Reflections on understanding how to embrace the loss of my sister
My sister Susan died on May 12, 2022. These words are true. For me, they hold an impression of unreality. I don’t as yet, recognize my life in this configuration. While I no longer view myself as a shredded sail after gale-force winds, the awareness of her death walks with me, everywhere and every day. It is this spirit, this guidance, that escorts us through this life passage that I call Grief. It has so much to teach, if we can bear to let it touch us.
I have a long affiliation with the study of the end of life. I hold this life passage as pregnant with opportunity for all involved to grasp more of the great Mystery; who are we, what are we, and what are we doing here? This is the stuff of Vision Quests and Vigils,it is rare and precious knowledge. It arrives through our relationships, emotions, mental constructs, other people’s words, even exposure to intense events. These seem all designed to be absorbed by the heart, accepted by the mind, and installed within intentionally as a system upgrade, and to be retold to whoever will listen. The revelations of grief arrive via an impossibly high price tag. Possibly the best we can do is to experience our grief, and let it “have at us” with as much courage as possible. Why then, is this so difficult?
Sue was a heart-centered person, quick to love and easily injured by thoughtless words. Her heart was her Achilles heel. It was literally broken before she was born. A small hole between the atriums rendered her heart fallible, weakened. The pioneering heart surgeons of the 1960’s repaired that hole when she was ten. They were unable, or unaware, that an extra blood vessel continuously overloaded her heart-lung system and this would ultimately create an untenable situation. Hers was a heart that could never catch up physically. Therein was a blueprint for her life. Hers was a body that made living in it, more difficult, from her very beginning. Her real stamina lay in the emotional realm. When she chose to, she loved with infinite strength and unshakeable resilience.
Across the last two years, her life narrowed to an ever diminishing and tenuous path dominated by breath and heartbeat. She walked the edge of a cliff of independent life, or dependency, and never fell off. She could describe her task and practice of compartmentalizing any thought or emotion, event, or interaction, that would cause the mysterious “keeper of the heartbeat” to lose footing. She learned to parse out actions in small doses. She learned to leave other’s emotional baggage untouched. Such was her last year.
From my vantage point, she became intimately familiar with her own body and soul. My heart beats happily and my breath goes unnoticed until challenged with hills, elevation, or too much ballast. Her heart was transparent in its fragility and strength, and her awareness of both possibilities was an integral part of her experience of “life.” Eventually, she embraced the obvious need for these dear companions to part ways. Her body was just too confining and her soul had been patient.
But that is my imagining. Completely tidy head talk that serves nothing, not my life or hers. I really can’t know what her process is, or was. On this day I can see that what I am really doing is mourning the loss of her in my life. A physical structure of my life is gone. As one of four sisters we were a scaffold, we now are a tripod. I am an unreliable witness, shaken to my core.
I am grateful for the end of suffering and fear that she managed with such dignity and grace. And it was suffering. In the last hours of her life, she graciously received the anticipatory grief of dear friends and family. I saw a different version of Sue emerge. Shyly at first, and then with increasing conviction, I saw something being revealed. Compassionate yes, but her view felt more expansive, inclusive of her life and ours, not seperate but as part of a continuum. As I watched her silently, I named this to be her SOUL. It appeared to me to be shining out through her eyes. It was a part of her that I have never seen.
“You will be broken for a while, and then you will be better.” She said. These words spoken quietly rang out like a clear bell.
I knew there was something different happening when she assumed absolutely no responsibility for another person’s emotional state, or their task of mourning. Possibly she could see the denouement and the purpose of the pain and suffering? Or was she was already headed home, and this was a courtesy call to those who couldn’t yet understand. And that would be all of us who watched her transfigure, we just didn’t have the same view.
“And that’s OK,” I hear myself think. “There is nothing so terrible here, life and death are the same movement. Out of one world and into the next. She is graduating, we will be fine. She will be free, all is well.”
And then she left and the world turned over.
All of us, her children and siblings and friends were cracked wide open when the portal opened and she slipped into what my Grandmother called, “The next room.” My mind’s platitudes were a thin trickle compared to the roaring flow of life that swept into the room and floated her willingly into the next life. It is so much more powerful than we expect. I can feel now that she held parts of me and I of her, and it’s time to give them all back.
On this day, I believe this is one of the tasks of grieving. And I have just scratched the surface. There is so much more here to understand.
Thank you Sue for all you are.