For a long time, I didn’t know the exact date my sister died. It happened sometime during the night, in either the final hours of October 29th or the newest ones of the 30th. At first it didn’t matter to me; it became another detail in a series of details that I didn’t want to know: her time of death, how long it took to find her, how they found her. What she looked like.
Somehow a whole year passed without her, the strangest year of my life. As the first anniversary of her death approached, I decided I needed know the official date, so I could at least try to channel my grief into a specific timeframe.
By that point, too much time had passed for me to feel okay asking anyone, so I Googled it, my hands shaking as I typed her clean and classic name into the search bar. I wondered if this time I would be hit with sharp, crashing pain, but as usual it only felt surreal, a dream I couldn’t seem to shake off.
Her obituary was the first thing that came up, her death pushed far above her life accomplishments. I didn’t even need to open the link; the teaser sentence announced it: “…age 25, passed away on October 30th.”
At the bottom of the page, where I impulsively, stupidly scrolled to see what else my sister’s name brought up, was a list of related searches. Half of them asked for her cause of death. This detail I knew. It was seared into my brain, jolting me awake at night like I’d been struck by lightning. Though I never actually saw her body, I would never forget the image my mind created. I’d seen enough movies to know what happens.
The week leading up to the anniversary, I vacillated between weepy, empty, depressed, and perfectly normal. I went to work and ate dinner with friends and taught a yoga class. I thought about how shitty life was and how this darkness would never leave me. I thought about how much I loved life and all the things I had to look forward to. I hated and blamed, loved and forgave, and then went back to hating. I got my hair cut, shorter than it’s been in years. I asked my hair stylist to dye it a dark brown and she refused, opting instead to freshen up my blonde highlights. Afterwards I was grateful.
Since I’d left my therapist behind when I moved from New York to Georgia in August, and my new insurance didn’t cover the sky-high costs of psychotherapy, I signed up for an account on an online, chat-based therapy website. As soon as I was assigned someone, I sent her a messy and desperate message. I told this online therapist about how looking at pictures of my sister caused my stomach to turn. How her death still didn’t seem real. How I was so angry.
The reply came a few hours later. My heart sank in disappointment as I read it. “Anniversaries are hard, there is no right way to grieve, and it’s okay to be angry.” Phrases that could be found in the most simplistic article about grief.
I felt a surge of anger towards this therapist, someone trying her best to make a living and help people, because she didn’t provide me with the magic bullet that would lead to forever healing. I couldn’t take another damn platitude, from her or anyone. After a few more days of chatting back and forth, my feelings of isolation only increasing after each message, I asked for my account to be cancelled.
On Friday, three days before the anniversary, my husband cooked pasta. We opened a bottle of Spanish red and watched Baby Driver, yelling at the screen and pointing out to each other sites we recognized as our city. After the movie ended, we sat next to each other on the couch. The tightness in my chest always makes words get stuck, but tonight my words flowed just as quickly as the wine. Unlike the wine they weren’t smooth — they were tangled with fury and disgust and despair. All the gritty, messy things that had been churning inside me, the things that make me feel an unbelievable loneliness, the things that had no easy answers and no magic bullet responses.
With the words came the tears. Ugly tears, because tears that are brought on by life’s ugliness will always match. My face red and swollen, I sobbed into my husband’s chest how much I hated my sister for putting this horrible pain on me and how much I hated everyone who had in any way hurt her, including myself.
My husband is an economist, not a therapist. He didn’t give me suggestions or categorize my feelings. He stroked my back and let me empty myself out. Once I was empty, I felt lighter. We made tea and snuggled with our dog in bed. Maybe I didn’t need a magic bullet, but rather to make space inside myself to let the good stuff back in.
Anniversaries of death are tricky. Did I acknowledge the 29th, her last day alive, or the 30th, the day she left this world? Really, it wasn’t the whole day. Just a few minutes, in the darkest hours of a new day. I didn’t want to commemorate the date she died. I wanted to commemorate every date that she lived, all 364 of them.
I woke up on October 29th without any heaviness. The day was freezing cold, with a grey winter sky and matching wind. The space inside me felt calm and expansive, like an ocean. I settled into it.
There was a memorial for her that night, but for reasons I can explain and reasons I cannot, I did not go. I don’t know if my absence as her only sister was understood. It didn’t really matter to me. Instead, I went to a healing sound bath at my yoga studio.
As I walked down Atlanta’s Beltline, a bike and pedestrian path, to the yoga studio, bundled in my winter coat, I felt the same sensation I had on my sister’s 26th birthday this past June, the first of the ages she would never reach. A deep, calm happiness; gratitude for the world around me; an innate trust and steady peace. I held these feelings close to me and walked in silence, feeling the cold air coming in through my nostrils and the firm pavement under my feet. The cloudy sky opened a bit and a soft blue shone through.
I laid on my yoga mat, covered with a blanket, as the vibrations from the crystal bowls washed over me. The sounds made my spine tingle and my muscles open up. I floated in the waves, exploring all the room inside me. The weight of my sister’s death no longer felt crushing. It was a part of me, as was the guilt and confusion and anger, but the space inside of me was endless. I have a beautiful life, I thought to myself as I laid in stillness in the dark studio. The response came softly. It will all be okay.