They say there are seven stages of grief. The two that stand out to me are Anger and Pain. There are actually many different kinds of grief. We grieve over the loss of a pet, the loss of a friend, the loss of a marriage, the loss of a good job, the loss of our youth. I’ve learned that not everyone experiences grief the same way, and that is perfectly acceptable. People have told me that they feel bad or strange that they are taking a loss of theirs much better than they ever thought they would or could. They feel some kind of misplaced guilt because they don’t feel more devastated. Maybe it is because they have a lot going on in their life, something like a new baby, a new marriage, or moving into a new home. Planning the funeral and all the arrangements can sometimes be a helpful distraction. Some people believe their loved one is in a better place. I sometimes wonder if the full force of the grief may hit them at a later date.
My father died when I was thirteen. It was a strange feeling, that I didn’t really know how to process. I was sad, kind of shocked, and worried about my mother, but at the same time I was also happy to see some relatives that I hadn’t seen in a long time. The funeral was like a family reunion. daddy was so sick that I was glad he wouldn’t have to be in so much pain anymore. At thirteen years old, I didn’t really know how to handle all those conflicting emotions. Years later, there were times it would hit me out of the blue just how much I missed him. When I was little, one of my favorite things to do with him was watch football, so it was years before I could happily watch it again after he passed away. He would not be there to walk me down the aisle. He would never get to know my three sons, or get to watch them play sports. So, as I grew older, I began to understand grief better. At least I thought I did.
My sister, Shirley, died suddenly four years and eight months ago. At times I thought the pain and shock of her death might kill me. Nothing had prepared me for that kind of pain and loss. At first, I tried to hide behind my anger at the whole situation. On the Friday night before she died, she started to have some weird spells of kind of blanking out for a few minutes at a time. She would stare straight ahead and not hear us talking to her. She thought maybe it was her blood sugar. We took her to the ER on Saturday morning and they ran a few tests. When the Doctor came in to talk to her, he actually made fun of her when she was trying to explain what was going on. He dismissed our concerns and said that sometimes when his wife is talking he blanks out too. He laughed. He told her that if she was still concerned by Monday morning maybe she should go see her primary care doctor – or a psychiatrist. By Monday morning she was dying.
Shirley was going through a divorce and had just moved in with our mother. I called on Monday morning to see if she had talked to her doctor yet. It was a little after 10 am and mom said she thought that Shirley was still sleeping, which was weird because she never stayed in bed that late. I asked mom to go check on her. I still remember hearing my mother hysterically crying before she even got back to the phone. She said she couldn’t wake her up. I asked her as calmly as I could to call the paramedics right away.
They said they lost her on the way to the hospital several times. The doctor finally came out and told us the news and said that they had revived her heart, but that she was in critical condition. He explained that she had lost oxygen to her brain, and even if she did regain consciousness she would never be the same. They were trying their best to save her. I prayed so hard! I shouted to her in my mind, “Shirley! Shirley, please don’t leave me!” Over and over and over again in my mind I was pleading with her and with God. “Dear God, please don’t take her away from us!” But I was also trying to stay strong in front of my mom, my son and new daughter in law, my other sister and other family members.
Finally, he came back and told us she was on life support and there was nothing else they could do. He explained something like the best we could hope for was that she would be in a vegetable like state even if she ever did “wake” up. The details are blurry to me at this point. We went in to her room and she was laying on the hospital bed. She was extremely pale. There was something in her mouth and down her throat to keep her breathing. Although her chest moved up and down as the machine breathed for her, I could tell she was already gone. My sweet, funny, intelligent, witty, loving sister. She was just – GONE.
They took the respirator thing out of her throat and we just stood there and watched as the machine flatlined. I remember that I turned and looked at the doctor, I asked him what had killed my sister. He looked shocked and a bit confused for a minute. Finally, he said something about he thought blood clots had traveled up her carotid artery and hit her brain, killing her. I thought it was weird that he didn’t seem all that sure about it. And that is the last thing I remember until I got home that night. I don’t remember leaving her, don’t remember leaving that room. I don’t even remember leaving the hospital or how I got home.
