I never thought my first experience with death would be that of my own 23-year-old sister.
Upon hearing the news via Skype, I cried until my face was unrecognizable, only black and blue. I felt lost. How could she really be gone so soon? Only weeks ago I had exchanged messages with her telling her how much I loved her and now, she was dead.
“Why?” That’s what everyone asked me. Now, six weeks later, I am no longer concerned with the why—Gwendolyn’s choice brought her peace and for me, that is enough.
But this is what I do know:
My sister was a woman who, “loved with a love that was more than love,” as Edgar Allen Poe would say. Amidst a life of so much pain, she gave her heart out to others like pieces of chocolate. In her death, she proved to be a world-class teacher for me and countless others.
Here are seven lessons Gwen has taught me in her death:
Since I never knew anyone that died, Gwen’s death was my first experience. I realized that I was not sad for my sister’s death but rather her life; even more so I was sad for myself. I was sad that she was not going to see me graduate in a few months, come visit me in college, or have adventures with me in our adulthood. I was devastated that I couldn’t talk with her again or get that picture I never took last time I saw her.
I was sad for the things I wouldn’t have and that’s all right.
2. Your body is only a vessel.
At the funeral, I had a bit of a breakdown. Never had I been in the vicinity of a funeral home and when I walked in those chapel doors, the tears were on cue.
From a distance I could see my sister’s body lying in a coffin. I nearly dropped to the floor, hardly able to breathe. After centering myself, I slowly walked to the coffin and stood above her head. She had a Lacoste shirt on as usual and her long, flawless hair rested upon her shoulders. Again, the tears came.
This was not my sister; it was an empty body that would be cremated in a few days time. At that moment, I realized that our bodies are merely vessels for our souls. The words are beautiful to preach, but until you are looking into the face of someone so dear, it does not truly sink in.
3. Love no matter what (and most importantly, love yourself).
“Everything I have done, do or will do, comes back to love. My coordinates are love and love is my destination. Seen through the eyes of love, nothing I have done is unacceptable. Love covers all that I have done, do or will do in my life. Love is always present and love is always enough.”
That’s an excerpt of the guided meditation I led at school a day before my sister’s death. It is one thing to believe in love in our everyday lives, but believing in love when life crumbles is the ultimate test. I continued to act in the name of love, but most importantly, I remembered to love myself. I did what was necessary in order to take care of my wounded soul, whatever that entailed.
I showed myself the epitome of self-love when I truly needed it the most.
The best part about death is that our loved ones are not really gone. Maybe the person is not there in the physical form or walking around as a ghost, but their presence does not disappear. Gwendolyn has been with me in countless ways since her death. Sometimes it’s just a feeling, at other times a dream, and when I am lucky, she uses the elements.
One day, about two weeks after her death, I was floating in the Pacific when a wave crashed over me. Instead of coming up right away, I let the wave take me and hold me under. I closed my eyes and danced with the waves. There was not a thought in my mind-only peace. She was talking to me with the waves without saying a word. When I came up, I was ecstatic because it felt like she was right there with me.
So, take my word, they’re never truly gone.
5. Be good to yourself.
Gwendolyn wrote a suicide letter. One of the many profound lines was, “Please be good to one another, not just loved ones. You all wield a power far greater than we realize. Be good to yourselves!”
Well, that’s what I intend on doing. I have been given one life and my sister showed me how easily it can slip away. After reading her words, I made a promise to myself that I will not lead a life that makes me unhappy or damages the precious vessel I’ve been given.
She wished the same for everyone.
6. Life goes on.
Six weeks later, my sister death feels like an eternity yet it feels like just yesterday. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my gorgeous sister, but the days become easier. I have to keep living because I’m still here. My vessel still has work to do on this earth. Life must go on. It can’t stop and start for others. I only have control over myself. That’s what she would want-to never forget and to keep going.
I always have felt that I have an enormous amount of love and light to share. When my sister died, that love and light grew roots and discovered the meaning of depth. I feel like I can act with a greater understanding of the realities of life-the yin and yang. My sister’s light resides in my heart and I’ll forever carry it for the world to see. Keep on shining.
Thank you, Gwendolyn. You may have taken your life, but you gave mine back.
Evan Upchurch lives in the Guanacaste province of Costa Rica with her mother and younger brother. Yoga and meditation are a part of her daily life. She will be attending the American University of Paris this fall to pursue her passion for writing.
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Assistant Ed: Karla Rodas/Ed: Bryonie Wise