As the air chills and the nights get longer, a pit in my stomach grows. I used to love October, watching it turn into November, then seeing all the holiday lights go up. Not so much anymore. It’s been exactly a year since I lost my older sister. She passed away the day before Christmas Eve, and the chill in the air I felt that December I have felt all year round. Some days are hard while other days are harder. As difficult as this year has been, the heartache has taught me a lot. This is what grief looks like that first year you lose her.
1. You will try and seek answers, even though you don’t know what the questions are. Whether it’s analyzing the last few days of your loved one’s life by going through texts, sifting through old prescription bottles to see if they had been taking them right, or trying to find unknown clues that would point to reasons why this happened, the need for answers becomes a desperation. Your search will be fruitless, and after days and weeks and months, you’ll realize that there isn’t anything to uncover or figure out—she’s just gone.
2. When you finally have that realization that there isn’t anything left to search for, your heart will break all over again. Because unlike the movies and TV shows you grew up watching, she died because that’s what happens in life. There is no big reveal, no mystery to solve, no loose ends to tie. It just is… and it will devastate you beyond belief.
3. Your heart will skip a beat when the light suddenly turns off or when you hear a sound coming from another room. Your hope suddenly vanishes when you see that it was just a fuse that went out or the wind making all of that noise. The hope you had will suddenly vanish, and you’ll feel foolish for thinking it could have been her.
4. In movies and shows, ghosts are supernatural entities that haunt us. In reality, ghosts are memories and hopes of those we lost. There will be moments where you’ll be sitting on the couch watching TV and a sudden flashback of your sister sitting right next to you will pop up. Then there will be moments when you think you hear a noise, and for a quick second, you believe it’s her. The ghosts that truly haunt us, the ones that shake us to our core, are the memories we sadly relive and the false hope of seeing them one last time.
5. It will hit you the most when a big life moment happens to you or someone else in your family. Whether it is a wedding, a pregnancy, or another major life event. It hits you because of the simple reminder that the world is moving on. Without her.
6. You’ll smile, laugh, and hug everyone when you hear that good news—except you’ll have a lump in your throat. You’ll use up all of your strength to stop yourself from crying. What you don’t realize is that everyone in that room or on that phone call is trying to find that same strength to stop those same tears from falling.
7. Bereavement leave. Three days was what I got. Three days to mourn, three days to say goodbye to my sister, three days to unpack a lifetime full of memories and learn how to live without her. After your bereavement leave ends, you’re expected to move on, continue with all of your responsibilities, and act like your whole world didn’t just fall apart.
8. As hard as the loss is for you, it will be even harder seeing the people you love in pain. The sadness in your mother’s eyes as she says goodbye to one of her children is a feeling unlike any other. And for a long time, you will do everything you can to fill your sister’s shoes to try and lessen that pain for her, but you will come up short every time. The best thing you can do for the grieving is simply being there. Sit with them and let them sit with you, even if it’s in complete silence. Your presence is oftentimes enough to temporarily lighten the weight.
9. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Everyone processes loss in their own way. You will see people do unexpected things in order to cope. Some will throw themselves into work, others might fall into a deep depression, while others might do questionable things. It’s important to be there for the ones you love, but if it gets to be too much, it’s also okay to take a step back and distance yourself. You’re coping the best way you know how.
10. The cruelest part of grieving is time and the fact that it does not stop. Time doesn’t pause for you to pull yourself together. It doesn’t stop on those days you can’t get out of bed. It forces you to find a way to manage and compartmentalize your emotions. When you’re at your desk in front of a computer or when you’re talking to your boss about a project, you will find a way to keep your throat from cracking and maintaining composure. Whether it’s focusing on a random object like your boss’s necklace or blaming it on your allergies, you will figure it out.
11. But on the days when you can’t, it’s okay to excuse yourself. Whether it’s sitting in a bathroom stall and letting yourself cry or taking the rest of the day off, it is okay. Don’t feel guilty for calling in sick or canceling plans with friends. You’re navigating a new normal and learning how to process life without her. It will take a while to find your footing. Until then, do what you have to do to get through those days.
12. The words, “I wonder,” will be a big part of your vocabulary. You will start so many sentences with those two words. “I wonder if she would have loved this movie.” “I wonder what quarantine would be like if she was still here.” “I wonder how she would have helped mom in this situation.” You think that these are questions you’ll never get the answers to. But once you remember her laugh, the sound of her voice, and the beautiful things that made her who she was, you’ll know exactly what the answers are.
13. The first year is filled with anticipating all of the heartbreaking firsts. The first birthday without her. The first Christmas, anniversary, family vacation. All of those joyous occasions that happen in that first year will all have the same underlying feeling. It’s the feeling of emptiness. You can be in a room filled with people, but her absence is more than noticeable. It is deafening.
14. The things that once made you laugh together will suddenly make you cry. Whether it’s an inside joke you get reminded of or a funny memory that pops up, the feelings will suddenly feel different. You will get sad and emotional, but over time, you’ll start to laugh again, even if it will forever be with a hint of sadness.
15. Long drives alone in your car will suddenly be therapy sessions with your music as the therapist. Scream as loud as you want, sob with no reservations, and sing your heart out. Even though you think they are, the cars next to you aren’t looking.
16. Try and find your lifelines. Whether it’s a TV show, book, or new hobby, get lost in it. For me, it was watching anything Star Wars-related and obsessing over a baby named Grogu (aka Baby Yoda), listening to an unhealthy amount of Death Cab for Cutie and Sufjan Stevens, and mastering InDesign.
17. You will feel the need to keep everything the same as before she died. Whether it’s keeping her room organized the way she liked it or saving all of her things, the idea of change feels like a betrayal. Over time, you’ll eventually move that piece of furniture from one room to another or give away the old appliance she bought that no one ever uses. You will realize that change is inevitable and growing out of some of the things she loved doesn’t mean you’re forgetting her. It just simply means you’re growing, and that’s okay.
18. As much as you don’t want life to go on without her, it does. It will be hard to try new things or think of a future that doesn’t include her, but you will find a balance between moving forward and keeping her memory alive. Keeping her favorite flowers around the house, going to her favorite restaurant and ordering her go-to dish, or wearing the sweater she bought you last Christmas are all subtle ways of keeping her in your life.
19. If you love anyone deeply, you risk putting yourself in the position of experiencing the excruciating pain of loss. Despite knowing that, we continue to open our hearts and continue creating deep and meaningful relationships. Loving anyone deeply—your mom, dad, sister, child, significant other—is the bravest thing you can do on this earth.
20. You will begin questioning your own mortality. You’ll contemplate the meaning of life, wonder what your purpose on earth is, and figure out how you want to live the remainder of it. You don’t need to have all of the answers or know exactly what it is you want. You only need to know one thing. The secret to life is knowing that one day it will end. The moment you embrace that fact is the moment you can truly begin living.