I got the call on a Sunday morning. For the first hour I was stunned, saying little as I packed my bags, booked a flight back to Kansas and slowly tried to parse the news that my little sister died in a car wreck. For the next forty-eight, I was oscillating violently between peaks of rage, valleys of sorrow and brief spurts of forced responsibility as I tended to the macabre affair of laying her to rest.
Those long hours eventually began to be measured in the days and weeks and years that would serve as the measuring stick of the life that followed. My sister’s death bisected my life - forever it would be sorted by that which happened before and that which happened after. To call the effect of the loss of someone you love dearly profound seems perverse, but in this still limited language of Shakespeare we English writers ply our trade, there’s little other recourse.
Loss alters life. And life carries on, with all the agony that suggests.
Today my sister would have turned twenty-eight. ”Could have” and “should have” are immediate alternates when finding words to write about such dark anniversaries, but enduring tragedy over time one learns the futility of wordcraft when one misses someone so. One learns a few more things about oneself, and it occurred to me while walking about and reflecting another year without my sister Vickie that I’ve learned some lessons from this loss. Further, that perhaps those lessons might be valuable to my contemporaries as we all start to enter the age when these tragedies become more common and we begin to know - not think, but know - what life is like without those dearest to us.
Here are a few for your consideration, offered from a grateful heart.
1) Humans First
Everything that really matters is already around you in the form of the humans you count as family and friends. Stuff, money, title, power, influence and fame are all decorations astonishingly easy to get and lose. But the getting rarely leads to anything but more wanting, and losing one is usually consoled in the greater acquisition of another.
Humans are the only things in your life you can never get back. Once I started orienting my personal and professional lives around that realization, I found both swelled in value from the preciousness of this commodity. And, eerily, the other material bits started to grow as well.
When people are the most important thing in your life, your life starts to become a lot more important - quickly.
2) Call Your Ma More
Loss is a catastrophic event for all your relationships. Those relationships firmed in strong foundations are tested and usually emerge stronger; those without usually crumble underneath the weight. It sounds like some self-help hippie horseshit, but the foundations for strong relationships are truly built brick-by-brick over a long period of time.
Those bricks are dinners and parties and IM conversations and picnics and road trips and hikes and phone calls. Every interaction in every relationship is an opportunity: you can lay another brick or you can take one out. The foundation of your relationship is ultimately the aggregate sum of those interactions and its strength is directly reflective of how many of those interactions were spent building bricks.
It helps to have a lot of bricks with your ma and the others who are closest to you. The storm will eventually come. The warning will be scant.
3) Help Comes In Different Flavors
Being young, Irish and male, I didn’t talk to anybody after my sister passed. Upon reflection, this was spectacularly stupid.
You will never “get over” your loss - it is a permanent weight in you will carry for the rest of your life. But, there are a number of ways that you can learn how to make that weight manageable without making you and those around you miserable. Personally, laying on a couch and talking to Dr. Oatman about my dreams wouldn’t have helped me carry that weight. But, that’s far from the only option out there for working through this kind of struggle.
Even finding a small group who were similarly suffering I think would have made the experience a lot of less difficult for myself and the ones I loved. Be a man and find some help that works for you - you’re not the only one suffering from your pride.
4) Go To Every Wedding And Every Funeral You Can
These are the hardest rituals to participate in after you lose someone you love. But, in every case I went, I found myself glad I did. And in every case I didn’t, I found if I was being honest with myself, the reasons for declining attendance were selfish.
These events are built from millennia of tradition to make human beings feel better about periods of transition. You’ll almost always regret skipping them some time down the line.
5) Hug Like It Matters
When last I saw my sister, I was going to be flying back to Kansas to join her and the rest of my family for Christmas in only a couple weeks time. She said, “I’ll see you in a few days” just as we embraced. I still hugged the shit out of her anyway. And you will never know how very grateful I am that I did.
If you get someone in your arms, make it matter. Always part company like it’s the end.