I have a confession: before Christmas when I was writing my 2017 holiday gift guide, I was secretly screaming inside wanting to write something else entirely. Wanting to write about what happened to me and my family this year, why I went radio silent right after my course launch in May, what I’ve learned and how I’ve adapted to my new normal. I have a lot to say, but any time I tried to write about it here, I felt like I was choking on my own grief and abandoned the effort. But now there are only two days left in the year, and I need to talk.
As I was writing the 2017 guide, I kept going back to the post I’d written a year earlier on the same topic – gift-giving around the holidays – and how my youngest brother, Thomas, “won” Christmas because he was the best at our $5 gift game. I loved sharing those family moments on the blog, and will continue to do so. I also know Thomas was proud to be featured as the winner of Christmas. He was actually sitting with me in my new house as I wrote it, and we were gearing up for Christmas 2016, which I was hosting for the first time ever.
I had no way of knowing that Christmas 2016 was going to be the last one with him here.
On May 16, 2017, I woke up celebrating my wedding anniversary. Thomas and I messaged a bit on Facebook, I posted an anniversary message on social media, and I started making a replica of our wedding cake to share with family later. A friend cancelled lunch plans at the last minute, so I went out to read on the deck for a bit. It was a beautiful day. I came back into the house to dozens of missed calls and messages from Thomas’s housemate. Thomas had collapsed. He was being taken to the hospital. No one could tell me what had happened.
The police wanted to talk to me. Why were the police there? Why did the police want to talk to me?
Did Thomas use drugs?
Did Thomas binge drink?
Are you sure? It will help us to know if he does.
Yes, I’m sure. What is happening???
Because really if he does, we need to know. He’s not in trouble. So are you sure?
OF COURSE I’M SURE, I HANG OUT WITH HIM EVERY DAY. I KNOW HIM BETTER THAN ANYONE.
I answered all of the detective’s questions as I drove to the hospital. Now I’m irritated. Irritated that they wouldn’t just confirm that he was going to be okay.
He’s going to be okay though, right? He’s 25. He’s healthy. He eats salad sometimes. He doesn’t drink soda. He exercises. He hardly ever drinks alcohol. If he does, it’s because he’s with me. He’s never used drugs. Yes, again, I’m sure.
He was in rough shape when we found him. You just need to come to the hospital.
By now, I’m furious. I’m hitting every red light as I frantically drive to the hospital. I called my mom and left a voicemail in complete hysterics, which I now regret, because she still has it saved on her phone. It’s like this horrible audio snapshot of the worst day of our lives. I called my dad and he greeted me with “Hey, happy anniversary!” and I just started screaming. There was no time for my anniversary. I told dad everything I knew, which was virtually nothing, and dad said he was heading to the airport “just in case”. Just in case of what? My mind was racing. I started to pray for God to take care of Thomas and before I could even ask Him to also guide the doctors and nurses who were helping Thomas, I heard “I am, and he’s with me” in my head. I continued to scream. That’s not what I meant, that’s not what I meant. Thomas, I’m on my way – please stay there. Please.
I remember begging the whole way to the hospital for Thomas to please stay but by the time I arrived, I knew he was gone. They took me to that tiny room they deliver bad news in so you can scream. I did scream at the doctor. There has to be something else you can do. This makes no sense. I explained all the ways this didn’t make sense – everything I had told the detective – he was healthy, he was young, there has to be something else you can do. Can we just stop talking and go back in and try to do something else? There has to be something else. You have to be able to bring him back. What the fuck HAPPENED.
I sat with Thomas for hours in the hospital until the rest of my family arrived. I held his hand. I kept bartering relentlessly with God to bring him back. I’d do whatever He wanted. Just bring him back. The detective I spoke with on the phone stayed with me, and made calls for me in the hallway so I wouldn’t have to leave Thomas. Eventually, they did make us leave.
228 days have gone by now. We still don’t know what happened. At first they thought Thomas’s minor bicuspid valve had somehow triggered an arrhythmia that stopped his heart. After the autopsy, the cardiologist and the coroner found no sign of that having been the case. If it wasn’t an arrhythmia and it wasn’t a heart attack, they said, maybe he had an undetected virus that hit his heart and stopped it. We’ll never know. It’s like his soul just realized it was time to leave, and it left. I believe he passed away on my wedding anniversary because if it had been any other day he would have already been at my house. We both worked from home, so we’d hang out together pretty much every day. We had our own language, and were often mistaken for twins. If he had been there, I would have watched it happen, unable to do anything to help. While I can’t really fathom something worse than what I’m experiencing, I do know that it would have been even worse somehow to watch his life end, knowing I couldn’t do anything to stop it.