In the days that followed I also had a great deal of anger at her “husband.” As I said previously, she was in the process of divorcing him. They had lived in Connecticut for five years, and I didn’t get to see her very much. Usually just at Christmas. She finally admitted to us how abusive he was to her. He knew she wasn’t in great health and he went out of his way to torment her. They would go on long car rides and he wouldn’t stop to let her go to the bathroom. She had survived breast cancer from 17 years before and he would make fun of her mastectomy scars. He was very mentally abusive. When she finally left him, she admitted to us that she thought he was trying to kill her. When he was out playing golf one day, a group of us went to their house and moved all of her personal things out, moving her in with our mother. When she filed for divorce, he took out a temporary restraining order that said she was not allowed to cancel any of the life insurance policies he had on her. I never even knew there was such a thing as a TRO for something like that. But my point is that I was using my anger at the first doctor in the ER, and the anger at her husband to try to hide from the enormous weight and pain of the grief.
The day of her funeral, I was determined to honor her. I asked everyone to stand at the front of the pews and light a candle, one at a time, to share their favorite memory of Shirley. I went first because I was afraid I might be crying too hard after hearing everyone else’s memories. I just had this driving need to honor her. I kept telling myself that this day wasn’t about me. It was about her, and I could scream and cry later. Plus, if you read my article about Anxiety, you know I sometimes take sedatives. I took as many as I safely could to get through that week. It’s probably what kept me from a complete breakdown. Someone later told me that I must not have loved her very much, because I was able to stand up there and speak that day. That was like a direct shot to my heart, but I didn’t even try to explain.
Because I didn’t want to cause any more hurt than my family was already feeling, I did my best to stay strong for them. There were times that I couldn’t help the silent tears streaming down my face. I did most of my hard crying late at night, or in the shower, and strangely enough while I was driving. One day during that first week, I was driving over a bridge and the pain was so bad, a thought deep in my mind said that if I just turned the wheel and drove over the bridge, it would end the horrible pain I was feeling. It was one brief second of a thought – but it scared the hell out of me. It makes me shake just to think about it now. I knew I had to pull myself together. I had a family that needed me. My husband and kids love me and I needed to be there for them. If you’ve lost someone and ever have more than one brief scary thought like that, please tell someone.
About three months after her death, I went shopping for Thanksgiving dinner. On the way home, I was feeling satisfied and happy that I had found everything on my list, and I could cook a good traditional meal for my family. When it hit me that I actually felt happiness, I felt so guilty. How could I feel happiness after my sister died? It’s not that I hadn’t smiled or even laughed since that dark August day, but it was the first time I felt any happiness. But I knew in my heart that she would want me to.
I’ve always heard people say that after a loved one passes away, they can still feel them. It broke my heart that for a long time after Shirley left, I couldn’t “feel” her. It just felt like she was totally gone forever. I tried really hard to concentrate, and see if there was any way to reach her, but nothing worked. As years have passed, I finally understand what people mean when they say that. There are times that something happens and I laugh because I can hear what she would say about it. There are times it seems as if I can feel one of her expressions on my face, and there are times I say something and it sounds just like her. Shirley is my big sister, she’s ten years older than me and I’ve always adored her. We were very close. We used to laugh and say we were so much alike that we called ourselves, Twinkies. She is gone, but not forgotten. She will live on for many more years in our hearts.
I know for a fact that grief is different, not just for everyone, but even for the different ways we face it as life goes by. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. I wrote a letter to Shirley a few weeks after she died. I told her how sorry I am that when she asked me what was going on in my current manuscript the week before she died, I just laughed and told her she would have to wait and read it with everyone else. Now it’s over four years later and I still haven’t been able to finish it. I plan to try again this summer. People keep telling me she would want me to, but I still feel so guilty about not sharing some of the fun things in that book with her.
I miss her, every day and every night. I’m so grateful that I had her in my life for so many years. And I am thankful that I have learned to carry her in my heart so that she is still here, and I can still feel her.
If and when it’s your turn to experience grief, please remember there is no “One Size Fits All” type of grief. Give yourself the freedom to feel however you really feel. I think maybe sometimes when people say they feel weird because they aren’t as devastated as they think they should be – maybe it’s just God’s way of protecting them. Be grateful for that and reach out to help someone else who is feeling so much pain. May God bless us all.
KT Banks has written two novels, a story for the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, and over one hundred articles. She has been happily married for over thirty years, has three grown sons, a daughter in law and a sweet baby grand daughter.
Her struggles with Hashimoto’s and Anxiety take away a lot of her energy and she’s not sure she will ever have the strength to write full length novels again, but that is a major goal. She believes attitude is everything and faces each day with positivity and joy, always finding something to be grateful for.
You can connect with KT on social media through Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn