6 years. 312 weeks. 2, 190 days. Almost to the hour, it has been six years since my family walked out of Tanner Medical Center and departed the world we knew. The world we knew was full of love and joy. We were no strangers to medical crises, but we always left the hospital, eventually, with whomever danced with dying. We were suddenly thrust into a world that too many people were already citizens. A world where the miracle that we wanted, was not the miracle that was in store. A world where nothing made sense, and even breathing became a taxing task. A world we knew we didn’t want to be a part of. I can’t believe that it has been 6 years. In some ways, it feels like a lifetime since I kissed those cheeks for the last time. In many ways, I can still feel the way my lips curved over those big cheeks. I can feel the coolness that was such a contrast to the warm flesh that my lips had landed on for the 18 years before. In some ways, I long for this to be the one year anniversary. That would mean that a mere 12 months separate me from the sound of her voice and the feel of her towering presence. Keeping it real, this shit is weird.
Ever the teacher, I find myself honed in on the lessons that I have learned over these 72 months. Now, a good teacher plans the learning outcomes at the beginning, but I was only just finishing grad school when she died, so it wasn’t ingrained in my brain yet. Please forgive me that these learning outcomes have not been purposeful. In honor of my nieces’ 6th birthday, I’d like to share 6 lessons that I have learned over these last 6 years. If you are my friend, maybe this will help you understand the haphazard state of my brain. If you just stumbled upon this entry over the Googler, then maybe you have a friend who has been living in traumatic, profound grief and this might help you understand them. Maybe you read it and take note of all of my comma splices and syntax errors. Either way, today is the 6 year anniversary of my baby sister dying suddenly and almost inexplicably, so I don’t care what you think.
6 Year, 6 Lessons
- Grief changes you. I know, this seems trite and you’ve probably read this in every grief book at Lifeway. From what I recall, those books pointed to the fact that of course you’ll change because someone you loved very much has died, and part of you has died, and blah, blah, blah. That’s true, but also stupid. Here’s how it has changed me.
- My taste buds have changed. After 29 years of the smell of chili powder stirring up bile in my loins, now I eat Mexican food. Um, sometimes I crave it. Weird.
- I’m pessimistic. I don’t walk around and think, “The whole world is terrible and we’re all going to die anyway.” But, if I hear that there has been a car wreck anywhere near where someone I love is, I have a straight up panic attack assuming they’re dead until I talk to them. If someone doesn’t answer the phone when I call, I do not assume they’re busy or in a movie or something. I assume they are dying beside their phone and they are trying to answer their phone but their hands have been cut off by a chain saw or eaten by piranhas.
- I’m more introverted. I used to be a text book extrovert. I was labeled a spa because my energy was always apparent when I was with people. I didn’t care if they were peers, kids, an old lady water aerobics class– I just needed to be around people. Now, I often get anxious about being with certain groups of people. I try to hide it, but I’m always trying to determine the quickest way to get out of social situations. Before, it was hard for me to justify staying home on a weekend night in fear that I would miss out on something. Now, I dream all week of curling up on the couch with Netflix and take-out.
- You have to allow yourself time to be “not okay.” At first, you don’t have a choice. Every ounce of you is far from okay. As time moves on, you find yourself able to face small chunks of the real world. Incrementally, you find yourself immersed in your new normal. There are still days now, and I imagine that there will be forever, that the thought of putting on real clothes and trying to fake it makes you feel like you can’t breathe. You have to give in to that on occasion. The emotions of profound grief are mightier than even the most stubborn soul. Whether you like it or not, those feelings will overtake you. Therefore, I like to pretend that I have a little control over the beast of grief. When I am feeling the grieving waters start to swirl, and pull of the tide of pain, I take a time out. I call in sick from work. (It’s okay though, a medical professional told me that I would have to take sick days for the rest of my life on occasion for this. He’d probably write me a note if I needed it.) I either lie in bed and sob, eat a spoonful (or 3) of cookie butter, and curse the world. Or, I make special plans with a friend who makes me feel good, do a leisurely brunch, a little shopping, and then I lie in bed and sob and curse the world. I have found that if I allow myself times to be sad and give in to the pain, I can get through my days a little easier.
