Let’s talk about death, shall we?
Hey wait, where are you going?
Why does everybody do that?!
In this sandwich metaphor I’m embracing, it should be no surprise that the meat of this process is the grieving, and that meat is raw. Honest discourse about the realities experienced by those separated in death are rare to encounter in modern culture. Most of the popular notions about grief seem to be for those adjacent to death. A peripheral population of people who have yet to move through a loss that disrupts their daily life. This tool box is full of platitudes and euphemisms, words and practices that seem like they should be useful, but up close and personal they are often a metric wrench set for a standard nut. Sure, sometimes they work, but it often feels more like a coincidence than a dependable device or service. I have my theories about this, but they can wait.
For starters, there is no expression for a person who has lost a child or sibling. I find it woefully inadequate that we only have a word for someone who has lost a spouse, a title that tells people with a single word what you have been through. That label and its implications come with as much good as bad, yet- there is language for it. An acknowledgement that in many ways, this will be an enduring characteristic of one’s life from now on. The closest I came to an accurate description of my current status was “bereaved” which I find lacking, mostly because it seems to denote a period in time rather than a life long descriptor.
The sudden deaths of my dad and sister have led to many interesting revelations. It has given me insight, both in how I think about death and the experience of living through the departure of a family member. One of the most common sentiments I have received is “I can’t imagine what you are going through”. I understand the hesitation to entertain thoughts of your loved ones being gone, and I will not ask you to. For the purpose of this essay, post (what the fuck is this anyway?!) I will use the metaphor of a wound as the placeholder for the loss of a close loved one, so everyone can enjoy this meal with me.
That will be TONS of fun, right?!
Wait, come back!
Ok, I’m seeing a pattern here.
This wound is deep, bone deep. It is long and jagged as well, made by an unsterile thing even in the most expected and natural death. The severity of the individual injury is also variable. The same death can inflict different levels of injury to different people. The factors that determine this are too numerous to name, the only reason I am mentioning it is to give space for this wide range of reactions that will exist from the same death. For some people it will be a nearly fatal blow and others merely a “flesh wound” (Monty Python reference is absolutely intentional, and if you knew anything about my sister and me, the fact that it took me this long is frankly disappointing).
This grievous injury will need care, with any serious laceration the necessary effort will not be pleasant. In the beginning this tending will often hurt as much or more than the event of the insult itself. Just ask anyone who has gone through physical therapy after a life disrupting trauma. The nature of this undertaking makes it important to delineate between pain that is healing, and pain that causes further damage. Death can become a mortal wound for those it marks. Infection can set in, when it is not cared for, or when done in a harmful way.
The first step in this, or any first aid is to assess the severity of the damage, stop the active bleeding with direct pressure and to let the body begin to do what it does best, heal. For me this direct pressure comes in the form of taking time and space, canceling and rearranging things without mercy. This way I have room to assess my new reality. It is tempting not to take the time, to slap on a tight bandage and go about your day without ever stopping the bleeding completely. Kids make taking this extra time difficult, but I have found modeling grief as a thing to be honored like a “boo-boo” is easily understood even by the very young. If a child can acknowledge a bandaid as an “oowwee” they can comprehend invisible hurt too, as long as time is take to explain and set boundaries. Just as you would if you had a broken arm they could no longer jump on.
This injury must then be cleaned and covered. These bandages should be changed frequently, the damage reassessed, healing salves applied and medications taken. This action often will cause pain, but it is pain in service of healing. When these tasks are given over to the unskilled, or the ignorant, tremendous damage can be caused. Be careful who you allow to tend these precious traumas, many people will use it as an opportunity to draw attention to themselves, their own pain, their ‘virtues’, their causes, you name it. There is far too often an undertone of self promotion and performance in those that are motivated to ‘help’. Especially when the help is offered in the form of some public display.
