1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 – “Brothers and Sisters we do not want you to be uniformed about those who sleep in death, so you will not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”
Since Hunter was a fallen airman, he was transported just as anyone killed in combat. When loading and unloading the plane, we would go down to the tarmac for a ceremony. It involved his family and friends watching as he was transported out of the hurst. The first time they loaded him on the plane, there was no grand flag over the casket or presentation, simply a box that said, “This End Up and Handle With Care.” It felt so inhuman. He was officially cargo, he no longer needed to be up with us, he was already gone. He no longer needed air, warmth, or safety. They loaded him on the plane as an honor guard from base presented the flags. We boarded the plane and flew to the next airport. We had a ceremony to unload him, this time they unboxed the casket. It seemed to honor him better, and I was grateful. This time, the honor guard was a group of tarmac workers. They had served in the military and wanted to present in honor of Hunter. These big burly men were highly respectful and emotional. It was a honor to have them join the ceremony. The USO took Hunter’s body while we had a lay over. Then, it was time to board the plane. This same group of men presented the flags again and the USO had provided a flag to cover the casket. Finally, he looked respected. I was heartbroken to see my brother this way, but honored he was being treated so well.
When we arrived in Washington, we had another large ceremony with honor guard. This time, our whole family was in attendance. I broke down as I rounded the corner and saw them all standing there. It was amazing to have such support, after being in such a small group during our grief in Alabama. I rode to my parents house with my aunt and uncle. Uncle Bruce told me a few things that have stuck with me until this day. He affirmed my grief. He reminded me that even Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus, he was going to raise him from the dead but he still grieved. As well, death comes for all of us eventually. All of the people in the bible that God healed or their life was spared ultimately would die. It made the loss not feel so difficult, knowing that we all eventually experience loss and pain. As well, my Savior knew the pain of grief. He hurt and it was okay for me to hurt too.
The next day was the viewing. The funeral home had done a lot to fix Hunter’s presentation, and he looked more like himself. Most signs of the autopsy were covered. He looked more like himself. It was a honor to experience the viewing. I did not really get emotional that night, except when my best friend from high school came. She had known Hunter so well, I collapsed in her arms. Besides that, I shook everyone’s hand and smiled when I could. This part was not for me. It was for them. They needed to see, they needed to know what happened. So, they came to support us and we them, as they viewed the remains of their friend, neighbor, and family member.
The following morning, we got to the church early. I wanted one last chance to say goodbye. I was the last one to have time with him alone. I told him how much I loved him, how much I would miss him, how terrible he looked after embalming, and how mad I was to spend the rest of my life without him. I placed one of my rings in his hands. Sending him away without a token to keep with him felt lacking. I felt like part of my soul was being ripped out. It was an out of body experience. During the funeral, I changed my mind about speaking. The rest of my family spoke, but I did not think that I had the strength. In the moment, however, I knew I would regret it if I didn’t stand up there for him one last time.
I had not planned a speech and had no idea what to say. Then, it came to me. My brother had a difficult childhood. He had grown up with ADHD, he was sensitive, and he was caring. That made it hard for him to identify with my father and with myself. We are strong, independent, minimally emotional, and driven. I was always brought up to think it was the best way to be. That type of personality made for highly successful people. My brother had taken a different path. He was not afraid to make mistakes, and he did. He partied, drank, smoked, smoked weed, lost jobs, became addicted to video games, and failed out of college three times. In the end, however, he was highly successful and made us so proud. He was a great husband and father, he was highly skilled and successful in his job, he was willing to sacrifice his life for his country, and he was a great friend. He had reached the peak of his existence. If my dad and I were black and white, my brother was a rainbow. My father spent a lot of time trying to blot out the color from his life, to give him the straight-laced successful life. He believed that is what was best for his child. In the end, Hunter taught us. He taught us that color is beautiful. Color can lead to success and that path can still be good. Life doesn’t only have one destination. It is full of twists and turns and curves, and all of them can lead to the good life. We should have been there for him more, been less judgmental, trusted the Lord to turn him into the man he needed to be. So, from now I, I resolve to add more color to my life. I will add more color to my children’s lives. We ended up learning something from him and we couldn’t have been more proud (for goodness sakes, a general even flew in to speak at his funeral).
We went to the graveside and another honor guard was present. These individuals come for free and dedicate their time. They carried flags, did a twenty one gun salute, played taps, and gave flags to the family members. I stayed with him that day. I sat by his graveside and watched them place him in the ground, clutching his flag to my chest and crying. I refused to move until the very end. I had met Hunter the day he was born and I wanted to be there the day he went into the ground. It took awhile, but I finally felt ready to leave when they sealed the casket. We continued on to the church to have a meal and visit. By the end of the day, we were worn out and empty. We thought we were grieving, processing it all. However, looking back, we were all in shock. We were going through the motions. The grief and trauma would come weeks and months later, as the dust settled and the hole in our hearts threatened to swallow like an abyss.