Eulogy for Carissa Lynn Williams, 1978–2015

Good morning. I want to thank all of you for coming today, it means so much to us.

Carissa lived each and every day with an uncommon amount of kindness, warmth, generosity, and selflessness. Carissa was the best part of all of us.

When Carissa was born in 1978, the instructions she was created with were a little bit different. And so, from the moment Carissa arrived, she had an extraordinary ability to empathize with others’ pain, be caring, be unselfish, and to be happy when others were happy and did well. I suspect these attributes are something each of you saw first hand and are likely the reason you are here right now.

Why she was created this way, why she was given this set of instructions is something beyond what science can tell us. All I can tell you is that my sister was born being the perfect expression of the instructions she was created with. And it was with these instructions that she forever changed our lives for the better. In fact, I am positive each and every one of you is thinking right now of some way in which Carissa made your life a little better. I invite all of you to stick around and share these stories with each other. Carissa would have loved that.

Many of you have been sharing these stories with us these past couple days, and that has meant the world to us. And I know many of you have heard a lot about us from Carissa. In fact, just a few days before her passing, my fiancé Julie and I went to visit Carissa in the hospital to give her the news of our recent engagement. Carissa was characteristically excited, of course. But, as we were leaving, I overheard Carissa informing all of the nurses about the news. I realized that it was only a matter of minutes before everyone in the entire hospital knew.

But while I am sure all of you have heard many stories like this from Carissa herself, I want to share a little bit with you today about how she changed our lives as family members.

Even though Carissa brought much joy and happiness to our lives, the extent to which she cared about others and sought meaningful, genuine friendships has many times made her an outlier in this world, something that is never easy. Carissa herself was often painfully aware of how different she was than the others around her. I knew early on what a struggle this was at times. When I was in the 10th grade and Carissa in the 12th, I encountered her near a staircase in the basement of Cedar Falls High School, alone, practicing some sort of karate moves. Most other students walked by and mostly tried to ignore her.

Looking back now, I realize that she was so clearly hoping someone would notice her and be her friend. Instead, though, she noticed me with a couple friends of mine. And, in a moment that has stuck with me as the most painful memory I have, I turn around with my friends and walk away. In the terrible wash of trying to sort my own way through adolescence and the treacherous social waters of high school, in that moment, I simply did not know how to be a friend, a brother.

None of that ever mattered to Carissa, though. To Carissa, I wasn’t just her brother; I was her favorite brother. This was how she always referred to me, and — as you all know — how she always talked of me to all of you when she was telling one of her stories. More so, I was her favorite brother unconditionally. No matter what I did or what I could have done, Carissa loved me and cared about me without any reservations. It was from Carissa that I learned compassion and empathy. But more than that, it was from this moment that I learned what forgiveness truly meant. It is a lesson I will never ever forget.

But the lessons Carissa gave us didn’t stop with me. Watching the bond between Carissa and my younger sister Kelsey has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Many of you have heard about the wedding between Kelsey and her amazing new husband Dale that happened last August. But just in case it wasn’t clear, the amount of excitement and joy that Carissa found in Kelsey’s happiness was nothing short of breathtaking. What probably won’t be surprising to you is how many phone call updates I got from Carissa in the weeks and days before the wedding. And, as the pictures show, Carissa was just absolutely beaming that night. But more than that, Carissa and Kelsey have always stood by each other in the difficult times. In fact, when Carissa needed to go in for a heart surgery recently, Kelsey was right there by her side to keep her company. The incredible amount of poise and grace Kelsey has in times of distress are things I don’t think she could have cultivated without Carissa simply because they have gone through so much together.

And speaking of that poise and grace under fire….I know many of you know my mother. She is, without any doubt in my mind, one of the most extraordinary and talented teachers to ever grace a classroom. Like many of you in this room, she has inspired my own path in education and in teaching. But what has made my mother so great, and what has allowed her to change so many lives, is that her work in special education is driven by a deep understanding and compassion for her students and their families. But these attributes were not things she learned in teacher education classes; these were things she learned from Carissa. I know I am far from the only person to admire and marvel at my mother’s calmness, her patience, her quiet strength; all things she learned while raising Carissa.

