It’s been a little over six months since my sister died and another reality surfaces as a question in my mind: How do you ever accept and live with a truth so utterly devastating, and knowing it will last forever?
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books, and movies, with Gregory Peck’s commanding delivery of the lead role, and scenes from the old South that remind me of simpler times gone by from my own childhood. The movie is memorable for lots of reasons and many lines of script have become household quotes.
What I’m remembering most vividly now is the scene where Atticus Finch lectures his small daughter Scout on having empathy for others, and in every way possible from that person’s perspective.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
To the extent of understanding grief from the outside looking in I’ve always thought of and been told that I was a compassionate and empathetic person. I have always made it my goal to try to be in the other person’s skin. In fact, I took on a hospital ministry for several years as a result of some ability I have to commiserate and listen. I’ve closely witnessed the passing of more than a few people, even some who were personally close to me.
But, until my sister died this past September I never realized how far outside of the skin of the bereaved I really was. Keep in mind, as part of formal training for hospital ministry and through more than a few courses in college I had “studied” death aplenty. I know all about the physical stages of dying and the five so-called stages of grief developed primarily through the work of Elizabeth Kubler Ross.
Bringing to bear all my experience and education proved of some value to me as our family of women walked with my sister through that last year of her terminal diagnosis and then finally her last days on earth.
But, no matter how much you might prepare loss is never real until it happens.
Out of respect for the great impact of death on the living, the blessing of love we can feel for someone, and in a half-measure attempt to share the experience from the inside out let me acknowledge openly on behalf of anyone who has suffered loss how bad it can actually feel. I don’t want to pull any punches or pay homage to some stoic charade.
Of course, every experience is unique to each person even when commonalities exist. What it’s like to become a parent, for example, takes on a different experience with each child, and whether it’s a boy or girl, and then how differently parenthood can feel from the Mom’s perspective and then the Dad’s perspective. So it is with loss.
What can be common to any loss is that the reality of a loved one being forever gone can be the most excruciating experience of the human condition, bar none.
In the semi-darkness of her hospice room the reality that my sister has died fills the space and is thickly present. There is a sense of both hollow and full, something vacuous and at the same time complete, proving the existence of the soul by its poignant absence. And oh what a beautiful soul she is, and for that the silence is amazingly deep.
In the case of my sisters and this one we have lost we communicated almost daily, and then sometimes several times a day. We shared each other’s secrets. We prayed together, had serious talks, laughed a lot, encouraged each other, counted on each other being there.
And because we were siblings, companions from birth, there were never secrets of unknown pasts that came between us or much shame that hadn’t been shared. There was no need to be anything we weren’t. A shared history existed that did not have to be spoken and so often a sentence ended with “well, you know what I mean.” Knowing almost all there is to know about each other and loving each other in spite of and because of it all, is there anything more wondrous and rare?!
And now … one sister’s email address is still there in my contacts, but there’s no message. Her cell phone number is still in my phone, but there are no calls. The online project we were working on is still there, unmoved, unadvanced. That item of news I was going to share, and the things we would talk about today are left hanging in the air. Her dry, comedic one-liners, her amazing intelligence, all those things that made her who she was are gone, really and truly gone.
In some schizophrenic mind warp I think it can’t really be at the same time knowing it is.
There are times when the truth has to be sifted so as to fall slowly, only one drop at a time or I will drown. There is a stark reality that I have to box away for now just to survive because if I stare into the sheer, utter emptiness it’s overwhelming.
I have often heard people say that a part of them died with the loved one, and I’m not sure I ever knew what that meant. It sounds dramatic and too fragile to think our existence is dependent on another, but in fact part of who we are is defined by our relationships with others.
I think of it now in terms of how sunlight reflects off a shiny object. Neither the material properties of the sun or the object are altered by the interaction, but the relationship itself adds new dimension to both. Because the sun no longer reflects off the shiny object I am no longer who I am as reflected in my sister’s life and I can never be that person in that particular way again.
The well-meaning words of comfort I have spoken and received can seem almost patronizing. And even as I nod and accept sympathies my emotions are fighting back: She’s in a better place; versus I want her back so badly. Or, she wouldn’t want you to grieve; versus I can’t cry hard enough for the sorrow I feel. Or, at least she is no longer suffering; versus I want her here and not suffering! “Life goes on”, without the add-on of it will never be the same.
And now I know how isolating loss can be. Those who have not yet earned this stripe can’t know of sleepless nights or sleeping all day, damaged memory skills, anger, and the loss of focus that becomes a struggle. I have found myself afraid of morning and the new day of sadness it might bring.
Then there is the grief around me; in my case my other surviving sisters. It helps that we shared so much with each other and with our sister who has died. At least we have each other to relate to in that we all feel the same way – devastated, missing her so completely.
We were and are a circle of sisters, each one bringing something that completed the other. Now those of us remaining have to reinvent that relationship all the while trying not to look too closely at the empty chair. We lurch forward haltingly, mostly bringing her with us for now in a lot of what we talk about and do. By all appearances we are doing well, in fact we’ve always been overachievers. But, I don’t think we’ll ever let her go.
And our mother: Having lived to the age of 85 she was content and confident in knowing that the natural order of things were in her favor, that she would die before her children. She was wrong. And in a hard twist of fate it was her youngest that she lost, the baby. Her grief is wordless, and although her health has been fairly good all these years you now see a fire going out in her like a match slowly, soundlessly burns down.
Even as the occasional smile and laughter slowly returns, it still takes so little to rouse the ache. In reality I am at times this two-faced person, one that sits through a meeting and participates with full intelligence while toying with a piece of her jewelry I’m wearing.
These are but a few facets of loss, the ones that are describable but with as many angles as a prism. I know that others have felt these things too – riding the waves of emotion, as if you’re looking through a kaleidoscope at all the changing colors and impossible images, unable to predict what will be next.
It is completely appropriate and even respectful to grieve having experienced the ultimate in life – love and death; the most wondrous, awe-filled and awful there is to know. I honor and acknowledge the magnitude of what has happened. I’ll try not to be afraid of how powerful it feels.
Going forward there are many corners to turn as the hole her parting has left slowly heals into a scar. I haven’t talked yet or felt much of the healing and the magnificent experience of having known her, although there is much to say on both subjects. But for now, I wanted to unabashedly claim the sorrow for myself and my remaining sisters, and for everyone else who has known this passion.
My sister was worth every tear.