The Beautiful, Complicated Voices of Grief
My 47-year-old sister died two years ago today.
As an administrator of her memorial page on Facebook, I receive at least 1–2 private messages each week from people letting me know how sorry they are about her death — and how deeply she is missed.
The most gut-wrenching of these messages come from people who are only just now learning of her passing.
The writers tend to be people I’ve never met, oftentimes former clients of my sister’s private clinical psychology practice, and it’s always surreal to hear from these unfamiliar voices — bringing my sister back to life, describing her in ways that are both intimate and revelatory.
For instance, last month, as I opened my Facebook app, I heard the familiar “ding” of a private message being delivered. Here’s what I received:
Feeling numb, I nevertheless replied immediately:
As is always the case, my response felt too brief.
As I typed it, the words felt rushed and barely considered. And as has become my “way”, I wrote my response as if on autopilot, wanting the words out of me — forwarded efficiently and immediately. I consider this “process” my survival.
As I wrote, my thoughts were, as usual, consumed by how best to forward a message like this — to my parents, to my surviving sister, to my brother-in-law, my nephews, my children — all without upsetting anyone.
Should I send it in a text?
Is now the right time?
Will the boys read it in the middle of the school day?
Won’t that be upsetting?
Should I wait?
Will everyone find this as jarring as I do?
Does every note need to be forwarded?
It astounds me how much energy I can allow myself to expend, thinking about all of these matters…fretting about how others will cope…hoping not to upset them…wanting to share what is shared with me…wondering where to find the “best practices” in grief.
Of my family members, it seems I am often the one who lives most comfortably and willingly “out in the open”, sharing my feelings publicly, inviting others to hear about my experiences.
I don’t know if my writing life made me this way — or if I’ve chosen the writing life because I am so open. Either way, it’s been tricky business sharing one’s grief publicly when doing so may, in some ways, impact those I love — particularly those far more private than me.
But if I’m honest with myself, I know that using my voice to write about the human condition has never been a conscious choice. It’s been a calling, of sorts, — and one that hasn’t always been easy to manage.
If I had my way, I’d share everything, and so would everyone else.
As simplistic and unrealistic as that sounds, it’s what I have always longed for — a life without fear of saying the wrong thing or sharing too much or wondering endlessly how to do things. And really, this is exactly what I miss most about my sister — the feeling of sharing unconditionally. For 47 years of my life, I never once doubted that we shared everything. I believed we could say anything to each other, and that we’d tackle life together … forever.
And so now, when I receive a message like the one above, I’m reminded that my sister touched so many more people than I ever realized, and I feel an enormous responsibility to acknowledge not only the sender but — more importantly — the remarkable life my sister lived.
Still, it’s no exaggeration when I say that receiving a message like this feels like opening a gift wrapped in “torture paper”. While I’m always grateful to hear from those who acknowledge what an irreplaceable gem the world lost two years ago — it’s like my heart re-breaks with each reminder of my sister’s absence.
The bereavement group Compassionate Friends sums up my feelings perfectly on their website: “When your parents die, it is said you lose your past … and when your child dies, you lose your future. However, when your sibling dies, you lose a part of your past, your present, and your future. Because of this tremendous loss, it is important that everyone works together to ease the path toward healing and hope.”
Receiving the Facebook message above was much like finding a Christmas present for my sister under the tree, one that she will never get to open. And so, all I can do is unwrap it for her and hold it to my heart, wondering whether to display it — or tuck it away for safekeeping.
How I’d love for my sister to see all these notes — from her clients and her friends and her countless admirers. Instead, I hit “reply” and send my sometimes knee-jerk, rapid-fire responses to those who take the time to reach out, trying not to feel guilty about just “getting it over with”.
I’ve asked myself how best to navigate these tricky waters of sharing my grief while keeping private family matters private. I mean, really…why do I feel the need to share such a note with readers who have no idea who my sister was?
And here’s my simple answer.
Messages like the one above need to be heard by everyone. They’re reminders there are good people in the world. They’re reminders of how to write a graceful note, even when it might feel awkward or risk upsetting the recipient. They’re proof that we can all make an impact on this world…and that people take notice when we do.
