I thought about it many times over the 6 ½ years she was sick. I knew the day was coming, that it would come. This didn’t keep me from feeling shocked when it happened. From asking God why and feeling a terrible emptiness in my chest for weeks afterward. My awareness of her death’s inevitability didn’t keep my heart from breaking. It didn’t protect me from grief.
I’d heard it many times before, “Grief is not a straight line.” Well, my line seemed to start out pretty straight. Or maybe, at more of a 45-degree angle, steadily moving up and moving on at a reasonable, and even socially-acceptable pace. I was getting over it; I was sure of it.
But then I found myself crying more than I did the week she died. I found myself having dreams she was still here, chatting and laughing at family dinners. A picture of her would flash on my phone, to remind me of a great memory we shared on that day years before.
It was a great memory.
But then I remembered I can’t make any more memories with her.
And with that, my straight-line path to healing began to tremble and then fall completely down to the bottom of the graph. Perhaps at the lowest point it ever was.
Rachel was first diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer just a month after her 29th birthday. I remember feeling so optimistic—encouraging my big sister with promising statistics and the naive notion that breast cancer was the “good cancer.” You’ll beat this! I cheered. Look at our mom! Look at our aunts! It will be a really tough year, but then you’ll have your whole life ahead of you. You’ll be a survivor!
These weren’t just platitudes. Back in 2014, I believed these words too. All would be well, I just knew it.
But then came the diagnosis of lung cancer in 2016. And it’s recurrence in 2018, metastasized and at stage 4. And the terrible truth that no one comes back from stage 4. No matter who you are, it’s just a matter of time. How much time depends on your lifestyle, treatment plan, but mostly luck. Rachel was one of the lucky ones. She got 2 ½ more years.
So, I had time to process it. But I didn’t. Had time to begin to grieve. But I didn’t.
Instead, I chose to ignore it. To not allow myself to get upset or to borrow trouble by worrying about it. I don’t think it was foolish of me to do so. After all, I had to survive. Get up every morning, take care of my baby, go to work, live my life. No, not foolish. But most certainly short-sighted.
Rachel’s final two years were awful. As her body began to lose the battle, so did her mind. The drugs had ruined her mental state, and I lost patience with her at the end. I selfishly couldn’t handle the rollercoaster that was a relationship with her. I feel terrible regret over this and even more intense grief. Grief that she had to take so many pills to survive, at the terrible cost of her sanity. Grief that she had become someone I didn’t know, that I couldn’t recognize. Grief that this happened to her at all. To her husband, her children, to our parents, to everyone who loved her.
No, grief is definitely not a straight line. It’s only the beginning of my journey, but I get the feeling that losing a sister isn’t something you ever really get over.
It seems to me I will carry Rachel’s loss with me for the rest of my life. That I’ll be an old woman one day, telling my grandbabies about the vibrant and strong great aunt that they never knew. Perhaps by then, it will hurt a little less. I’ll be able to talk about her without crying, even laugh about so many of the great moments we had together. Maybe I can do this next month or next year. I’m just not sure yet.
Until that day, I’ll take things slow. I’ll let myself feel all of it—the sadness, the anger, the disbelief. And I’ll daily remind myself there is no one path to healing, but that healing will eventually come. Some moments in a straight-line predictable way and in many moments, with a jagged mess of tears. With this reassurance, I will do my best to keep moving in this world. Until I can see my sweet sister again in the next.