Motherhood + Life

Belief, Grief & The Polar Express

Motherhood + Life

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I'm Emily — a resourceful mom but, if I'm being honest, a terrible prepper. It wasn't until I realized that...

Meet Emily

Last night my kids and I watched one of our favorite Christmas movies, The Polar Express. 

We love reading the book throughout the season and find it especially cool that it takes place in our town of Grand Rapids. 

The kids always forget this detail and then squeal with surprise when they hear the elf say they’re heading to “Grand Rapids Michigan!” in the movie. 

I get to brag about how I once interviewed the author Chris Van Allsburg. Cool mom points when your kids are book lovers. 

My daughter Jane is especially impressed: Mom, did you know his book won the Caldecott?!

Like every year when watching it, I was transported back in time to when it came out in theaters. 

It was 2004. I was 20-years-old and I took my nephew to see it in 3D at the Henry Ford IMAX.

I remember it so well because it was the one-year anniversary that my big brother John had unexpectedly died. 

I sat in the crowded theater (remember those days?) and experienced the complete sensory-overload of bright lights, loud music, and 3D train scenes that felt like you were on a shaky roller coaster- not too different from the emotional roller coaster I had been on that year. 

Grief still had its fierce grip on my heart.

And then there was the underlying guilt, that uninvited friend that would stick with me for many years to come, showing up whenever I caught myself experiencing something new or creating a happy memory that he could never be a part of. 

I wrote through that grief in a journal back then. I threw it away about a decade ago. 

I share this disposable, therapeutic form of writing in my friend Terri DeBoer’s journal companion for Brighter Skies Ahead that recently came out – stay tuned to my podcast where we’ll be talking about that soon.

I still remember a couple key thoughts I used to believe and wrote about:

  • How I felt my life would never be the same. This, in the obvious sense, has proven true.
  • And, that I felt my happiest days were behind me. This one would turn out not to be true.

When you lose a parent, a sibling, or someone so close, it feels like a part of yourself dies with them. In a way, this may be true. 

But I believe, eventually, we gain something, too – more on that in a bit.

Being “Johnny’s little sister”  was as much of my identity as being just Emily.

He was there from my very first days- the proof of which I still have in the newspaper article from when I was born and he hid from my grandma while my parents were at the hospital. 

The police and entire neighborhood set out to search for him- can’t even imagine what my mom was thinking, in labor and realizing her 5-year-old disappeared and the whole town was on the hunt for him!

But he was discovered an hour or so later, happily hiding in a bush right outside our home- I know, apparently we didn’t have the most observant neighbors… 

A dramatic start to our siblingship but he grew to be fond of the little sister even if she did drive him crazy for most of his childhood.

So, as I sat there last night watching an animated Tom Hanks take a train full of children to the North Pole, and I battled two sets of buttery little hands for my share of the popcorn, I did that quick mental math like I do every year: 

The movie came out in 2004. 

It’s 2021.

Was it really 17 years ago I sat in that crowded theater with all the virtual train tickets and snowflakes jumping out at me? (I’m especially bad at math so I grab my phone and open the calculator app to double check my work).

18 years.

Every year I calculate the passage of time without him, and yet, it still surprises me.

Not surprising like, “I really can’t believe another year has passed.” 

But surprising like when you blow out your birthday candles and you momentarily forget how old you really are- wait, but didn’t I turn 35 last year? Or was it 36?! But come on now… I still feel 27!

Time. That sneaky thief.

The theme of The Polar Express hits me more with each passing year-  the longing to keep the spirit of belief alive, despite the increasing factors that cast doubt- the naysayers, the lack of proof, and simply growing old. 

I’m not just talking about Santa Claus, in case you’ve started to doze off. 

I find Biblical symbolism in so many places now that I’m actually reading the Bible (I know, funny how that works).  

It’s so fun- like discovering little surprises that have been right in front of you all along but you just weren’t on the right wavelength to notice before. The Internet is ripe with these interpretations if you want a fun rabbit hole: Polar Express + Biblical symbolism. Enjoy.

As Santa gave out the first gift of Christmas, I looked over at my two daughters, watching in wonder like my nephew did all those years ago in the theater. 

And I checked the monitor where my newest one was sleeping soundly, sucking her thumb, a sweet habit she shares with her Uncle John. Eh, the braces will be worth it, I decide.

And I felt a sense of peace and gratitude. 

No, my happiest years had not been behind me. 

Even though losing my brother was one of the most painful things I’ve experienced, I have been blessed with 18 wonderful years since –  and I believe they’ve been made all the more precious because he continues to protect and guide me like only a big brother can.

Sometimes I dig really deep and try to make sense of why certain things have happened in my life and what it must all mean. I’ve yet to figure this method out- let me know if you have any pointers.

But other times when I least expect it, like when snuggled on the couch passing around a popcorn bowl, I get the reminder:

We don’t always need answers. 

Or proof. 

Or ringing bells.

Sometimes, all we need is belief. 


At one time most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them…. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believe.  — The Polar Express


If you are missing someone this season, whether it has been one year or 18, I wish you comfort & peace. 

Make some popcorn and enjoy a movie that special someone would have loved- it really can soothe a tender heart!

I hope you and your family have a Merry Christmas.