For a whole amalgamation of reasons, people die. Whether we want them to or not because death comes to us all. It’s the inevitable consequence of life. An equal opportunity purveyor of souls that doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the color of your skin, age, gender, sexual or political affiliation. It’s cruel and it’s real and doesn’t get any easier navigating through just because we know it’s coming — for those that leave, and for those that remain behind.
Thirty years ago, on February 18th my sister died of melanoma. Marilyn had just turned thirty-seven and today was her birthday. I wish I could say my sister passed away quietly in her sleep. I wish I could say she felt no pain, wasn’t consciously aware of what was happening to her in those final weeks and moments leading up to her death, when she’d lost all power of speech and lay in a vegetative state connected to a machine.
Oh yes, I’d love to believe that. But I knew differently. I knew despite her not uttering a word, or moving a muscle, the truth was after months of the usual fare on the cancer menu: radiation, chemo, blood transfusion, brain surgery and thoughts lost in moments of what would never be, my sister left this world pretty much in the same manner she came. Kicking and screaming. An unwilling comrade in this battle who did not go quietly into that good night as she silently fought, cried, yelled at an unforgiving God in a way that only warriors do when facing death. Ruthlessly and defiantly.
With me right by her side.
In the early hours before dawn as my family kept vigil, she waited for them all to leave the hospital room in order for us to be alone. There we said our goodbyes the only way we could, me clutching her hand, caressing her cheek, whispering, “I love you, it’s okay to go,” over and over. Everything inside those moments as I stood there, was utterly excruciating, waiting for the preordained. And when I saw her chest rise with what I knew was her final breath, I thought I would die with her.
And a part of me did.
In the days following her death, a period of weird obscurity took hold. Cleaning out her apartment. The funeral. Sitting shiva. Everything and everyone around me appeared normal. I was there, but I wasn’t as I lingered on the sidelines watching this muted macabre of bodies dressed in black, eating, drinking, carrying deli platters across the room.
I felt myself drifting. No longer anchored to the earth. And it was then when I felt myself sinking to this deep, dark abyss where I wasn’t sure anymore whether or not I wanted to hold on, I heard my sister’s voice in my head. So clear, so her … talking to me. At first I thought I was losing it. But as the conversation between us continued, the words filtering into my brain as if we were standing there together in the same room, something told me this was real. It just had to be Marilyn. Who else would me telling me what shoes to wear, that I better lay off the ice cream, why I needed to get rid of this thing and that, all the wonderfully nagging, bossy bitch things she would say to me when she was alive?
Like in life, she had remained my companion. The dialogue continued on a regular basis over the next twelve months. But then one day, right around the anniversary of her physical death, without warning, without so much of a goodbye, her voice disappeared. Suffice to say I was crushed to the bone as if she’d died all over again.
Over the past thirty years I’ve thought a lot about loss and grief. That there are so many burning questions that will remain left unanswered. That we must allow for a greater landscape of possibilities that transcend the tangible. How as a civilization we perceive it. How we assimilate it. How we use it as a barometer from which we base our own lives because death is that ultimate disconnect. That never-again thing that happens to you where you’re suddenly facing a new reality that nine out of ten times isn’t so rosy. When death comes knocking … it owns you. It marks you. Then sucks you into a place from which you’ll never escape. Not completely or whole in the way you were before.
The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to.” — Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Psychiatrist
In the 1969 groundbreaking book, On Death and Dying, Kübler-Ross laid out her theories on the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It was her contention that “through these stages we learn to live with the one we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief. Not everyone goes through all of them or in a prescribed order.”
I read this book. Although it offered some insightful things to consider as a whole, it fell short of helping me in any way. I knew immediately the bargaining stage, the acceptance, the denial, the depression didn’t apply. It was however the anger stage, the pure bitterness that stuck in my chest like barbed wire that I knew I simply could not get beyond.
For a long, long time.
I’ve come to believe that grief is a lonely, lingering sort of pain. Something that simply doesn’t go away. It has a beginning, but most times no end. The terrain is forever different and there’s no normal to return to while you learn to work through the mess. Oh yeah, it’s hard. It’s fucking brutal. Sometimes even frightening to the point ending it all seems the perfect solution. The only solution. But then you stop. You take a breath, look around at all you have to lose should you go down that path, then slug on.
One day at a time.
In the popular 1993 movie, Sleepless with Seattle, the main character, played by Tom Hanks, lost his wife, and the son seeing the depth of his father’s grief, feeling unable to reach him on his own, dials into a self-help guru for help.
Dr. Marcia Fieldstone: Sam, do you think there’s someone out there you could love as much as your wife?
Sam Baldwin: Well, Dr. Marcia Fieldstone, that’s hard to imagine.
Doctor Marcia Fieldstone: What are you going to do?
Sam Baldwin: Well, I’m gonna get out of bed every morning … breathe in and out all day long. Then, after a while I won’t have to remind myself to get out of bed every morning and breathe in and out … and, then after a while, I won’t have to think about how I had it great and perfect for a while.”
The truth is when it comes to loss and grief as a culture we’re still very much behind the eight ball. We need to readjust the lens and see if for what it is. A process that can’t be fixed, dismissed, contained or forced into some sort of consensual form of expression. Because there’s no one-size-fits all, no pill or magic formula on how to get through it since grief has a mind of its own.
This is a club no one wants to be part of. It’s a membership that lasts for life. But with the right amount of support, time and endurance and resiliency, your status eventually does change and the darkness begins to lift.
It took me a long, long time to talk openly about my sister. The pain so bottomless the thought of it freaked me out, finding it so much easier to hold onto my armor rather than search for an understanding ear that would never replace the one I had lost. But twenty-five years after the fact, I did. And it felt like a door had cracked open. The sadness didn’t feel as intense, the hole in my heart not as wide, and the rock I’d been carrying around in my pocket with me all those years, not as heavy.
From the moment my sister died to now, I understood that grief would always walk beside me. I understood it could not be rushed and that anyone experiencing a tragic loss, be it a loved one, a pet, a bad decision, a failed business, being told to “get over it,” was the last thing they wanted to hear. Because in truth, there’s no real getting over, letting go, or moving on. There’s simply you moving forward, letting life resume.
And that’s what I did. Sort of.
I woke up every morning. I breathed in and out. I saw sparks of something resembling happiness and grabbed it by the horns. I came to realize that although I might never let go of this sense of feeling cheated, or guilty that she had died and I had lived, I had to believe that my sister would really be pissed off at me for wasting one second of my life wallowing in this useless emotion. So I put it aside. For the most part anyway. Deciding enough of this shit. It’s high time to start honoring her memory. And I knew the only way for me to do that was to celebrate her most important legacy. Her life. To live each and every day as if it might be my last; while maintaining a sharp eye on the future — just in case it’s not.
Which leads me back to today. Her birthday. Where I continue this celebration by shouting into the universe these words expressing my love for her, my missing her, as I hope against hope she’s out there, somewhere, watching me from afar … and missing me too.-