Always a Sister
“If you have a sister and she dies, do you stop saying you have one? Or are you always a sister, even when the other half of the equation is gone?” -Jodi Picoult
359 days ago, my little sister killed herself. At the very same moment that my then-fiance and I were finalizing details with our wedding florist, my beautiful 29 year old sister – my only sibling – walked upstairs at our mom?s house and she shot herself.
In less than a week, I will have lived a full year without her. I will have lived for 365 days without hearing her laugh. A whole year of sleeps, only to wake up and feel the punch to the gut reminding me she’s really gone.
Sometimes it feels like just yesterday that I lost her. Sometimes it feels like ten lifetimes.
Sometimes it feels like just yesterday that the parents of one of my best friends knocked on my door to tell me Sarah was dead. Sometimes it feels like just yesterday when I looked out the window to see the man who would be officiating our wedding ceremony 17 days later, walking up to my door with ghosts in his eyes. It feels like just yesterday when I opened the door, happy to see these two people who had known me since the day I was born, who could always find my smile beneath my perpetual frown, who loved me like I was their own.
It feels like just yesterday when I realized that they weren’t meeting my eyes, that they were looking anywhere but at me, that something was terribly wrong, that my world was about to be shattered as soon as they opened their mouths.
“Something really bad happened.”
“It?s your sister.”
I stood there, still as stone.
They stared at the floor.
I stood there and I waited.
“It’s Sarah. She died, Laetitia. She’s gone.”
I walked away, sat on my couch, tried to breathe.
“You?re kidding me, right? This is some kind of joke?”
It was April 1st, after all. The day of fools.
“I wish we were, honey.”
In my mind all I could think about was that it had to have been an overdose, that I needed to find her scumbag ex-boyfriend who dragged her down this path and I needed to kill him with my bare hands.
If he had been there I would have.
If I’m being honest, I could have.
“She killed herself, Munchie. I’m so sorry.”
And in that moment, I knew there’d been a mistake. She would never take her own life.
She would never.
“No she didn’t.”
“Yes, sweetie, she did.”
“How? How did she?”
And then, so quietly I could barely hear him say it, my best friend’s father told me that my little sister had taken a 20 gauge shotgun from behind my mom’s dresser, a gun I didn’t even know existed, and she had shot herself.
I calmly stood, walked through my house to the downstairs powder room, and I threw up. And then I sat on the floor and debated locking myself in there until they left. Because maybe then it wouldn’t be real. Maybe if I just stayed in that bathroom, she would be alive.
I called my fiance: “Wes. Sarah killed herself. My sister just killed herself.
No sooner than those words were out of my mouth than I shed my first tear. And then I heard my friend’s parents anxiously talking in the other room, got myself together and walked back into the room with them.
My friend’s dad looked at me.
“You’re doing a good job with step six.”
He glanced at our steps, where I had painted the words to “Desiderata” a couple of years before. The sixth step reads “nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune”.
I thought I was going to collapse.
We went to my mom’s, I refused to go upstairs, Wes showed up there with tears streaming down his face, I don’t remember the rest.
Her funeral came and went. I never wanted to hear the phrase “she’s in a better place” ever again.
And then 17 days after I felt like my world would never be the same again, I somehow managed to put my feet on the ground and I walked down the aisle to marry my best friend, surrounded by everyone we loved. Except instead of having Sarah there with us physically, I had her initials sewn on a handkerchief that was pinned on the inside of my dress. Two days earlier, I had almost hyperventilated when I had to change our ceremony program and add her name to the list of people we had lost. We asked my friend’s dad to start the ceremony with a moment of silence so I could gather my thoughts and remember to breathe.
In my heart, I know she was there, sitting in the front row, beaming as bright as the sun.
In the days following the whirlwind of our wedding, when I found myself alone with my thoughts, I broke all over again. Every day. Every single day I felt a little more broken and a little more fragile and a little more angry and a little more lost.
A couple of weeks later, we left for our honeymoon in Belize. As excited as I was to just get away and hopefully clear my head, I was nervous. I didn’t know how I was going to flit off to paradise knowing I’d come home to a world without Sarah in it.
