Since my sister’s unexpected death three months ago, I have heard — and been reminded of — three specific phrases:
“You’ve got this.”
“Don’t let yourself overthink.”
I’ve also asked myself if I’ll ever write about “happy” things again, especially all the happy memories I shared with my sister. I know that the answer is unquestionably YES. What I’m doing right now is learning to move through grief. So please, don’t sweat it if my posts don’t do it for you these days. I’m really writing them to understand myself.
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When I first learned the news, I was in complete shock. Nothing made any sense whatsoever.
She was 47 years old.
She had two beautiful boys.
She knew me more than anyone else on this earth.
And then, suddenly, she was gone.
For those first two months after she died, I existed in a state of suspended reality.
I could barely work, I could barely eat, and all I wanted to do was to talk to her.
I just wanted my sister alive.
I’ve often heard others speak of the yearning they feel after having lost a loved one…wanting to call them, just to share some news. I’ve always been amazed by how many bereaved people share that similar phrase, the one that begins with “I just wanted to pick up the phone…”, followed by a wistful silence. I never expected to know that yearning firsthand.
I do now.
What I also hadn’t expected was my need to openly mourn. And only when I did would my grieving process begin.
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Soon after my sister died, I read about the difference between grieving and mourning. Grieving, it turns out, is what we feel inside after a loss, whereas mourning is the physical act of expressing that grief.
Within the first week of learning of her passing, my initial feelings were of total numbness.
Then, I cried.
Then I asked questions.
Then, all I wanted to do was talk about her.
I also fought the urge to curl up in a ball. I kept asking myself, Is this grief? Is this what grief feels like? But instinctively and rationally, I knew this wasn’t grief. I knew I still had to be in shock, and this scared me, because if shock hurt this deeply, what level of pain would grief present? Moreover, would I be strong enough to handle it?
I knew enough to recognize that grief was inevitable. And so, I kept waiting for the storm to hit.
Trying to focus entirely on my sister, I felt guilty when attention or concern focused on my feelings. It doesn’t matter how I’m doing, I’d think. This is not about me.
In the weeks following Beth’s death, my family held a private cremation ceremony near her home in Wisconsin. As I drove from Evanston to the funeral home that day, my body was still on autopilot. Approaching Madison, I pulled off the highway and walked into a Culver’s. It was 9:30 in the morning. I kept my sunglasses on as I asked the young man behind the counter if they had any chili.
It was 9:30 a.m.
I wanted chili.
I have no idea why I wanted chili.
Thankfully, there was a fresh pot available, and I wanted to leap over that counter and hug whoever had made it. I remember looking at that Culver’s guy, thinking, It’s too bad you’ll never get to meet my sister. If she were here, we’d all be chuckling right now about the fact I just ordered chili for breakfast. Then, I shook those thoughts from my mind, wondering if I wasn’t going a little bit crazy.
I also remember fighting the urge to explain things. I wanted to say to the Culver’s guy, “The reason I’m wearing black and asking for chili at 9:30 in the morning is because my sister is dead and she was cremated this morning and I have no appetite and that’s the first thing I read on the menu so please tell me you have it.”
Instead, I just handed him my debit card.
As I sat in a booth and forced myself to eat, I looked at the other customers as they ate their own meals. I thought, This is what everyone always talks about, isn’t it? That unsettled feeling after the loss of a loved one, when everyone else’s life seems to go on as usual. My life felt so unlike theirs in every possible way. They were “normal”. These customers were enjoying a typical weekday. They were eating eggs…and bacon…and potatoes. They drank their coffee. They read their papers. They weren’t on their way to a funeral home. They weren’t talking about things that involved death and cremation and potential dates for memorial services.
I was envious of their perceived “normalcy”…of their everyday, colorful clothes…of their obliviousness to my emotional pain. I wanted to be “normal”. I didn’t want attention drawn to myself, yet I didn’t know what to do with all my anguish. I knew I couldn’t keep holding it all in, yet I didn’t dare release it there. I needed a place to express my pain. I just didn’t have a clue where I could do it. I wanted to scream and I wanted to hide in silence under the table, a combination of conflicted emotions I can only describe as agony.
As I sat in that restaurant, quietly eating, my mother sat across from me, quietly sipping coffee and eating the food I’d also purchased for her. To this day, I can’t recall what it was. Maybe soup? Together, we sat, barely exchanging words.
My mother had lost a daughter. I had lost a sister. Together, we’d lost our beautiful Beth, and with her, we’d lost a part of ourselves.
Of course, no one around us knew any of this. No one could see into our hearts. We were two women, dining in silence. This was all so confounding to me. How could I coexist with these humans who were in such close physical proximity to us and yet feel so alone with all of my feelings? My pain was so deep, so consuming and weighty, and yet here we were, on this sunny morning, five feet from other customers who moved through their normal lives, laughing and joking and yawning and stretching. Nothing about life felt normal anymore. Nothing felt right. Nothing tasted the same or looked the same or seemed the same or was the same. Beth was gone. I just couldn’t accept or believe it.
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