August 22, 2016

You Will Always be Here—A Letter to my Sister on her Birthday.

Han Cheng Yeh/Flickr

Every year I age, but you don’t. You remain fixed within that picture frame on my mantel, hair flying back in the wind, smile wide, eyes partly closed from joy.

As you stared into that camera so many years ago, you would never have known that I would be looking at this picture now, more than a decade after your death at 31, searching for clues. Anything betraying an inkling that you knew there wasn’t much time left. Perhaps that’s why you always lived with such energy—you had a lifetime’s worth, but only so many years to use it.

Then I ask the question that so many of us ask when people are gone:

Where did you go?

Because I still feel you here, still sometimes catch your expressions in another’s face, or the tilt of your head in a passerby, a tone of your voice in a conversation overheard at the drug store. I sometimes dream you are nearby, consoling me that you are still right here next to me.

Then I wake up and feel the loss all over again.

The grief sets in as I resurrect your memory, hoping that the breadth of my imagination can cause it to expand and push through to reality. But of course, it doesn’t. All I have are pictures, two-dimensional portraits of someone who existed in so many more planes, a sliver of a life cut off prematurely.

But then I stop myself.

Because, like many, I often treat grief like a burden that pushes me down, something I have to manage and hold or throw off my shoulders. All heavy, wet weight with no lift or light.

But like every dark cloud, there is a bright ring that encircles it, something that keeps it poised above us in the sky. And here it is, a bit of the light found in the dark, that which I can hold onto as a lesson from grief.

Appreciate the now.

I humbly admit that I didn’t do this before. I assumed you would be with me forever. But the world is volatile, unpredictable and what we hold in our hands and hearts at this moment is never ours.

I was given a temporary gift of you and I didn’t stop often enough to recognize it, to thank the universe for you. Gratitude cannot be a one-shot deal. It needs be ongoing, a daily reminder of the beauty we have been allowed to witness and feel. If death teaches us nothing else, it is to be present and cherish all the little moments that bring joy to our lives.

There are lessons in grief.

It’s so easy to drown in the emotions of loss, to color its lines with blackness instead of light. But grief can be a teacher. It has allowed me the opportunity to pause and take in what I’ve learned from you.

I learned about the transience of life as I watched you suffer through an unexpected cancer diagnosis. I learned about courage as I watched you stare in the face of death and keep fighting. I learned about love as I watched people rally around you. I learned about sacrifice as I watched you continue to give back despite your body giving out under you.

Grief isn’t about just managing a loss. It’s about finding the slivers of gold in the pile of coal, brushing them off and carrying that forward with us.

There are no wrong emotions.

Your loss resulted in a host of emotions that made no sense to me, emotions that seemed off kilter at the time. I felt numb when I watched you die, like a switch inside had been pulled and everything shut down. Then I felt guilty over my reaction, confused over what that signaled about me, and then disillusioned.

The sadness that I expected to come on violently upon your deathbed didn’t emerge that way—it seeped in over many years, like little droplets falling from a rusty faucet. One by one they fell upon my head and heart until they finally filled a pool.

My response was not wrong, just as no other’s is wrong. It is what it is and each will feel grief in their own way and in their own time. As always, judgment has no place here.

You will always be here.

This sounds terribly cliché, and maybe it is. For years, you have appeared in my dreams. You have consoled me, given me advice, and supplied support when I felt none. And perhaps this is my own subconscious playing with me, choosing you as the face of my deeper feelings.

But I think otherwise. I think you really are still here—because our memories of you, your words and actions all live on. The way you led your life with civility and grace. The way you put others first and always chose the most noble path. Those qualities did not go unnoticed, and as long as we keep these memories alive, so are you.


Author: Amanda Richardson

Image: Han Cheng Yeh/Flickr

Editor: Emily Bartran

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Amanda Richardson