And then we arrived at this beautiful, 13,000 acre sanctuary of virtually untouched land in the middle of the jungle, and I knew she was there. A pond full of frogs sat outside the door to our villa, and sometimes they croaked so loud they would keep us awake. All I could think about was catching frogs with my sister when we were little, and my heart would hurt so much for a split second that I wouldn’t be able to breathe. And then I would laugh, picturing her hiding them around the house for us to find and cackling as we screamed.
It was there that I realized that she?s always with me, just a centimeter out of reach. But she’s there. Always. It was there that I was faced with a question that seems so simple on the surface that it’s usually asked mindlessly, a question that should have an obvious answer, a question that, until April 1st, I didn’t have to think about before I responded.
“Do you have any siblings?”
You see, in Belize, family is one of the most important aspects of their culture. There is no importance placed on material things – everything they hold dear consists of the people who make up their world. In the Mayan culture, your family helps build your house with their own hands, they help choose your spouse, they share their land and their food and their wealth.
Everyone helps each other, no questions asked and no judgments made.
Fake small talk doesn’t exist there. Every conversation we had meant something, to us and to them. Here, in the hustle and bustle of our lives in little Wilmington and beyond, it’s a rare thing to strike up a conversation with a stranger. It’s even more rare to actually have a genuine, meaningful conversation with someone you just met. And every single person we met there made that effort.
The first few times we were asked how many siblings we each had, I tried to deflect the question by answering for Wes. Family is so important there, though, that the next question was “and you?”.
A couple of times I was left speechless, not knowing what to say. Here at home, I’d probably just say I have a younger sister and leave it at that, because strangers don’t want to see your raw grief out in the open. But there, looking into the eyes of these people and seeing their compassion, I found the strength to say the words out loud for the first time.
“I had a younger sister, she passed away a couple of weeks before our wedding.”
Instead of awkward silence, I was greeted with immediate tears and hugs. When I shared a little bit of her story, I was met with understanding nods instead of the judgment I was expecting.
It’s different here, though. Small talk is often conducted on auto-pilot. We ask questions that have been ingrained in our brains since we learned how to talk, and a lot of times we don’t really care about the actual answer. We respond with half-truths, more concerned with what the other person thinks than with formulating an honest answer.
Here, when those of us who have lost a sibling are asked that supposedly simple question, we have to pause. Whether it happened yesterday or twenty years ago, there will forever be a moment of hesitation, a stutter step, a stop and start before our brain settles on an “appropriate” response. We might start answering like we did before we lost them, confidently and without uncertainty, and then we’ll be blindsided with that kick to the ribs that reminds us our answer was forever changed that day a part of our heart was taken from us far before his or her time.
Some of us simply can’t bear to mention our loss. No matter how long it’s been, there are some days where our grief is simply too raw to throw out into the open. Sometimes it would take every ounce of our strength to speak our loved one’s name without breaking into pieces right in front of you.
Please don’t take offense. It’s not you. It’s us.
Sometimes it’s the opposite, though – there are moments where we feel the need to interject a little piece of our sibling’s story just to prove a point, to stop someone from spewing words of hate against addicts, to educate the ignorant on the topic of the disease that has left us wandering around feeling like we lost a part of ourselves.
Sometimes we just need you to shut up and listen.
No matter the case, our response is typically based on one thing – who’s asking? How in depth do we want to go? How uncomfortable can we stand to make them? How much awkward silence are we willing to suffer through for the sake of honesty?
Because any answer we give is either going to be a lie or a half-truth or an infinitesimal fraction of our sibling’s story. And they deserve more than that.
They deserve more than an awkward silence, a pregnant pause, a mumbled “sorry for your loss”, a sideways glance to a friend to save them from an uncomfortable topic. They deserve more than a change of subject, a wide eyed stare, a forced statement of understanding, a nervous gulp of a drink.
They deserve more.
Here’s the thing everyone needs to understand.
We don’t want to watch you squirm. We don’t want to see the flash of pity on your face, we don’t want to watch you struggle to come up with the “right” thing to say. We don’t want to see the judgment cloud your eyes when we mention the addiction that took over our loved one’s life. We don’t want you to feel sorry that you asked in the first place.
