Good Grief

After the death of a loved one, you fall into one of two camps: those who grieve well or those who don’t grieve well.

Guess which camp I’m in.

Will this be a poetic post? Meaningful? Dark? I am 35 words in. I don’t know.

My sister died a month ago. Right now, as I’m typing this, I’ve stood here for ten  straight minutes, unable to type the next word. But there: I just did it. Also, I stand at my work station. Sitting is the new smoking. Just another unknown part of life that will kill you.

She died in my home state, where my entire family lives a short drive from one another. I live 400 miles from them. Nobody here knew my sister, not really. I live alone with this grief, but I don’t live alone, so grief is like a tenant in the basement. He comes upstairs for meals and to answer the phone and just hang out on the couch with me, uninvited. He sits on the edge of my bed and watches me not sleep.

My sister died of pancreatic and liver cancer, seven weeks after diagnosis. Seven weeks can be long for some things: morning sickness, housebreaking a puppy, dieting. Seven weeks is not long enough to process my sister going from feeling relatively okay, to feeling very unwell, to incoherence, to death.

I can tell you all the things that made up her life, but you would not know her life. I can say what I wrote in her obituary: that she was a mother, wife, daughter, sister, aunt, and friend. That she was an artist. That she worked in art therapy. I can write of her lifelong optimism, her otherworldly kindness. Her quiet and gentle nature. None of this means anything to you; it’s okay, I understand. You didn’t know her. And amid the pity I drown myself in, above all I feel pity for you because you didn’t know her, didn’t have a sister like her.

I drove 400 miles through the flash floods of Indiana, the sideways rain of Ohio, to say goodbye to her. I made it in time. Do you have any idea the difference this has made to me? I laid next to her on the hospital bed that hospice care had brought into her house, and she knew I was there.

“I love you,” I said, squeezing her hand.

“I love you,” she said, eyes wide.

Eyes shut. Eyes wide again.

“I’m sorry this is happening to you,” I said.

“I know.” She lifted her arm with effort and laid it across my shoulder. Even then, comforting me.

Less than three hours after I arrived, her pain was so intense that the hospice nurse had to up her morphine level. And then she fell into restless sleep. And eight hours later she died.

I did not know how grief, my freeloading basement tenant, would insinuate himself into my life after that. I thought the worst of it was having to drive to my parents’ apartment and tell them their daughter was gone. Or the wake and funeral. But once a freeloading tenant has made up his mind to live in your basement, he will stay until you evict him, by fire or force.

Sometimes tenants steal things from you. As a landlord, you must know this. Mine stole my sleep and appetite, and repaid me in a currency I had never used before: panic attacks and terrordread. Spell-check tells me that’s not a word. But that dictionary is old and doesn’t have all the new words.

Terrordread, terrordread, day and night. Suffocating in the shower, a burning tide that ascends from my belly into my throat. I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was going to die. I think I am going to die. I am going to die, let’s face it. But terrordread grips me by the throat and shakes me—he is in cahoots with grief, and together they shake me till what’s left of my old brain (sanity, mental health) rattles out like coins from a pocket with a hole in it.

Oh my God, here, take all of it. On the bathroom floor, I offer up the last of my currency. Please don’t kill me, I can’t die like this on the floor, my children are downstairs. Well, well, grief and terrordread are not completely heartless after all (they can’t be; they took mine), so they leave me with a headful of overwhelming fear.

You know that scene in A Charlie Brown Christmas where Lucy asks Charlie if he thinks he has pantophobia, the fear of everything? And he leaps up triumphant, pointing to the sky like a Spartan warrior, and shouts, “That’s it!”

That’s it.

The fear of everything. I mean, that’s like the best sort of fear that exists, you know? Number one. The top kind, and I have it. Not to brag. But, wow…everything. Life and death and what comes between.

How can this happen from losing my sister? It doesn’t seem related. But it must be.

I’m going to tell you something now, landlord to landlord: we can’t let these sluggards just live in our basements for free. For one thing, my house is not zoned for multifamily living. But more than that, I want back what grief stole from me: my ability to think and breathe properly. I want to eat again without my esophagus closing up, I want to sleep, I want to feel emotions except terrordread. I want to stop crying at the pool with my kids. I want to stop resenting people for not mentioning my sister.

Grief is necessary, with all its attendant stages, but non-rent-paying basement tenant grief is not okay. I’ve started eviction proceedings.

I won’t ever, ever stop missing my sister. I loved her to death, and beyond. She was the best sort of sister that exists, and my other sisters will attest to that. Number one. The top kind, and I had her. Not to brag. But she was everything.

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