- Your core group of friends might change. This goes along with #1, but I think it’s merit deserves its own place in the list. Because grief changes you so, it makes sense that you become a different person. Sometimes your friends accept and support your metamorphosis, and sometimes they want you to go back to the carefree, silly person you were before. I’m still that silly person most of the time, but more often than not, I am lost and broken. It takes all of my energy to get through each day. I only have time to worry about how I get through each day, and how my family is getting through each day. I don’t have the energy to worry if my random outburst of emotion are going to offend a friend. I realize this makes me sound a little bit like I will end up on 60 Minutes or Dateline one day. Truthfully, 98% of my friends have put Job to shame with their patience with me. Some of my relationships have changed, though. It’s scary to let people in to see how much baggage you’ve packed, it’s even scarier to let them carry a suitcase or two.
- You become a part of a club. Now, my family is no stranger to secret societies. We have Chi Omega, Sigma Nu, the Masons, and Gridiron covered pretty well. I mean, I will still giggle and give the secret Chi Omega handshake when the opportunity presents itself. However, nothing can compare to the immediate bond you feel with someone who has experienced traumatic loss. Luckily for my brother and I, because of the age difference between us and Molly, all the experts say we are experiencing parental and sibling grief. (I prefer 2 for 1 on my beers, thanks though.) Since we lost Molly, two of my best friends lost their brothers, and more dear friends lost their child. I was already close to all of these people, but I probably would only organize meals if they needed a kidney transplant. Now, well, I would give them my crappy kidney, share a morphine pump, and drive them to the hospital. Today, members of all of these families reached out in support of this anniversary, and my overwhelming thought was, “God, I wish that they didn’t know exactly what I am feeling today.” But, they do. They know. They know that I know. I know that they know. I know that they know I know. You know?
- People are good. Now, I say this in full light of what I said in #3. I may secretly be mad at people because they seem to have all of their children and siblings here on Earth. Truthfully, we ALL have terrible things at some point in our life. I may have a pity party and think, “Sure, but they didn’t lose their sister and nieces in one swoop. If they did, I bet it wasn’t akin to a Lifetime movie script.” But, everyone has their own terrible tragedy to endure. Maybe it’s public, but more often it’s private. From meals and gifts, to random hugs and, “I miss your Molly,” the small acts of kindness shown to my family have often been just the nudge we needed to get through another day. We could never express our gratitude.
- Love doesn’t end when Earthly existence does. I have experienced loss before Molly’s. I have wept as family members and dear friends left this Earth for the glorious yonder. I have never stopped missing them or wishing they were here. But, my sister was a part of my every day life. I remember every moment of her life from when she was 5 days old. For 18 years, 1 month, 1 week, and 2 days, she was one of my 4 people. I guess, even a few months after she died, I thought that her absence would make me feel the love less, which would make the hurting stop. I had a pair of brown, suede pants in college. I loved those things. Back then, every night you went out with a pair of black pants and a fancy shirt. I felt so edgy and unique with my brown pants! I wore the heck out of those pants for like 2 years. At some point, they disappeared. For several years, I searched for the pants, and I always thought of them when I was putting together my socializing outfits. I missed the smooth suede, and the way they didn’t have buttons or zippers. As time went on, I learned to live without them. Then, the year 2011 happened and almost no pants had buttons or zippers! I miss those pants, but I have found more that make me feel special. I guess I thought that losing my baby sister would be like those pants. I’d think about her, but I would move on and a new version would come along. I guess, when it comes down to it, those pants didn’t love me back. I got those pants one Christmas and they were already made. I didn’t nurture, torture, and go on adventures with them. I didn’t watch as they took their first steps. I didn’t giggle when they used a cuss word in front of our Baptist preacher at the ripe old age of 2. They didn’t cut all of their hair off while I was babysitting them. Those pants and I didn’t spend a whole day baking Christmas cookies each year. I didn’t cry every year on their first day of school or birthdays because they were growing up too fast. I didn’t drive to Tuscaloosa 6 weeks before they went missing to bring them home. They didn’t send me text messages every morning. So, that’s been the weirdest thing. I haven’t stopped loving her, so I haven’t stopped missing her. I tell her every day that I love her. Some days, when my eye is open and my heart isn’t black, I hear her telling me that she loves me back.
So there it is, the 6 things that I have learned in 6 years of grief. The time between Christmas and New Year’s is a bit awkward and melancholy for all, I think. Having this anniversary during this time is a notch above melancholy, ,trust me. Don’t let this be your reality. While you have all the grandkids around, while you’re bowling with your nieces and nephews, tell them about Molly. Tell them they’re going to screw up. Tell them it’s okay. Tell them that no screw up is worth their life. Tell them.
More than meat loves salt,