Let me be clear.
The painful silence isn’t anyone’s fault. I don’t expect anyone to know what to say if and when I choose to share that I’ve lost Sarah, and how. I don’t assume that you’ll understand. I actually hope you don’t, because that would mean you’ve felt my same pain.
And this is a pain I don’t wish on anyone.
Loss, in any form, is an awkward thing to talk about. I’m not saying people shouldn’t ask that question. I mean if everyone stopped asking any question that could possibly be answered with a painful response, no one would ever speak again.
I guess I just wish that I could come up with an answer that would make you more comfortable, that would honor my sister’s memory, that would tell her story in a few words, that would make you understand the size of her heart, that could make you hear her laugh like I do, that would encompass her whole spirit without making you wish you hadn’t asked.
In order to do that I think I have to make myself understand her struggle, I have to find a way to wrap my brain around the decision she made almost a year ago, I have to look to her for signs on what to do, how to act, what to say, how to answer.
Sarah didn’t leave a note. There was no explanation, not even a piece of one, not even a shred of insight into the depths of pain she was feeling that morning. I knew she hated herself as an addict, but I never thought of her as suicidal. Ever.
Nothing made sense.
And then, a couple of weeks ago, Sarah sent me a piece of her story.
Let me explain.
I wasn’t quite awake yet and I put our dog’s water bowl on the edge of the sink to fill it, started doing something else and totally forgot about it. It obviously overflowed, and apparently there’s a little gap where the dining room and kitchen floors meet, so it started leaking down into the basement. I went downstairs to find the water dripping into a box filled with books that my mom dropped off after Sarah died.
As I was taking the books out of the box and drying them off, I picked up a book called “Fridays,” which I hadn’t read since 6th or 7th grade. I paused to look at the book for a second, simply because I had written about “a month of Fridays” in my last blog post. As I opened the book, some papers fell out of it onto the floor. The papers were detailing the arrest of my sister on March 21st of last year. The charges were serious, and she was scheduled to appear in court on April 7th. Six days after she killed herself.
I didn’t know about her arrest until the day before she died, and I didn’t know all the details until I read that paperwork.
The paperwork which was folded up in a book that I hadn’t seen in 25 years, which happened to be entitled “Fridays,” which I had written about just a week before. As heartbreaking as it was to realize that she felt like she had no other way out, it brought a bittersweet sense of relief in that everything was starting to make sense.
And then I realized something. March 21st was two days before my bridal shower, which was the last time I saw Sarah alive.
On that day, Sarah walked in the door looking beautiful and radiant and with the light in her eyes that I’d missed for so long. She sat next to some of my best friends and told them how happy she was for me and Wesley, her smile just as bright as ever, her laughter unfurling like a rainbow over the sounds of the small talk and chatter in the room.
I would have never guessed that she’d been arrested two days before, that she was carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders, that she was back in the grips of the disease that had held her prisoner for so many years, that her smile was hiding so much pain and fear. I would have never guessed that while she sat there, telling my friends about how sure she was about my future with Wes, she was silently terrified about what the future held for her.
I would have never guessed.
As heartbreaking as it was to find out she was carrying that burden with her, I’ll forever be grateful for the fact that she made the effort to be there, that the last memories I have of her are of her smiling and laughing and being the Sarah I knew and loved. Even if it was all a facade built for me, I’m grateful.
We only had a few minutes of uninterrupted conversation that day, but she told me that she wouldn’t have chosen anyone else in the world for me, that Wes and I were perfect together, that she couldn’t wait to see me walk down the aisle, and that she was so happy that she and I were closer than we had been in a long time.
And she thanked me for believing in her.
I still do. I always will. I just wish she’d believed in herself.
I have faith in the fact that Sarah played a little part in having those papers fall out of that specific book, in that specific moment, to help me understand a little more of her story. I have to believe.
And I’ll take the memory of that one last smile to carry with me for the rest of my days.
Because she’ll always be a sister, to me.
And that will always be my answer.