In August, my younger sister Lucy died. She was only 32 years old and the light of our lives. We knew it was coming, not quite as quickly as it did, but she had advanced cancer, so her days were numbered. As soon as the cancer reached her brain, it was game over.
There is nothing that could ever have prepared me for the past weeks since she died, and while this isn’t the first time someone has written about grief, and it certainly won’t be the last, it is my experience first-hand, and it’s very different to what I had expected.
Jenni Russell: Shorn of the rituals of old, death maroons us in grief
Grief, as we all have heard, comes in waves. That’s a lie. These aren’t waves; these are gargantuan freight trains that ram into your very soul, from nowhere. They come as you stand in the fruit aisle of the supermarket, looking around you, wondering how the hell anyone can manage to get on with life when this terrible thing has happened and suddenly, from out of nowhere that train comes hurtling at you. It feels as if someone has sucked out everything you have – your guts, your heart, your oxygen, your whole being. Of course the Brit in you remains still and stoic as the train does its thing before pulling away, and you continue filling your trolley with Granny Smiths. But it’s there, and you never know when it will run into you next. You live in fear of that.
For a little while I didn’t speak to any friends on the phone, for fear of breaking down. I only spoke to my parents, my husband and to my three-year-old. Job number one was to explain to her that her beloved aunt was dead. No easy feat. I can barely remember it. I came up with a nonsensical story of her now being an angel, and a star in the sky and that whenever the sky was pink in the morning, it meant she was saying hello. Now, whenever the sky is pink, my daughter shrieks up to the sky excitedly. My husband feels uncomfortable with it; I don’t ever know what to feel. But it was all I had at the time. It’s probably confused her more than I’d like to admit.
After Lucy was told she had cancer, it was the last time she and I ever looked at each other in the eye. We avoided that. I know she felt the same. We knew that if we ever locked our gaze, that the tears would never stop. So it was better that way. Now I regret that, I regret not grabbing her and looking at her, deep into her soul, and telling her how much I admired her bravery. How she was a warrior, a trouper, an inspiration, and a truly beautiful human being and of course, how much love I had for her, but I didn’t, and I hate myself for that. I know she knew, but did she actually know?
My sister’s two greatest fears when she was ill were 1) being forgotten; 2) leaving behind any sadness. The first is just silly. The second not so silly. I was never one who feared death, really. I mean, I knew it would come, I just assumed it would be when I was an old lady, and I was fine with that. Now, I have a fear, in fact utter terror, not so much of death, but for what happens after death to the people who remain. The life change that happens to those people the minute they find out that their loved one is going to die. This experience for her was, I think, the worst of all of it. Her worry for her beloved fiancé, bereft at losing the only girl he ever loved, the heartbreak of our lovely parents, the confusion of her niece who thought she had “pancer”, and her seeing the sheer devastation of her friends of 25 years who just couldn’t believe that their best mate would no longer be around. She never wanted us to be sad. But we are – so, so utterly filled with sadness.
Actually, I can get through the days. My biggest amazement and awe in all of this is the wonder of the human brain. The kindness of it, that it allows you a few hours, sometimes three or four hours in a day or night, where you are all right. Where you laugh, smile, make a meal, play with your kid … you just are allowed to be OK sometimes and I thank the brain for that. Allowing us a little slice of time-out from the horror that surrounds us.
Good grief: the psychology of mourning | Dean Burnett
What haunts me, more than anything, more even, than her not being here any more, is the thought of the fear she faced alone. From 3 March 2015 until the day she died, she faced the worst thing any person could ever face. She looked death in the eye and it never let up. It was relentlessly wheedling its way into her life and she dealt with that with absolute poise and composure. How she managed to control that fear is truly beyond me. My guilt that my sister, who I was supposed to protect my whole life, would be lying there at night, while the world slept, knowing her drugs weren’t working and this cancer was killing her. That destroys me. And when I see my mother sobbing like a wounded animal at her grave every Tuesday lunchtime, I know it destroys her too.
The secret stories that only we shared just evaporate, because they are too old or too weird to try to explain to anyone else. Every year we wrote the exact same thing in each other’s birthday cards, and howled with laughter each time we opened them, knowing full well what it would say, but there isn’t any card to write now, so that joke just disappears forever.
