We hosted a college graduation party at our house for our nephew last weekend. My husband’s family was here, including our 95-year-old great-grandmother, all four grandparents in various levels of physical health. This made five generations gathered to hear my brother-in-law speak of his three children, who have now all graduated from college, and we toasted their accomplishments.

I sat on the porch with my beautiful daughter Izzy, 16, listening to the toasts and thinking that it won’t be too long before she is graduating high school and heading to college. But our sweet Mack, who died suddenly of sepsis on New Year’s Eve 2012, was not there. Mack, hilariously funny, silly, and determined, just two weeks shy of his 9th birthday when he died, is always missed.

It is a real tension, and one that those of us who are bereaved understand. We are keen to celebrate the joys of life with family and friends — we are all allowed to live! But I have grown another eye that senses another space and time. It is with Mack, in the eternal.

As I prepared the flowers and the buffet table, filled the pitcher with ice cubes, I could sense Mack’s presence. He loved when we entertained. I recalled a sentiment written by Martha Whitmore Hickman, who lost her daughter to sudden death in a horseback riding accident. “Keep your spirit open” to your beloved, she wrote. Whitman’s book, Healing After Loss, is a daily meditational book that I carry in my purse. The cover has ripped off, the pages are dirty, tear-stained, and full of notes, but I come back to it for a little courage everyday, throughout the day.

I felt Mack’s joy and smiled through my tears remembering how he skipped around the house, complained about having to dress up, filled up bowls of Fritos and munched on the extras, and would huff that lighting candles was still the realm of his big sister. I laughed out loud at one point remembering when he told me guests would be “personally offended” if I served them stuffed grape leaves for appetizers. “I miss you,” I whispered out loud to him. “I love you, Mackie.”

Once the last guest left, I was exhausted and had to rest on my bed. My daughter curled up next to me reading funny stories from Buzzfeed. I chuckled to encourage her to read more, but I really just like the sound of her voice.

As Facebook posts fill up again with photos of the first day of the new school year, it is easy for each post to be a poignant reminder that there are no new photos of Mack. Every milestone is an opportunity for self-pity. After I have shed some tears, I have to take the emotional reins back, log off from Facebook for a few days, and center myself again.

I come to my desk every morning with a cup of coffee and spend time in prayer, I read, and I think of Mack. I picture his face, I remember a moment, I laugh, I cry. Then, I ask God to help me choose gratitude for his beautiful self, his beautiful life, for life with my daughter and husband, and for this day. And tomorrow, I will be back here at my desk and I will need to choose gratitude again.

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Elizabeth Brady

Elizabeth's son Mack died suddenly on New Year's Eve 2012. Elizabeth teaches at Penn State and her essays on learning to live with loss can also be read on The Compassionate Friends (TCF), Modern Loss, MackBrady.com. She has participated on the panel "A Flower Picked Too Soon" at several national TCF conferences. Elizabeth served on the content advisory board for the Public Television documentary "Speaking Grief" that seeks to help us all get better at grief. (speakinggrief.org)

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