Today my little sister would have been 22-years-old. Holy cow. It’s crazy to think about. Crazy that someone who was not around for very long can leave such a lasting impact. Surreal to imagine my toddler sister growing up and becoming a woman.
My baby sister was just a little over one-year old when she died. Barely walking and just starting to talk. She was the delight of me and my brothers; we considered her as much our own baby as she was our mom’s. It broke my seven-year-old heart when she died. It has taken a frustratingly long time to come to terms with that, to accept that my heart will never be quite the same again.
What I feel about my sister now is vastly different than what it was five, ten or twenty years ago. Grief is like that, ebbing and flowing. Most of the time her life and death are just a facet of who I am, present but not necessarily visibly or prominently so. The fact of her existence comes up often enough, “Wow, so you’re the only girl with three brothers?” Yes. Well no, kind of. It’s the absent explanation when mentioning the six-year gap between the last two of us kids. It’s a light awareness I carry at weddings where the sisters are bridesmaids, or scrolling by internet articles about 7 Things Only Sisters Will Understand.
I think of her, Madeleine, most often in December. It is a fraught month. She was born on December 12th and died a year later on December 20th. For most of my remembered life, December and Christmas have been wrapped up with my sister. Tangled with grief and memory.
It seems that December is destined to be a time of grief for me though. The years since I was seven have added to my number of December deaths, and this year a friend of mine committed suicide – a week ago today. And so it is another Christmas season hit by grief and loss.
It’s feels especially heartbreaking because I can understand that pain that drives you to kill yourself. Everything in me yearns for the ability to prevent anyone else from experiencing such pain. Wishes that no one else would be familiar with living on that edge of despair where dying is so much more appealing than living. It is appealing not even because death is a good solution, but simply because it is the only way to stop hurting all the time. Not because it is a guarantee, but because even the idea of ending up in a different Hell sounds better than continuing in the Hell you are already living. I get that. But how desperately I wish no one ever had to feel that way.
At the same time, I don’t have much to offer anyone who is struggling like that. I am without peace or comfort or anything that feels substantial myself. I can offer love, but I don’t think it is necessarily a lack of love or support that drives many people to suicide. It is despair. It is utter and total hopelessness.
I must have some hope that I am holding onto though, right? I am still here anyway. So very often against my strong desires. Yes. Somedays it is only because I could not stand to hurt those that love me. Because my brothers already lost one sister, and, my god, losing one sibling is enough for a lifetime. But there also exists a deeply rooted belief that God has a higher understanding than I do. This belief is so tiny and so tenuous sometimes though, that I am not really certain it is there at all. Except for the pesky fact that I keep getting out of bed everyday, I keep moving, I keep fucking living. It is beyond me how that keeps happening; outside of this faint, but apparently determined, trust that God is both using me and taking care of me. Even though I neither understand it or welcome it right now.
It has only been in fairly recent years that I have better incorporated death and grief into my life. It has been just these last few years too that I have made attempts to embrace the holiday season in a different way. One of the things that has been hugely helpful in that regard is a deeper understanding of Advent.
Advent is the name given to the month or so before Christmas, which is observed in the Christian church as a time of anticipating and appreciating the coming of Christ. It has been important for me to reconcile the “traditional” Christmas season -of presents and parties and annoyingly jolly songs- with my own experience of the season as one of heartache. Yesterday in our church gathering a quote was read that speaks to the way my understanding of the season has developed: “The first Advent was certainly anything but peaceful. It began with a contemplation of divorce, was accompanied by numerous confusing, unplanned detours, and was consummated in a stable of desperation. The Prince of Peace brought a lot of turmoil with him when he came. And I think this implies that, in God’s judgment, what we may need at Christmas is not less turmoil, but more trust.”
The birth of Christ was messy and complicated. It wasn’t pretty or nice, in fact, it was kind of horrible. Which fits so much better with my own experience of life than does the rest of the Christmas Season. Whether or not you can wrap your head around either the historicity or factuality of the Bible, the Christmas Story that this season is built around was one that was steeped in struggle and messiness, in death, grief and fear. Now that is something I can understand. It is also something that makes me appreciate this story and this season so much more.
My Decembers are filled with a messy grief that just keeps coming. However, my life in general is filled with this grief. I think all our lives are. This grief that surrounds being human: the inescapable struggle and loss, the brokenness and longing. We experience this every single day, in big and little ways. Some days just sting a little more than others.
What is poetic then about one of the hardest times of my year coinciding with Christmas, is that it serves to drive home the entire point of Christ coming in the first place. To put it very unpoetically: because everything sucks and it’s hard and it hurts and we just can’t keep going on our own. I surely can’t. I seriously don’t even want to. But the story behind Christmas involves God offering us a flesh and blood example of how much He loves us, it involves Jesus living an entire, ugly, messy life which started in a shit-filled stable in the middle of nowhere. Because God is willing to go to great lengths to love us, to meet us in our longing and loneliness. So it really is not so strange that December is tumultuous and painful for me and for so many other people. To again reference the quote from yesterday: “what we may need at Christmas is not less turmoil, but more trust.”
I am writing this as much for myself as for anyone else. Because I don’t want to trust more. I seriously just want some freaking less turmoil. Right now I am sitting at work, it is 3:20am. My night staff called in sick, and after two hours of harassing everyone I know, I am covering this shift. I am fighting a headache, and all I want to do is sleep. More than that, all I really want to do is to stop having to work so hard just to exist. After this shift is over in a few too many more hours, I am going to shower and head to a funeral. I am going to feel hungover from not sleeping, raw and achy from grieving. I hopefully will allow myself to cry. And then I am off to a counseling appointment. And it still remains my dead baby sister’s birthday. I am not exactly looking forward to this day.
Yet. I am so very loved. I have already received flowers and cards from two dear women who, as one wrote, “fill the sister hole in my heart.” I will always ache a little for my sister, but my life has since been filled with so many full and beautiful sister relationships. My heart is overflowing.
And this funeral I am going to, I am not going alone. I can look forward to the part of the day that involves the loving friends who will be with me: who share my grief with me, but who also share strength and hope and joy.
I am seriously wounded, but seriously provided for as well. I am damaged and broken-hearted, but not without some measure of reprieve (though many days it feels too little). I am hurting and lost and most often distrustful. But somehow I find myself holding on to some little piece of hope. It is a dirty and frayed rope that hardly seems capable of holding my weight.* But in this moment willingly, and many other moments resentfully, I am grabbing a hold.
*I appreciate the J.B. Phillips rendition of the New Testament, and of this verse from 1 Peter, “rest the full weight of your hopes on the grace that will be yours when Jesus Christ reveals himself.” (1 peter 1:13)