I lost my dad suddenly when I was about 12 years old, in 2001. He had a heart valve problem that eventually led to bypass surgery and a pacemaker, which bought him a few years. But he had an arrhythmia that the pacemaker couldn’t overcome, and he died alone in a hotel room hundreds of miles away.
My mother and two sisters and I grew even closer over the years. We stuck together and kept in constant contact. They were rough years, but we made it through them.
In January of 2012, I lost my sister suddenly, barely a month after she turned 30. As far as we can tell, she developed myocarditis, a heart condition often caused by infection that travels through the bloodstream and can result in sudden death. It was over in a matter of minutes in the middle of a horseback riding lesson. She left behind my nephew, who was 2 years old at the time.
I lost half of my family before I was 25. Only one of my parents saw me graduate high school and college. God willing, one will see me get married. Only half of them will ever meet my children.
Though I still have plenty to learn, I unfortunately speak from a place of experience when it comes to loss. Nothing can ever fully prepare you for the death of a family member or someone close to you. It would be like trying to prepare for a hurricane with no idea how strong the winds would be, where it might strike and when, and when it might finally blow over.
But there are a few things I can say I have learned.
1. Don’t try to make sense of it.
This may seem obvious. No one says to you, “I have perfectly logical reasons as to why this person died and had no reason to stay on this earth.” (If someone ever says that to you, kindly punch them in the face.) But the temptation presents itself for many people anyway. Why did this happen? Did I do something that caused this? What if I had seen it coming? What if I had told her to make the doctor give her a better answer than antibiotics that clearly weren’t working? Maybe I didn’t love her enough. Maybe I should have tried to help her more so she wasn’t as stressed. How is this fair? Isn’t this like lightning striking the same place twice? What did we do to deserve this?
The questions will never end if you approach it this way. For some, it’s inevitable, but try to combat these emotions. I run on analysis and rationality, so it was only natural to try to find answers to prevent this from happening again. But the truth is, even if there are answers – it doesn’t matter. None of it changes anything. You may convince yourself it has some impact on the future, but it doesn’t. It merely wastes the time you still have left. The only logic to be found, the only clear truth, is that life will continue whether you think it makes sense or not.
2. “Strong” is overrated.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t take a certain amount of pride in being “strong.” I try to be a rock for my friends and family. I try not to let emotion get in the way. I hate crying in front of people, and I don’t talk about my feelings with just anyone. Maybe that can be called strong in some ways, and it might look like it on the outside, but I feel just as weak as anyone else day-to-day. The crippling anxiety that led to therapy and medication does not come from a place of strength. So much of my life is fear now – fear that I will end up alone, mourning the loss of person after person I feel I can’t live without every few years for the rest of my life. It feels helpless.
So resist the temptation to be stone faced and unaffected. It will come back to bite you in the end. When everyone has moved on from the flowers, the food, the constant check-ins, you’ll be left with nothing but unresolved emotions and fewer people close by who can help you work through them. Let the breakdowns happen.
3. Find coping mechanisms.
It’s tempting to wallow in sadness. Don’t let it happen. There are ways to honor whoever you lost that can help you cope. It can be anything, from music to collecting. Whatever makes you happy or fulfills a tiny part of the void. I’m big into symbolism, so one thing I did was get a tattoo of my dad’s initials. I’m planning one for my sister. If it’s meaningful enough to you and you’re okay with tattoos, it can be a nice thing to carry with you every day.
4. Give yourself time.
The saying “Time heals all wounds” is cliché, but mostly true. It doesn’t heal the wounds completely, of course, but it gets easier. And then it will get harder, and then easier again. Don’t expect every anniversary and holiday season to get progressively easier. One could be fine and the next could be truly awful. It doesn’t mean you’re not doing well. It doesn’t mean those awful days will last forever. It’s just part of the process.
5. Take more pictures.
I once sat down with a woman who had lost her 4-year-old daughter after a car accident that trapped her and deprived her brain of oxygen for 15 minutes. The girl spent a week in a coma before they decided to let her go. Many children are described as “full of life,” but from the first time I saw her picture next to the story we ran in the newspaper, I knew that description really did fit this little girl. Bright, expressive eyes and a sweet smile.
When I spoke with her mother, I was struck by how together she seemed, barely a week after taking her daughter off life support. She was strong in her faith, which helped, but she also told me one thing I haven’t forgotten since that day. She said ever since her loss, she’s been looking at all the pictures of her daughter and feeling happy that she took so many through the four years of Aly’s life. And she continues to take just as many photos now, because obviously, “you never know.”
As much as we hate on technology and how it’s “taking over our lives,” I wish I had an iPhone to take pictures with before my dad died and texts saved from my sister. As it is, I have very little. I have to rely mostly on memories and Facebook pictures.
So take more pictures. Keep living. No matter what happens.