forever be grateful. Life isn’t always fair, and we know that first hand. But we remember the good with the bad, and for that, we are happy.