Sometimes I feel anger towards my loving and sensitive three-year-old, when she carelessly throws something that was a gift from my sister on the floor. I shout and she gets frightened and doesn’t understand. When she does that, I find myself preferring my sister to my own child, and then I hate myself. I have a paralysing fear of losing things such as the screw top of a cheap plastic bottle that she bought my daughter at Disneyland in July, in case the bottle is no longer whole. The guarding of every solitary thing she ever gave us as gifts over the years, like a lioness with her cubs, and the blind panic and rage when one of those things is temporarily lost among the chaos of living with a three-year-old.
So it’s hard. No doubt it is life-changing. And what next? Well, we’ve been dreading December, of course. The month we share for our birthdays, Christmas, the time of happiness and love and family and light. And yet for us there is none of that without her. We will pretend, though. We have become good at that. But we all have an underlying anxiety that while we slowly move toward 2016, desperate to see the back of the year that brought us so much sadness, we also fear entering a year not touched by her, moving further and further away from the last time we were a family, all present and correct.
We will survive, though. Unlike her, we will survive. But we will for ever live with a shade of darkness over us. A grey filter over our world for ever.
My Dad died from lung cancer when I was 13 years old. That’s my “tag line” when people ask me about him. It sums up all the information they need. But for me, it carries a greater reality I felt when he died – that I will never be the same.
I will never be the same . . . as I was before. In some ways, I see life as a puzzle – every experience you have forms a piece of your unique puzzle. When combined, they form the entire picture of your life. My Dad took a piece of my puzzle with him, a piece that will never return. I am incomplete without it, without him. We shared memories that nobody else shares, which means he knew me differently than anyone else. When someone you love dies, that part of you dies as well. You can’t re-live that memory with anyone else. Your puzzle may grow, but you can never replace that missing piece. And because of that, I will never be the same again.
My view of the world also changed. Before Dad died, I was young, innocent, and naive. I saw God’s beauty in the smallest things – plants starting to bud, cocooning butterflies, the exact color blue of the sky. When I found a four-leaf clover, Dad laminated it for me to preserve that small wonder. When I had questions, Dad would answer them. He always had the answers. The world had infinite joys to discover and I had endless curiosity. Life seemed to go on forever and I never thought about death.
After the funeral, that all changed. I lost my parent, my hero, and my teacher. I thought a lot about death and dying. I still had plenty of questions, but nobody to answer them. And they certainly weren’t fun questions.
So I learned things on my own – great big things that I couldn’t have understood any other way. I learned the importance of telling people that you love them. Don’t ever let them wonder how you feel. Of all the things I regret, missing the chance to say “I love you” will never be one of them. I also learned to never pass up an opportunity to give or receive a genuine hug. When Dad was dying, I was terrified. I didn’t know how to act, what to say, so I sat in silence. He asked me, “Aren’t you going to give me a hug?” When we hugged, he started to cry. That memory has broken my heart ever since. He never should have had to ask. There are few words and fewer acts that can convey more emotion, more truth than a hug. They are the simplest, most perfect way to ease despair, to share joy, to demonstrate empathy, or to show love. Anyone who knows me knows that my hugs are free and frequent.
I will never be the same . . . as someone who hasn’t lost a parent. One of the hardest things about losing a parent is feeling that nobody understands. Even worse is feeling different and seeing those differences every day. When your friend shows you a car his dad bought for him, or you see how happy her dad looks to walk her down the aisle, or when they complain about something their dad did . . . you know you’re not the same. Your “memory playlist” is shorter. You can’t add more memories and you can’t relate to your friends with longer playlists. It hurts, it’s lonely, and there are some days you’d do almost anything to be the same . . . as you were, as they are.
But sometimes being different can be a good thing. At first with bitterness, now with acceptance, I realized that there is no promise of tomorrow. You are given such a small time, and you never know when your time will run out. Many people don’t truly appreciate this. How can they if they’ve never had to think about death? So treasure your life, make it worthwhile. Spend your life doing things that make you happy because you may not have the chance later. My life has been fuller, more beautiful, and more fun because I take chances that come to me. If my dad hadn’t died, would I always have played it safe? Would I have jumped out of that airplane? Would I have swum with dolphins or learned to scuba dive? Would I have hiked that mountain? Something tells me maybe not.
Because of my dad’s death, I will never be the same. I traded innocence and “fitting in” for understanding and appreciation. I lost my dad but gained something in return. Would I give up everything I’ve learned if I could have my dad back? I don’t have that option. The only option I have is to make those changes as valuable as possible. If Dad can see me, I want him to know that he’s still teaching me and still answering my questions.