As my long-time readers are well aware, my sister’s death in the year 2005 paralyzed me in many ways. I was deeply sad, but I was also angry. I was angry that clocks kept ticking, and I resented people who kept being normal. They kept shopping for groceries, planning parties, and going to work. They kept on saying good morning and wearing life is good T-shirts. They kept running, practicing yoga and smiling. They kept getting on planes and working and drinking and sleeping and eating. They did all sorts of things which I, in fact, used to do, too.
How dare they?
It was stunningly difficult to move forward, or on, or through it all, so I didn’t for a awhile. It’s been eight years, and I still find myself deeply grieving her, but I keep shopping for groceries, planning parties, and going to work. I keep doing all sorts of stuff.
I wrote those words about a week ago, but I didn’t hit publish.
I’m not sure why loss was on my mind so much last week. It seems like a lot of people are dying unexpectedly, or earlier than they were intended to. When my sister died I crashed into a grief process that didn’t allow me to check back into life for a long time. Many people reached out bravely and warmly to comfort our family, but all I could think was they don’t understand. They don’t know. They can’t know. Others stumbled over their words, intending to offer condolences but instead made a mess of things. Sometimes the best intended words made me just laugh. The belief that my sister was now in a better place seemed (and seems) to me the most preposterous idea of all… you’d be surprised how often I heard those words, despite the truth that she was 28 years old and more alive than most of us.
You know what they say about good intentions. Well, it turns out that intent is often irrelevant. It flies in the face of truth. This is why people say they didn’t “mean” it when they use a vulgar expression or a shameful term… they don’t “intend” to hurt someone or enrage an entire community. But it happens, all too often.
The unreal thing about grief is that most of us do get through it, pretending to be normal while tending to both those who acknowledge our loss as well as those who ignore it. Practical tasks like eating and bathing may save us from drowning in the “sinking sand” of loss, as my youngest calls quicksand, and if we are lucky we are lifted up both by grace and by a profound strength that we never envisioned having or needing.
Death brings to mind the randomness of humanity, because I don’t think every thing happens for a reason. Depending on the circumstances into which we were born, we may eat, bathe, work, move, rest, want or learn – or do none of these things in a healthy way. Emotionally, too, life’s a bit of a crap shoot. Many of us hail from strong and supportive families, but many of us are also born into a dysfunctional mess, a recipe made up of mixed up relatives + complex life stuff. Add in hormones and aids I like to call mood-makers, and you’re bound to have issues.
[Sidenote: mood-makers may include but are not limited to the following: alcohol, running, sugar, caffeine, drugs, music, silence. I like to practice all of them, some more moderately so than others. What are your mood-makers?]
Last week I read about a woman who died unexpectedly at age 39, leaving behind three young children, her husband and countless friends.
Three days ago I was 39.
Now I am 40.
Rather than dreading another birthday, I am absolutely ready to take on another decade. My 30s were tough. And beautiful. And horrible. I was newly married when my sister was killed. My life, upended, changed for the worse. I didn’t know me anymore. I didn’t know my family – our dynamic of five changed abruptly to four, and we weren’t ready. I cried constantly, shook with fear, and doubted my place in the world.
Running helped. As much as I could get myself out the door, I used to go out for five and six and seven miles, meandering through the neighborhood and occasionally on a trail. If I hadn’t gone outside, I might never have left my room, that first year after my sister died.
[Sidenote: we adopted an energetic eight-week-old Lab puppy three months after her death. He was practically a service dog. Puppies don't wait for you to feel better before they get a walk. Eight years later, he is a more mellow version of his puppy self and he brings me this incredible joy - his sweet big eyes are full of love and compassion. I highly recommend puppies as a remedy to sadness.]
To celebrate turning 40, I signed up to run 13.1 miles with a close friend. I hadn’t trained adequately, but the race was flat and scenic. Incredibly, it didn’t start raining until ten minutes after I’d finished. Around mile 10 my body was pretty much done, and my phantom broken toe was burning (stupid faux injury that I can’t seem to get rid of), but I kept going. The final mile hurt, and so I lifted my thoughts to those spirits who could help: my sister, my grandfather, my friend Dominguin. I asked them to be my angel wings.
I ran for my sister, silently, because she is gone and yet not gone.
I also ran for the woman who is lying in a hospital bed right now fighting for her life after being hit by an SUV while riding her bike. She is a family friend, runner and cyclist. She is broken, but she is healing.
I ran for me.
Within us we all have this enormous power to heal.
Slowly and painfully the final mile ticked by, and it was over. I could stop running. A kind volunteer handed me this medal.
I started to cry.
So life goes on. I am 40, and I am ready for another full (and fulfilling) decade, or at least just enjoy today, and I feel good about that. I’ve got much to look forward to, plus an incredible family, a wonderful new job, amazing friends and a home in a beautiful part of the world. I went home after the run to party with my boys.
I don’t know exactly where my path will lead over the next ten years (or even tomorrow), but I sure plan to be on the trail.