“I lost my Dad. While an excruciating experience, it was linear. Diagnosis, action, acceptance, loss, followed by the universal stages of grief. I was able to mobilize around a plan, which gave a me sense of purpose. I was gifted the opportunity to live in the moment with him in his final days, and ultimately, I was able to say goodbye in a way that gave me peace. A few years later my sister, Lindsay, died very suddenly. This grief is not linear. It’s painful and confusing. It lies dormant for days, even weeks, then re-emerges to terrorize me with vivid dreams and memories. It surprises me by co-conspiring with other emotions that feel like a betrayal to my sister, like hope, or relief, or even joy.
My cousin showed up at my house on a random Monday. Though her voice was calm when she arrived, I knew in that moment my sister was gone. She’d been struggling for months, and I’d learned to brace myself for unpleasant updates from her, my Mom, and other family members. Sometimes I used the kids or work as an excuse to not take their calls. When we did talk, I took on Lindsay’s pain and sometimes it was just too much to bear. Whether she was reaching out from a feeling of hopelessness or trying to sound sober when she clearly was not, we’d gotten into a pattern which caused me to dread talking to her. If I forced myself to answer, I was sure to spend the rest of the day in a downward spiral, desperate to bring some comfort to my depressed, alcoholic sister. If I declined, my guilt would take over and manifest in me losing my patience with the boys or lashing out at Imran. It was a merciless trap where I lost either way.
As suspected, my cousin had come to break the news Lindsay had, in fact, passed away. Her death would be under investigation for the next 48 hours, leaving us to ask ourselves gruesome questions. Did she take her own life? Was she intoxicated when she died? Was she in pain? After the questions came the heartbreaking realization I no longer had a sibling. My best friend, my lifelong partner in crime, was gone. No take backs. This was final. Forever. Done. The awareness of the finality of it all brought on a tidal wave of pain I had not experienced with my Dad’s passing. In a matter of years, my family unit went from a close-knit cast of characters where I was still regarded as a child, to just me and my Mom. I suddenly felt exposed, subject to the darkest evils and perils of the world. How did something this sinister happen to us? I was gutted, left with a relentless urge to protect Imran and our boys, support my Mom, and make sure nothing tragic could harm us again. It’s a big job, with thankless hours and not enough pay.
The autopsy concluded Lindsay died from heart failure caused by alcoholic cardiomyopathy. The medical facts clearly indicate she’d been suffering from this disease for years, though we’d only known about it for the past nine months. Shortly after her funeral, a nagging confusion emerged to accompany my pain. How did we get here? I close my eyes and see Lindsay as a happy little girl with big brown eyes and a bright smile. She was a care-free, silly, and imaginative child who became a sensitive, nurturing adult with a kind heart and gentle spirit. As an adult, Lindsay was a devoted Browns fan who loved listening to country music, being at the beach, and teaching children. She was generous and loyal, always showing up for the people she loved when it mattered most. She was a talented educator who knew she wanted to be a teacher at a very young age. It was a strong part of her identity and gave her a sense of pride, knowing she had something special to offer the world. She applied the same patience, kindness, and passion from the classroom to be an amazing aunt to Aidan and Rhys. The joy I experienced seeing my kids adore my sister opened my heart to a whole new kind of love.
So how does such a wonderful person die so tragically at their own hands? My background in psychology, my empathy toward the mentally ill, and even my own similar life experiences couldn’t divert me from asking such an unfair question. Cognitively, I know mental illness does not discriminate, and all the love, ambition, and potential in the world can’t safeguard anyone from falling victim to its clutches. But in my heart, I couldn’t make sense of it. And in the rare moments when I could accept sweet, gentle Lindsay was a long-time alcoholic, I couldn’t reconcile the fact I didn’t know about it all this time. When she reached out to my Mom and me for help, she had a carefully crafted narrative about her disease—when it started, why it started, why it escalated—she continued to manipulate and control it over the course of multiple treatment programs and relapses. I recognize it was her shame which drove this behavior, but with each new piece of evidence I couldn’t ignore the fact my sister had been lying to me, and everyone, for years. The last nine months of her life are not a reflection of who Lindsay was when she was healthy and thriving. But I was her best friend, d*mmit, and none of this added up.
It didn’t take long for me to recognize fixating on the unanswered questions was unhealthy. My grief was still so raw, but I couldn’t allow it to paralyze me. I had two young boys—one with special needs—a full-time job, my husband was running a small business. I didn’t have the appetite for more setbacks. I tried my best to push negative thoughts out of my mind, and for the most part I was successful. But Facebook memories would provide clues and prompt me to revisit old stories. Conversations with mutual friends would spark connections I hadn’t made before. Soon my pain and confusion were accompanied by anger. How could she have so expertly lied to us? And worse, how could she leave me here feeling like I never even knew her? Being mad at someone who is no longer living is agony, and I’m grateful these moments are infrequent and pass quickly.
Sometimes Aidan, five years old, gets really frustrated and lashes out. He may throw something, stomp out of the room, or slam a door. Then minutes later he’ll come give me a hug and be the sweetest, most loving child in the world. It’s ridiculous, but I’ll never refuse his affection. That’s how my experience with grief has been. Moments of blinding rage and hurt are quickly met with a calming feeling of peace as I think: my sister, one of the greatest loves of my life, is now pain-free, reunited with my Dad, and experiencing a happiness we on earth can’t even fathom. I’m content knowing she doesn’t have to suffer through this global pandemic as both an addict and a teacher. My grief mood swings only exacerbate my helplessness, but better to be relieved from the anger than to be consumed by it.
This excerpt from the tribute I shared at her funeral service illustrates my random bouts of peace:
I find comfort imagining her being reunited with my Dad. He greeted her with a huge hug. Roxie runs up, wagging her tail. Eric Church is playing in the background. Then our grandparents and other loved ones enter the scene. They catch up over pickles and tacos and share the good news that up here the Browns win every game and there are no parent-teacher conferences. And, then all I can hear is Lindsay’s infectious laugh, which I’ll hold onto forever.
Now I’m smiling. Grief is ridiculous. It’s been a year now since Lindsay died, and the sense of loss is currently my most prevailing sentiment. There’s a hole in my heart. Something always feels like it’s missing. I still forget she’s gone for the first two seconds I wake up each morning. I still go to text her when I find something funny. The pain, confusion, and anger swerve unexpectedly onto the scene here and there, but for the most part I’ve been cruising along, though my passenger side is empty. Of course, my husband and my boys fill every inch of the space around the hole in my heart. They are my everything, but I wouldn’t feel right if there wasn’t a sense of loss that lingers for the rest of my life. In a way, the loss honors her and what growing up alongside her has done for me. She continues to inspire me with her courage, and I live every day with a new honesty and authenticity.
Because, after all, I can only assume she’s watching.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Kate Rahman. You can follow her journey on her blog. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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