This writer finds beauty in the pain she feels over the loss of her sister

By Jill Smolowe for Next Avenue

Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images

In the almost seven years since I laid my husband to rest, followed barely a year later by the loss of my sister and mother, I’ve developed an appreciation for just how unpredictable and, well, amazing grief can be.

I’m not talking about the period of hollowing when the shock and fog of loss clouds every thought and informs every waking (and perhaps sleeping) moment. No, I’m talking about the grief that comes after that. After the deceased loved one’s absence is no longer a constant presence. After the acute ache subsides and then, unthinkably, stills. After life moves forward, opening new melancholy-free vistas that trace no connection to the departed.

The grief I’m referring to lays claim to no stage and holds no hope of being put behind. Even on the happiest days, it lies patiently in wait for some quirk of logic to unleash it. A scent. A song. A glimpse of an almost-familiar face. Suddenly — whap! — you’re puddled in a heap, sobbing and thinking, WhatTheWhatThe.

Grief That Won’t Go Away

This is the grief that never extinguishes. The grief that cannot be gotten through, gotten over, gotten past. The forever-after grief.

If you’ve never lost a loved one, this must sound merciless, even downright cruel. Certainly while in its throes, forever-after grief can feel like that. But here’s the surprising thing: if you open yourself to it, there’s a silver lining that can be quite wonderful and comforting — as I was reminded just recently.

Shortly before my sister, Ann, died in 2010 from stage 4 colon cancer that had metastasized inoperably to her liver, my family convened for three days in Vermont to support her efforts on behalf of a cancer-research fundraising event. Though Ann glowed throughout the weekend as she helmed a team of bikers and hikers that out-fundraised all the other teams, there were telltale signs that this would be her last hurrah. Her weight had dropped dramatically; her exhaustion was palpable. Perhaps most telling, despite a life-long aversion to medication, she was relying on pain meds to get through the menu of activities.

The second night, as I drove from Ann’s house to the hotel where I was staying, it hit me: my sister, my only sister, was dying. I lay down on the bed and began to cry. Then weep. Then sob. I couldn’t stop. My new boyfriend (now my second husband) tried to comfort me, but I was beyond consolation. After an hour, feeling the need to be alone, I took my upset outside to a parking lot, where I continued to bawl for another two hours.

Confusion and Guilt

I was visiting my parents when the call came five weeks later: Ann was gone. In the days that followed, I was too focused on tending to my bereft parents to connect fully with my own pain. Then there wasn’t space to isolate and focus on my grief. My ailing mother was in rapid decline. Less than three weeks later, she died, too.

That’s when my grief got really confused. I would start to think about Ann, then think guiltily that I should be thinking about Mom — or vice versa. Or I’d think of one of them and the thought would intrude that, no, I should be thinking about my late husband, Joe, whom I’d buried 13 months earlier.

I was not alone in finding my grief confused by the pile-on of death. Both of my brothers would later tell me that 18 months passed before they could really feel their grief over the loss of our baby sister.

As time went by, I came to assume that my most raw feelings of loss had preceded Ann’s death. With her decline beginning so soon after Joe’s death, I’d been closely attuned throughout her final eight months to my deepening grief about the prospect of losing her. It’s possible that the most wrenching feelings of loss are behind, I wrote as the second anniversary of her death approached. It’s also possible that my sorrow is on time-delay and may yet catch up with me.

And so it did. This January. In Utah.

An Unexpected Trigger

I’d signed up with seven other people, only one of whom I knew, to secure a group discount for a week at a resort that offered canyon hikes, exercise classes and spa treatments. Upon my arrival, it quickly became apparent that most of the resort’s guests were female and that most of those women had come with people they knew. Lots of friend sets. Lots of mother-daughter duos. Lots of sisters, too, as I discovered the first evening at an event that began with a request that we introduce ourselves and identify where we were from.

Three women who were seated together and looked to be their 40s each offered a different home state. Each identified herself as the sister of the other two. Their delight in one another’s company was evident. That’s so sweet, I thought.

Over the next few days, the sisters’ joint activities and pleasure in one another began to gnaw at me. I don’t why it hadn’t occurred to me when I signed up for the trip, my first hiking vacation ever, that there was something grossly wrong with this picture. My sister (sibling nickname: Pooz) was the hiker in our family. A hiking phenom, actually. In her early 20s, she’d traversed the entire 2,200-mile length of the Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine. At the time, she was only the eighth female to lay claim to that mind-boggling feat.

Feeling the Pain

Now, here I was in red-rock country, going on the kinds of hikes that had informed her adult life. Gradually, a mantra took hold in my head, then wouldn’t let go: This feels so wrong. Pooz should be here. On the third day, after a morning hike, a stretch class and lunch, I returned to my room and flopped on the bed, schedule in hand, to decide what I might like to do next.

That’s when I began to cry. Then weep. Then sob. I couldn’t stop. I lay there until dinner, heaving uncontrollably as I pined for my sister.

Come the next day, same thing. Hours of crying and aching and wishing, oh God, wishing, my sister could be there with me to share the beauty of the Utah canyons and the ministrations of the talented spa staff. Had she been there, she would have pushed me to greater exertions on the desert trails. I would have coaxed her into yoga classes. And even as we reminded each other that the spa’s pampering stuff was so not us, Pooz would have relished the massages every bit as much as I did. Instead of tears, there would have been sisterly confidences, self-deprecating observations and lots of laughter.

If you’re feeling sorry for me, please, don’t. During the hours I was tossed by this unanticipated wave of sorrow, I knew I could tolerate my sadness. Time has taught me that these waves come — and then go.
Perhaps more surprising, even as I lay curled in a soggy heap, I felt grateful for this wallop of forever-after grief. It provided reassurance that my sister hasn’t faded to a beloved, but distant, memory. Instead, for those hours, Pooz was once again a vivid presence in my mind and heart. There was pain, yes, but there was also the solace of knowing that she is still very much with me.

I count that as a blessing. Amen.

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