I invite all of you to simply imagine this chain of events: Carissa changed my mother’s life in so many ways, and that inspired and influenced my mother to not only go back into teaching after a long hiatus but to go into special needs education. As a teacher, my mother has changed the lives of hundreds of children, many of whom have changed the lives of others much in the way that Carissa has changed all of yours. To my mind, when we put all of this into focus, the reach of Carissa’s inspiration is simply immeasurable.

And this gets me to my father. A few days before Carissa’s passing, I was talking with my father about helping him replace the kitchen faucet at some point…maybe as a surprise birthday gift for my mom (sorry mom, secret is out now). And my father was a little hesitant about this plan. He explained that my mom is skeptical about letting him do any projects because of his tendency to only do the projects 70 or 80%, but not quite get all the way done. And, well, I have to be honest here dad, she might have a point.

But there is one thing you have done that you have wholeheartedly, and without a doubt, done 100%: and that is being a father. There wasn’t a thing my father wouldn’t do for Carissa. In fact, when Carissa couldn’t get ahold of any of the rest of us on our phones, she would always call him knowing that he would literally drop everything to answer the call (and I literally mean drop anything!). As you go out, I urge you to look at the pictures of Carissa and my father; that same warmth and kindness we all saw in Carissa’s eyes are there in his own. But there is something else: pride. This is a father who could not love his daughter more if he tried.

And so, as I hope you can all see, Carissa taught us so much and inspired so much in us. But she didn’t just show us how to live life with greater compassion, kindness, and joy; Carissa taught us how to be a family. And we are forever better for it.

These past few days have been hard; like many of you, I still can’t comprehend what life will be like without Carissa’s presence. A couple days ago Julie and I had to go to the mall to get a few things, and I kept expecting to see Carissa come around the corner with that big winter coat and over-sized winter hat, laughing about something or other, or just saying hello to one of her many friends and keeping them updated on all the news.

In that moment, I lamented that, even though Carissa taught us so much, she never taught us how to say goodbye. She never taught us how to go on without her. And I felt a deep sense of loss; I felt lost.

But then something incredible happened. As people found out about Carissa’s passing, the outpouring of kindness, affection, care, and concern that our family received from all of you has truly touched us in these difficult moments. It was the same sort of kindness, affection, care, and concern that Carissa gave to us all. And so I realized that Carissa never taught us to say goodbye because she never needed to; her spirit lives on in the best parts of all of us. The parts of us that Carissa inspired by showing us what love and friendship truly look like.

While this comforts me greatly, it doesn’t make any of this easier. I know. And so I have a favor to ask of all of us: In the coming hours, the coming days, the weeks, months, the years, keep sharing these stories of Carissa with one another; there are so many. And please, when you see one of us from our family, share these stories with us as well. We will never ever get tired of hearing them. And I mean this! Yet again, Carissa was the best example of this; when was she EVER shy about sharing a story with any of you? So please, even if it’s just a passing memory of Carissa you have the next time you are at Fareway in the laundry detergent aisle, or walking through Hy-Vee, or the next time you are eating at The Olive Garden, drop us a line, send us a text, write us an email, or just stop us the next time you see us in person. It will mean the world to us.

And now, if you’ll allow me, I want to say one final thing to my sister: Carissa, your favorite brother loves you and misses you so much. But this is not a goodbye. You will forever be in my thoughts, and the ways you have shown me to live will forever guide my actions. To say it has been an honor and a privilege to know you doesn’t really do it justice. You have given me so much; you have given us all so much. And so, on behalf of our family, thank you for being our sister; thank you for being our daughter. And from all of us here today, from the deepest parts of our hearts, thank you for being our friend. We will all miss you.

[thank you]