Lessons in Loss
It’s been just over two years since my sister passed away. Her death was sudden and painful. She was 42. She started seeing doctors in July 2020 with concerns about pain in her sternum. The leading cancer expert in the DC area review her scans and stated that it was not cancer and therefore subsequent doctors stopped looking for cancer and started exploring other options. Her health was poor even outside of the pain. She was obese, overindulgent in food and drugs, and had been smoking since she was in her early teens. After multiple hospital visits, multiple surgeries, and rapidly declining mobility in late January 2021 my sister was told that she had late-stage squamous cell carcinoma with unknown origins, and tumors in her hips, shoulders, lungs, and spine. She started an aggressive radiation and chemotherapy regiment and by early March was moved into Hospice. For the week she was in hospice she would fluctuate between full body pain, disintegrating dignity, and sedation with fleeting moments of manageable consciousness. But in those fragile moments she was the most kind, thoughtful, and gracious expression of herself. And I was deeply aware of being in the presence of Grace.
I went to DC to be with her and my family for the last week of her life and I had my 8-month-old son with me. It was one of the most expansive times in my life. In the mornings I would be with my son and mother, eating breakfast and enjoying the vitality of his body, mind, and spirit. Then a family member or friend would come over to look after my son while my Mom and I would go over to hospice. During COVID only 2 people could be in the room with my sister at a time and my Mom and I would trade off leaving the room so friends could come visit her. At the end of the day, I would come back home to take over caring for my son and help with dinner for the family. My Mom would stay at hospice until my sister was somewhat calm, or my Mom’s energy level would reach rock bottom. It was hard for her to leave my sister each night, but she knew that she needed to come home so that she could return the next day if my sister survived one more night.
It was against everything my sister wanted for the last days of her life. Being in a hospital setting away from friends and family in a sterile environment that was the antithesis of her misfit, creative, loud world. But the doctors told us that her level of care was too high to be anywhere else, in fact they were not sure that she would survive the transfer from the hospital to hospice. She did, barely and that’s where she breathed her last breath. My dad, half dissociated half in problem solve mode, went to be with her the last day she was alive. In an incredible act of love from the universe, he decided to spend the night in hospice with her. So, her final hours of this life were spent in the same room as the beating heart of her father. The most consistent person in her life, which was full of abandonment and confusion. My sister’s life was full of chaos, internal and external. Starting with early adoption, maternal neglect and abuse, heavy drug and alcohol use, and a continual line of toxic relationships. Her physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health were a roller coaster.
And she was one of the most intelligent, creative, kind people I will ever know. In her final week of life, between her eyes rolling into the back of her head with pain and drooling with sedation, I saw the softest parts of my sister laying on the mechanical bed. Parts of her that I had never seen so clearly because the chaos of her life was so dramatic. Those final moments of her asking if I needed coffee when I went to visit, or her intensely organizing her bedside tray (the only thing she had control over) or directing me with playfulness as I worked to help her eat the few pieces of food that would be some of the last pieces of pleasure she experienced. She was kind and so courageous. There were a few times she would ask my Mom what she should do, wondering if she should maybe seek another doctor’s opinion or work with an alternative medicine professional. But by the end she was on enough sedation to kill a horse which may have stifled any fight she has left. And my sister who I had seen whine and wallow and tantrum my entire life was honest and thoughtful and emotionally strong as she faced her own death. And all of us were in awe of her.
I could feel my whole heart want to close up each day to protect myself from the intensity of the situation. But each day I would watch my son wake up and it would force my heart open. His bright, joyful, vitality stood in stark contrast to the tortured, dimming of my sister’s life. It felt like each day I would have to crack my chest all the way open in order to keep my heart expansive enough to wrap around it all – the pain, the joy, death, and life. And in the expansiveness, I witness the power and wonder of the heart – Grace. This is the main lesson that my sister taught me as she moved through her death. That we naturally want to curl in around pain to protect ourselves from its intensity, but there is no protection in the crumpling upon yourself. In fact, that isolation disconnects you from all the energies within yourself and in the world that are available to help us accept, experience, and integrate pain. It is when we crack our chest open against the innate curling in, that we open ourselves to Grace, letting it hold us and move through us as we experience pain. This is my sister’s legacy and will forever be a guiding lesson in my life.
And as I work to face my life Full On each day, there is less taking things for granted, and less taking things so seriously. We don’t know how long we’ll have in this body, and some amount of pain is inevitable. So, my pledge to my sister and self is to do my best to live this life with an open heart and to make the absolute most of it. In writing this, I experienced another layer of grief and healing and motivation. In terms of my work and the way I serve others. My sister has unconsciously and consciously shaped my career. Her pain guided my course of study and practice. I slowly learned and mastered the techniques and tools that would have most benefited her, including Inner ChildHealing work and Spiritual Development. For obviously reasons I was not able to support her professionally, but every person I work with or group I support, feels like a way of honoring her by putting out into the world the very healing and love that her soul was seeking. This connects me to her each and every day, and this connects her to helping other souls find the love and peace that they deserve.
Thank you Big Sis.