On Love, Death, And Empathy

My sister died on June 10th, when she was 11, and I was 9.

About her death, someone who was once close to me said: “Sometimes I think you just want to suffer”. I suppose this was because sometimes, so many years after her death, the grief can still grab me from below and pull me down to its murky bottom. Even in moments of joy and celebration, I will be caught off guard when I remember that she’s not here to share with me. When you’ve never lost someone that close to you, you don’t understand – he didn’t understand – that time can only lessen the immediate feelings of shock and disbelief (although they never really go away, either). Grief stays in the body, ready to creep out at inopportune times.

Like the first time I went to Disneyland. Watching the character parade, I was overwhelmed by the realization that she had never seen it. So, there I was, in the happiest place on earth, surrounded by friends and the joy of so many others, crying. I called my other sister and told her. And, as we talked, a man walked by, pushing a stroller. He looked at me with kindness and silently handed me a fistful of napkins. I said thank you. Sometimes I wish I had hugged him.

It wasn’t as if I wasn’t happy to be at the happiest place on earth. It wasn’t as if I didn’t love Disneyland, getting my ears pierced, my first period, losing my virginity, my first glass of real champagne, Bali, the birth of my younger brother (who never met her) and my friend’s children, The Grand Canyon, falling in love in the times I have been fortunate to do so, achieving my goals and all of the other moments in my life that have brought me great joy. I just wanted her to be there. Or to tell her about it. When I hung my first gallery showing of paintings, I was happy. And I was proud. And I cried. No surprise.

I do suffer.

And I have no shame in admitting it. It has been decades of not sharing with my sister. Of not laughing with her or even fighting with her. It isn’t the same to conjure her in my mind and heart – I miss her actual, physical person. I miss the person who teased me about wetting the bed from the top bunk. I miss the person who danced with my other sister and I around and around the living room. I miss the person who once sneezed into her cereal when she had a cold and blew snot into her bowl. I miss the person who walked with me to school and played outside with me on summer nights and made me laugh. And now I have to stop listing things because I will get lost in the remembering and my day will become too hard.

I have been told by many people that I have a ‘guardian angel’. That she is watching over me. I’ve been told that she ‘chose to leave this plane because she wasn’t happy’ and that ‘she chose to go to the other side’ so she could guide me through all the things I need to do. And I know it is all said to comfort but how does anyone know? And, although I am not one to criticize the beliefs of others, when people talk about ‘manifestation’ and how we create our experience, I want to punch them in the face for suggesting that my eleven-year-old sister ‘created the experience’ that caused her death.

It was a freak accident. She was a child on her bike, seven weeks from her twelfth birthday, on just another school day. When I found her after she fell and hit her head, she handed me her permission slip to give to her teacher for the track meet the following week. By the end of that day she was in a coma caused by a brain injury that she would never wake up from.

I imagine who I think she would be now, what she’d look like and what she’d be doing. I hate that I’ll never know. I hate that all the rights of passage and life experiences I’ve had, she missed. And as you’ve probably already surmised, sometimes I feel guilty; don’t get me wrong or tell me that she wouldn’t want me to feel that way; I know that (and I’ve already been told by a Lakota Sioux elder that she says that I should stop being such a drama queen and if I’m not listening to him, I’m sure as hell not going to listen to you). But the circumstances of her death are such that the child that still lives in me wishes I had done just one thing differently that day so that nothing would have changed.

In my adult life, loss is hard. Separation is hard. Sudden changes and surprises are hard. I’ve discussed all these things in the hours and hours of therapy I’ve done. I feel a lot and my emotions can be overwhelming so I protect myself just that little bit more. Yet I have an almost unending well of empathy. I’m incredibly capable in a crisis. I’m the friend who isn’t afraid of your sadness, your grief, your anger or your physical pain. It doesn’t scare me when you share your turbulent emotions. I won’t shame you if you cry. I will be there for you while you feel even if it is ugly, as long as it is honest.

“Sometimes I think you just want to suffer”.

And I suppose I do; what of my sister do I have left other than a few trinkets, photos, memories and the feelings that surround her passing? Those feelings are all driven by the love I have for her, for the connection we shared. And if it is part of keeping her memory alive, then I will suffer. In some moments I will cry from deep loss. In others I’ll laugh and feel joy of our memories that I know are only accessible to me because I have swung to the other side of the pendulum – I don’t want to live in sadness, of course, so I don’t. I just visit when I need to. The only other option is to close my heart for good. And I could never do that.

The pain of loss, if we admit it, will shape us in the most extraordinary ways. If we sit with it, it will hurt, but we will grow. We will become more understanding of ourselves and others. We’ll be less likely to hurt another person because we are aware of the ways that we would rather not be hurt ourselves. We’ll become acquainted and comfortable with hard truths that would otherwise scare us. Or, at least I think this is what happened for me. And because I know the agony of having to accept that a person I love so deeply will never be near me again, I seek out love, laughter and meaning and reject carelessness and fear. Of course I’m not perfect. But life is too fucking short to deny the truth of what is inside of you.

I don’t live my life anticipating the death of those I love or myself. But I know they will, I will, one day, die. So I love as much as I can, sometimes to my detriment, sometimes until there is more than enough evidence to support the idea that giving love to a certain person may amount to nothing but the act itself. But loving is never a mistake. And there are those people in my life who love me back with the same ferocity I extend to them. For them, I am grateful.

As to him, he’s no longer in my life. I know he didn’t mean to be cruel. He just didn’t understand. So, I’ll ask you to do what he didn’t: try. If you are fortunate enough to have never lost someone close to you, try and understand the impact of death on those who have experienced it. Yes, it is uncomfortable. But rather than pretend the discomfort away, or judge it, talk about it. Ask questions, bring it out into the open, don’t be afraid. Death is an undeniable part of life. We live in a culture where we hide and pretend about so much – vilifying the negative while glorifying the positive in hopes of ‘attracting’ what we imagine are better things instead of practicing empathy – for ourselves and others.

Sometimes, there is just pain. In some moments, there is nothing that can make it better. But choosing to be with someone right where they are in a moment, even if it hurts, is a brave and powerful gift. I won’t hide my pain because it is true – and because I know that it doesn’t last forever. But I believe honesty is the best policy, no matter how uncomfortable or ugly. Underneath my pain is the love I feel for my sister, who I remember and miss today – and always.

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