In the past three weeks I’ve thought several times that I’d like to sit down and write something, but then I haven’t because when someone dies far too soon and leaving behind a life that was in the middle of being lived, what you find yourself doing is making endless phone calls, sending email after email, and only clearing a quarter of your to do list every day, with every crossed off item spawning an entire new list. Which I guess is preferable to sitting around twiddling your thumbs and thinking about how empty home feels.
I have retold my sister’s death so many times. It probably seems odd to people hearing it for the first time that I am not more emotional. There was a moment after the first week when I found myself consoling one of my sister’s friends, a woman whom I’d never met, and I realized I was pretending to feel more sad than I actually did in that moment so that she would not feel awkward. How very British, “Please do excuse me whilst I work up some tears to keep you company in your grief, wouldn’t want you to feel out of place, pip, pip.” The realization made me laugh, but it also made me feel dishonest, I haven’t done it since.
People’s reactions range, but I did get a giggle from my neighbour’s response. She had come to the house to look in the garden for her cat, and after an unsuccessful search I told her I had some sad news to share and explained my sister had died. She said, “I’m sorry to hear that….[sigh]… Boy I am having the worst day, first the cat goes missing , then there were racoons in the back yard, the line at the pharmacy was too long so I didn’t pick up my meds, and now I’m having anxiety..” I could almost see the unspoken words above her head, “..and now you’re telling me about your dead sister. Jeez, could you not have kept that to yourself?”
The universe has great ways of reminding us that we are not at its centre.
The grief come and goes in a heartbeat. A random thought can pop into my head which leaves me sobbing and then seconds later guffawing about my grief or something else entirely. Inappropriate things are hilarious, for example carrying out what was basically a scavenger hunt in a graveyard trying to find a suitable final resting place. (Really it’s kind of brilliant, you have a series of numbers that are written on stone circles embedded into the ground and grown over with roots and grass, laid out in the weirdest of patterns, and you have to locate a single number in a labyrinth of 9000 century old markers. I felt like Indiana Jones. There was absolutely a point where I realised I was having fun. In fact I later suggested a Halloween scavenger hunt in the cemetery to my family, and was sternly informed that I am not allowed to get myself a lifetime ban from the place where my sister and father are buried.)
My middle sister flew into town for a week. I tried so hard to be rational and objective, cautioning her to be careful in the pandemic, and telling her, when she asked me what I thought she should do, that this was her decision and I couldn’t possibly tell her what to do. All that objectivity went out the window as soon as I saw her. Kept telling her how happy I was she was here, and how much I needed her. She was here for the burial, which was perfect if truth be known. The pandemic has been a mixed blessing, one of the things it did for us was to remove choices about the funeral. We couldn’t have a service so we didn’t have to decide what went into the service, or try to plan a memorial in mere days that would do our girl justice. The amount of people permitted at the graveside was limited so we had immediate family only instead of attempting the impossible, choosing who had the most right to be present. Consequently we were able to just be us. We didn’t have to say the correct things or show the appropriate amount of feelings. We didn’t have to graciously receive anyone’s condolences. It was a gift not to have to react to others’ grief. We had written the priest a letter about our sister, who she was, what she meant to us, he understood every word and spoke about her as if he had known her his whole life.
People want to help. It was weird at first, full cooked meals turning up on the doorstep from people I didn’t know, but pretty quickly I realized how awesome it was to be relieved of grocery shopping. I hate shopping, hate it. Interestingly enough my sister’s friends leave cooked food, my niece’s friends leave cookies, my friends leave wine. You can’t over estimate the value of friends that know you that well.