Going to the grocery store on a Saturday morning.
Getting to pick out the junk cereal of the week.
Getting 35 cents to spend at the lunch counter at Grants while she did a little shopping.
Those are some of my earliest memories of my sister Carol. Sure there are others, like the time she took us toBattersonParkand someone accidentally stuck her with a fish hook, but the Saturday morning grocery store visits stick out the most. My younger brother and I would take turns every other Saturday going on the weekly shopping trip with Carol. That’s because she was smart enough not to take us both at the same time or she would have lost her mind.
I come from a family of 6 children. There are 20 years between my oldest sister, Pat and my youngest brother Joe, and 16 years between Pat and myself. By the time I was 4 years old, Pat was already off to college. I don’t even think I went to her wedding when I was 6 years old. Carol was the sister who I grew up with. My mother did not drive so it was Carol who took us places. It was Carol’s house where we had Easter and Christmas. It was Carol who kept the family traditions alive.
It was Carol who, although the younger sister, headed what we affectionately called “The Aunts Council” along with my sister Pat, mine and my brothers’ wives. They would sternly and lovingly talk to a niece or nephew who was behaving impishly or would affectionately grill any boy who had the courage to attend a family gathering as the guest of one of the nieces. I don’t even want to mention their reaction to a bad report card.
It was Carol who passed on most of the family recipes I cherish.
She retired at age 62 after 42 years of caring for others as a nurse. She had back surgery and developed an infection from that surgery and spent the next 2 years in and out of the hospital before she died in August 2009.
I was holding her hand.
Fittingly, besides her husband and children, my brother Joe was the other sibling in the room. Just before she died, she opened her eyes, smiled and left us. I never believed it when I would read an obituary and it would say that so and so died peacefully, surrounded by their loving family. Now I know what they mean.
When I was asked if I would write about sibling grief I needed to take some time to prayerfully consider the request. First and foremost, I wanted what I wrote to be uplifting and inspiring, able to help someone else through their grief. Secondly, I wanted to make sure I didn’t trivialize anyone else’s grief by suggesting that my experience in any way compared to theirs. In thinking about this whole Issue, I came to several conclusions.
First, Sibling Grief is profoundly different than Parental Grief over the loss of a child. I am comforted to know that there is an organization like TCF to help grieving parents. Only you have the ability to say “I know how you feel” or “I know what you’re going through”. I don’t know what you’re going through and quite selfishly, I don’t want to know. I know there is a profound difference between the grief a parent has over a stillborn baby or a child who succumbs to an illness and that of a parent who loses a child in an accident or as the result of substance abuse.
Similarly, there is an equally profound difference in sibling grief. I was 52 when Carol died one month shy of her 65th birthday. My grief is very different than that of a 25 year old that loses their 22 year old brother in a motorcycle accident or an 8 year old trying to understand why their 6 year old sister is not coming home from the hospital. One of the most dramatic effects of being 52 and losing an older sibling is that you come face to face with your own mortality. We are supposed to bury our parents. It still sucks, but we are supposed to. However when you see a sibling pass you really start to think. It must be even more unnerving for my sister Pat who is older than Carol, or my brother Butch turned 65 this year.
In light of that I find I can only tell you how I moved through the process.
This may sound callous to you but I do not grieve for my sister. I miss her. I think about her nearly every day. I look expectantly to the day when I will see her again, but I don’t grieve her.
I recall a scene from the Movie “Casper”. If you are not familiar with it I will give you a brief overview. Bill Pullman plays a psychologist who believes that ghosts are spirits with unfinished business on earth. He helps people who have ghosts “haunting” their houses by helping the ghosts to resolve their unfinished business so they can move on. At the same time, he is hoping to encounter the ghost of his recently deceased wife (I know, a little far-fetched). Near the end of the movie his wife appears to him and says something very profound. “James I know you have been searching for me but there is something you need to understand. You and Kat (his daughter) loved me so well when I was alive that I have no unfinished business. Please don’t let me be yours”.
That is how I feel regarding Carol. She loved me and my brothers and sister so well, and we her, that there was no unfinished business between us. Only pure love and wonderful memories. Absolutely, I miss her. I miss calling her about a recipe. I miss calling her with a medical question. I miss the way she ended each and every phone conversation with “I love you”. I miss her filled cookies which I have been unable to satisfactorily duplicate. But I do not grieve for her.
I was honored to deliver the eulogy at her funeral. I spoke of the qualities Carol had as first a daughter, then a sister. A spouse, parent and then a grandparent and finally as a friend. I encouraged those in attendance to honor her life by following her example in each of these areas and concluded that my only hope was that I would be able to do so as well.
As I said before, I don’t know what each of you is experiencing. I have no idea the depths to which your heart aches every day. I am fairly certain of one thing however. Those whom you grieve do not want your grief. They want you to live. They want you to love. They want you to dance and laugh and bake cookies. I am honoring the memory of my sister by living my life. So what if the recipe did not come out exactly right. I’m sure she’ll let me know what I did wrong when I see her.
Finally, if you are a 52 year old who has lost your older sister after a long illness, and remember her singing off key and making the best filled cookies in the world –
I know exactly how you feel.
I know what you’re going through.
(Carols little brother)