For myself and our mom, this process of healing is a private act, but this is not universal, many people will want and need extensive community support. The two of us often go over things together, to come up with a plan of action for dealing with our tender bits. Like birth, the actual work is a solitary endeavor. Each of our wounds is similar, but singular. For my mom; living in our small tight knit valley, her wound is visible for all to see, a thing that cannot be completely covered up as she goes about her necessaries.
Both my sister and dad were loved and involved members of town life. People want to acknowledge her pain, our pain, the community’s pain together, but doing this in a way that doesn’t cause more ache is a tricky thing. The first interactions after the news (or more fun still, when someone has not yet heard and must be informed) can be a scouring thing that has to be braced for anytime she leaves the house. Often we find we can only be as healed as the rawest person in the room; and that is serious emotional work for her day in and day out.
For me in my relative anonymity; I can shop, work and go about my life with few people I encounter having any idea I am horribly maimed. People here didn’t grow up watching our sisterhood and have little clue about the severity of this forced final separation. I can “pass” for fine at will. I don’t run the risk of the checkout woman’s eye welling with tears, remembering Sara and I buying candy with our chins hardly higher than the counter. For Sara this condition persisted for most of her life. (Yes, that’s a short person joke. No, I’m not sorry.) In Maine, no one is asking me with a smile on their face “so how’s Sara?” expecting an update of a far off place or a new adventure, only to get shitty fucking news in return.
This doesn’t mean that when I go home, seeing people for the first time won’t be difficult, but I will have had more time to heal than my mom gets. Tears will flow, and we will again water the earth with our grief, but this grief clears the way; making safe spaces to fill with love, understanding, laughter and sadness all at once. I think it is interesting that salt water is one of the most basic wound treatments out there, as if our tears are meant to heal delicate things, like souls. All of these authentic expressions of grief serve mending and I think are necessary for an improved outcome.
The physical process of grieving can’t be done wrong, except forgetting which part of clothing has been used to wipe crying eyes, and which part used for an endlessly running nose. Grief bequeaths enough problems without adding snot-eyes to the list. The only other direct advice I can offer is that healing should be a process and that laughter is a vital part of that process. It is totally normal to cry until your teeth hurt, and to discover new muscles in your face that you never knew you had, and didn’t know you could strain. Even months and years later there will be days ruled by sorrow. Other days my eyes stream with tears from gales of laughter till my stomach hurts at the utter ridiculousness of it all. There is no timeline, no proper order for these things, take them as they come. Allow them to wash over you; replacing and rearranging what was, into what is now.
Depending on the individual nature of the death’s damage, the prognosis will also vary. Sometimes healing will come with hardly the hint of a scar, other times lifelong rehab and constant effort will be necessary to get close to anything approximating our former state. Tragically, For some the heartbreak can be fatal. Each loss is special and unique, it will have different triggers and consequences for figuring out how to ‘do life’ without that person in it. The extent that their absence will impact daily routine is also individual.
Death is not something you get over, or leave behind, it is a mark that becomes a living part of you, a life long scar. Sara and I had matching brands, symbols made from each other’s initials and burned into the back of our necks. We didn’t want a tattoo, a forien substance forced under the skin. We wanted the method of the mark to be meaningful. She was a modified part of me, her birth and now death, a permanent imprint on my soul. My brand is now without its pair and that seems fitting as well.
Death is the only common denominator for all life on earth. A fact that is daunting as well as liberating. Growth is just as universal, but we have to be careful what we cultivate. Decay grows as it consumes healthy tissue, and vice versa the only difference is often the care given the insult. I will tend this wound the best I can, ask for help when I need it, and enjoy existing for the two of us. The loss of my sister defines me, but it does not determine me. I am grateful for the time we had, proud of us for what we accomplished as sisters and heartbroken our time together was so short.
Just like she was.
For the record, without her here to glare at me these jokes are going to persist, but as previously stated I have been left unattended.
Up next in our shitty sandwich buffet, the condiments.
Thank you for reading. Be well.