As it was, Thomas was sitting comfortably at home working on a new novel for release, Iron Tamer, which was published in its unfinished form in a boxset called Dominion Rising in August. They said it was like he just fell asleep and that he did not suffer. He was doing what he loved, not just in general – he was literally typing a manuscript on his open computer at the moment of his passing. Thomas is a New York Times, USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestselling author, with 12 books published and another 5 manuscripts near completion that we believe we’ll be able to publish in time, once we put the pieces together. Many are available on Kindle, and we’re working on getting them all posted on Amazon in both e-reader and paperback forms.
We’ve established the Thomas J. Shutt Memorial Foundation, which is a registered 501(c)(3) public charity to support authors early in their careers through scholarships, grants, and other forms of support for their creative work. I’m grateful for my background in business and personal finance as I’m now in a position to be able to guide this organization to grow financially through fundraising events and donations, to continue to support writers like Thomas who are just getting started. We’re awarding our first scholarship at our high school in May, and will keep growing from there.
In our time of indescribable grief, Thomas’s international network of independent authors he considered friends, rallied together with a GoFundMe to cover expenses for his memorial service. By the time we found out about it, they had already raised over $1,000, and ultimately raised over $5,000. To say I don’t know how to thank them is an understatement. We had so many people reach out to us from all over the world to share how Thomas had impacted their lives in some way. I’m amazed, but not surprised.
I learned more than I ever hoped I’d need to about the financial burden and bureaucracy that accompanies unexpected death. Something I will write about another time, that will hopefully help others if they ever find themselves in the same position. I hope no one ever needs to read it, but I know that’s not realistic to hope for.
In my bereavement group meetings, we talked about the idea of resilience as the main determining factor in how quickly you adapt to grief. You don’t move on from it – anyone who has experienced profound loss can confirm that there is no “moving on” or “getting over” it (stay tuned though for a future post on “dumb shit people have said to me about Thomas this year”). Resilience is defined as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness. I don’t know that I agree with “recover” but I’d say “adapt”. I’ve apparently adapted relatively quickly to a life that will never be as good as it could have been with my brother in it. That’s the sad knowing that I carry every day. I also don’t know that I agree with “toughness” – I might seem “tough” because I get up and function every day, but I wasn’t given a choice. If you get punched in the gut every morning for 228 days straight, are you actually tough even as you’re pleading for it to stop? I think toughness implies that you reach a point where it doesn’t bother you. Maybe that’s not how others think about it though. So the good news is apparently I’m resilient. I would give anything to have not needed to find that out about myself, though.
There have been a number of signs and messages from Thomas since he’s passed, and I believe our souls will be reunited one day. Every few weeks I’ll have a dream where he visits and we get to hang out, which is nice. Most recently I had a dream that I was in my kitchen making macarons for Christmas gift boxes, and felt so sad that I was alone when Thomas should have been there hanging out with me. Sad, and also angry that he died. In that moment in the dream I heard him say “I’m right here” behind me in the kitchen, and he asked me to make sure to tell our other brother John that he was there even when we can’t see him. Then I woke up. There are some dreams where it’s a very brief “check-in” like that, and other times where the whole night is a long dream of us hanging out the way we used to.
I know this doesn’t seem to have anything to do with my financial coaching work, but it’s an important part of who I am. It does relate in one really important way, though. When I was newly trained as a coach and needed practicum hours to work towards my certification with the ICF, I did pro-bono and trade sessions with friends and family. One session was with Thomas, who wanted to be a full-time writer, editor and designer, but was concerned about leaving his desk job that he hated, because the steady paycheck was nice (sound familiar, anyone?). In our coaching sessions I helped him put together a plan for what he’d need to do in his own business to earn enough revenue to feel comfortable leaving his job, and also helped him create a budget for his personal life and expenses. On Halloween 2016 he was at my house to help hand out candy, and was just at that precipice of deciding whether to work for himself full-time. He asked what I thought he should do, and I remember telling him
Look, it’s going to be hard either way. Working for yourself is hard, and working in a fluorescent-lit cubicle for someone else is hard. So you might as well do the hard thing that you love.
He gave notice at his desk job the next day, and went right to work on his own business. He was free, and happy. He was doing what he loved. To have published as many books as he did and hit all these bestseller lists before he was even 25 years old is mind-blowing to me, and a testament to the power of a strong financial and business plan, a good attitude and a strong work ethic. I was and am so proud of my baby brother. I desperately wish he was here, and yet I know no amount of time would have been enough.
As we head into 2018, my hope for each of you is that you do what you love, even if it’s scary. Even if it’s hard. I believe the greatest blessing is doing what we’re meant to do here on earth, whatever that is. It’s different for everyone, but equally important for everyone as well.
If you’re interested in contributing in any way to the Thomas J. Shutt Memorial Foundation, you can do so by sending tax-deductible donations to:
Thomas J. Shutt Memorial Foundation
c/o Emily Shutt
P.O. Box 208
Glenmoore, PA 19343
I appreciate each of you, and I wish you peace and prosperity in the new year.
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