For the last 26 hours, since I was given the news that my sister’s cancer is inoperable, my every thought seems to begin with “My sister is dying…” and then fragments from there. Simple muscle memory activities, the things I would expect to proceed without error, are done incorrectly, in the wrong order, with steps mixed up and/or left out. I find myself rehearsing in my head what needs to be done next to finish an activity. And even then, they all seem to start with “My sister is dying. What do I do next?” Today I put my phone in the fridge. I hit the wrong buttons on the microwave. I immediately forgot the answers to questions I asked and had to ask again. I walked myself through doing the laundry, step-by-step narration in my head.
I think about what I might be wanting to hear if it were me. “My sister is dying. What does she need from me? What can I say that will reassure her? What do I do next?” I think about who she worries about, and what she might need to know. She never married, has no kids, no life partner, but still she will be leaving people she loves behind. People she might worry about. Is she worrying about her mother, my step-mother? I will be there for her. I will reassure my sister that her leaving this world will not leave her mother alone. I will tell her I love her, that I don’t want to lose her. But I also feel the need to reassure her that it will be okay to go, when it’s time. It’s what I would want to know. That my loved ones would have each other, that they would not be alone, that they had companions both in grieving and in living again with this new hole in their lives that is sure to come. “My sister is dying. What do I do next?”
I don’t know how much time there will be before she goes, but I don’t think it will be enough, because it could never be enough. I also think it will be too much, because when there is pain and suffering involved, surely there will be too much. I feel helpless, and angry, and unspeakably sad, and afraid, and ill-equipped to cope with what is happening. Over a day later, my thoughts still start, “My sister is dying. What do I do next?” and then fracture into little vignettes of stop-motion animation, stuttering across my brain. I am operating in a fog.
She will be 46 next month. I imagine (I hope) she will be here still. Then the seasonal holidays will be upon us before you know it. Will she be here for all of them? Some of them? Any of them? How will this change my feelings about the holidays? They are already bittersweet, at best. How will she feel? If it were me, I think I would worry about leaving a sad memory, to accompany all future holidays for everyone. I don’t want this for her. I don’t want her to feel responsible for managing the feelings and thoughts of the people surround her. I don’t know if she will dwell on this. “My sister is dying. What do I do next?” I will tell her it’s okay to let any of those guilty feelings go.
I will give her the gift of my imaginary beautiful walled garden, my safe sanctuary, and my imaginary lion, who protects me, and my imaginary mama-bear, who nurtures and cares for me, and my imaginary wise owl, who counsels and teaches me, and I will hope that these bring her comfort in the same way they do for me. “My sister is dying. Here is the love I know how to give. What do I do next?”
I am temporarily broken. After all this, when I am put back together, there will hopefully be light shining through the cracks in my surface. My new normal. I have learned that the best way to heal myself emotionally is to be present for someone else, someone dealing with whatever I’ve already gone through. To give them tools for getting through to the other side. While I would certainly prefer not having the hard times, I know that my experience is redeemed if I am here for the next broken person the world puts in my path with the same or similar wounds. “My sister is dying. I feel helpless. What do I do next?”
- Be loving.
- Be present.
- Show up.
- Ask how I can help.
- Forgive myself for making mistakes as I do these things
- Keep doing these things.