Five days after my little sister shot herself, I stood in the driveway with my fiancé hurling porcelain teacups against our garage door as fast as he could hand them to me. Our wedding was 12 days away, and there I was, smashing pieces of china to smithereens, sobbing and screaming and hysterically laughing at the absurdity of it all.
The week before, I’d answered the door to find the parents of one of my best friends looking back at me with ghosts in their eyes. Rage crept into my bones as I listened to the words falling from their lips. “It’s Sarah,” they said. “She’s dead.” I don’t remember the rest.
Google the word “grief” and you’ll find 10,000 different definitions, none of which capture what it feels like to wake up one morning with the sun ripped from your sky. Philosopher Sigmund Freud referred to the act of mourning as “the work of grief,” a task to complete and never think about again. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief have been touted as the bereaved person’s gospel since the 1960s. Ironically, those stages were derived from conversations with the dying, not the ones death left behind.
In America, grief is rarely talked about openly. Instead, we’re given a timeline to mourn, a deadline after which we’re expected to buck up and soldier on in the face of our loss. “Terrible timing, but at least you’re getting this over with now so you can focus on your wedding,” someone said to me in the receiving line at Sarah’s funeral as I stood there trying to remember how to breathe.
In many other countries, grief is respected; cultural traditions exist to honor the dead for years to come. South Koreans turn ashes into colorful “death beads,” proudly displayed in the homes of the bereaved. In Madagascar, bodies are exhumed every seven years so their loved ones can fill them in on what they’ve missed before burying them again.
My ritual consisted of a box of Goodwill china that my husband Wes brought home for us to smash, because for five days in a row, he’d held me while I unleashed all of my rage on him and he didn’t know what else to do.
This past April marked six years since Sarah died. It hasn’t gotten any easier. Some days I’m still standing in that driveway amidst piles of broken shards, wondering how to navigate this world without my sister’s laugh to guide me home.
The only difference is that now we have a 4-year-old daughter, Amelia, who reminds me more and more of my sister every day. I don’t think I fully grasped the scope of my loss until I became a mom to this fierce little girl who wraps the whole world up in her smile, just like her aunt once did.
Sarah had a way of seeking out the broken ones, the ones with the saddest stories etched into the fine lines on their faces. Those who needed saving were the ones she loved most. Amelia’s preschool teacher calls her an old soul, an empath who has an uncanny way of sensing when another child needs a friend. She carries so much of Sarah’s spirit in her tiny little body that it hurts to look at her sometimes.
If you ask Amelia about her Aunt Sarah, she’ll tell you she lives in the stars. If you happen to be standing outside with her on a clear night, you’ll see her look up to the sky and wave goodnight to her guardian angel. I tell myself she’s always keeping an eye on us from her new home in the stars. I just wish she was physically here.
My God, I wish she was here.
There are days I think I’m not enough, that everything my sister was, I am not. I don’t know if I have the tools to cultivate the parts of Amelia’s soul that belong to Sarah without her here to show me the way. But every time I start questioning if I’m built to be her mom, Amelia finds a way to bring me back down to earth, a beacon of light on my darkest days.
Every year it’s as if I’m watching myself from above, slowly unraveling in the weeks leading up to April 1. I’ve tasted the rage on the tip of my tongue and watched myself throw it all on the people I love, and I’ve never known how to stop. Last year, I watched Amelia’s face crumple as I unleashed five years of grief and anger on the least deserving person of all, and in that moment, I saw everything I never wanted to be as a mother.
I’m not proud of the person I’ve become under the weight of this loss. I know it’s not fair for me to expect Wes or anyone else to stand in the wake of my storm and find a way to piece me back together for the 10,000th time. Most importantly, I know that Amelia should never have to bear the weight of this burden. Ever.
So this year, instead of waiting for my grief to swallow me whole, I sought therapy. As I stood up to leave my first session, I told my therapist that I felt like a weight had already been lifted off my chest. She looked at me for a second before asking if I understood the significance of the timing of taking this first step; I told her it meant I could finally start to heal.
“Well, yes, but you’re also giving your husband and daughter the gift of your best self, and that’s a beautiful thing. It means you’re a really good mom,” she said, and for the first time ever, I believed it.
In reality, I owe Amelia so much more than that.
Because that little lionhearted girl hangs the sun back in my sky every time she smiles.