So, keeping quiet about these little *celebrations* of my sister’s existence feels like suffocation. And, when I’m unsure about what’s appropriate to share with others, what often helps me is to imagine myself sitting in my sister’s office, asking her directly for her professional advice. Every time I do this, I hear her voice ring loud and true:
“Chrissy,” she’d say, propping her glasses on top of her head. “You have to live your life.”
“I know,” I’d say. “But still. Maybe I should just put that note in a Google Drive and move on.”
“You’re 51 years old,” she’d say, laughing. “You can’t possibly make everyone happy. You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to do that.”
“Obviously,” I’d say, “but in this case, it’s different.”
“No it’s not!” she’d insist.
“You don’t know how it is now!” I’d say. “You’re not here.”
We’d stare at each other for a moment, and then she’d chuckle. “I guess you have a point,” she’d say.
“See? I AM always right,” I’d needle, giving her my big-sister smile.
“Riiiiiiight,” she’d say. “Keep telling yourself that,” she’d laugh, pretzeling her legs underneath her butt. “That’s a cute necklace,” she’d say, leaning toward me to get a better look.
“This one?” I’d ask, holding it away from my chest. “I got it as a gift after you died.”
“Shut up!” she’d say. “Show me.”
I’d take it off and hand it to her, pointing out the little charms that keep her bubbly spirit close to me: The ruby birthstone, the letter “B” for Beth, the heart, the angel wings, and the little bottle of Coca Cola.
“I miss you, Beth,” I’d say, feeling the emotion rising in my chest. “I wish you …”
“…didn’t have to die?” she’d ask.
“Yes,” I’d say, my voice catching in my throat.
“That makes two of us,” she’d say, her blue eyes focused on the pictures on her desk.
We’d sit together in silence for a minute, until big, fat tears eventually rolled down our cheeks.
“I just forwarded that last message about you to Mom,” I’d say, holding my breath.
“Oh God,” she’d say, shaking her head. “
“Of course it did,” I’d say, rolling my eyes.
Another moment of silence.
“You made an impact on the world, Beth,” I’d say. “You made everyone so proud.”
“I tried,” she’d say in earnest, shaking her head. “I really did.”
“You succeeded,” I’d say. “Remember that.”
She’d look down, then run a finger along the little frog tattoo on her ankle.
“Beth?” I’d say, leaning forward.
“I… really don’t know how to do this without you.”
She’d take off her reading glasses, raise her blue eyes to meet mine, and say nothing.
“I’m sorry, Beth.” I’d say. “I’m just so sorry.”
But before I’d even reach for a tissue, she’d have already put down her glasses and handed me the box — because this is how my sister operated.
And of course, she’d swipe at tears of her own, then drag her wet fingertips through her hair, sweeping it all up into a messy ponytail.
“Wait. Shit! Do you have a hairband?” she’d ask, looking around.
I’d pull the beige one from my wrist, the one that matches my own hair color, and hand it to her.
“Victory!” she’d exclaim, wrapping it around the little nubbin of her hair, pulling that little brunette ponytail tight. “How’s it look?” she’d ask,turning to the side, showing me her profile, and smiling with a mischievous wink.
“Perfect,” I’d say. “Keep it, okay?”
“The hairband?” she’d ask, lighting up.
“No, that smile, you dummy,” I’d say.
And then we’d both nod — vigorously and seriously.
“I miss you Beth,” I’d say in a whisper, biting the inside of my lower lip.
“Please keep sharing, Chrissy,” she’d say. “Promise me. They’ll understand. This is what you do. This is who you are.”
She’d tilt her head to the side, letting a little whisp rest on her cheek.
“Okay?” she’d ask.
“Okay,” I’d say, nodding. “I’ll try.”
And then, she’d stand up suddenly. “Oh my gosh! I’ve gotta get going.”
“Wait,” I’d say, standing up, too.
I’d grab both her hands in mine, then ask what I wish I’d asked more, before she died.
“Are you okay, Beth?”
Looking into my eyes, she’d smile. And nod.
And then, she’d head out the door — her little ponytail bouncing with every one of her beautiful steps.
Christine Wolf writes about resilience and radical acceptance. Follow her writing at www.christinewolf.com.