At A Loss

Twelve years ago, December 2,  my middle sister died the day before her 35th birthday. From injuries sustained in a single car wreck outside of Atlanta.

amy-johnson1That’s the nice way to put it. That’s what people want to hear. And, generally, they don’t want to hear details or see tears. Their I’m-so-sorrys are meant well but salve nothing. But 144 months after the fact, I have some perspective. Of course, that doesn’t make things easier; I can still occasionally hear a news story or think a funny thought and want to share it with her – and, then, catch myself with a “Well, damn.”

Still, middle sister would be proud to know that her niece and nephews (two of whom she never met) occasionally call me by her name. And that my sons remember the international fiend fests they had with her – including her cursing of the tofu when it popped in the wok and burned her. And that youngest sister and I send each other Young Ones quotes or Seinfeld references at will.

The past two weeks, though, have been more than hard on some of my friends. Daughters, sisters, wives died. Specifically, three people whom I knew or knew tangentially lost their lives in separate events. Their relatives cannot laugh yet; they are sitting in the fire of grief. Those flames bite at you: when you wake up in the morning and the thought you have is, “something isn’t quite right” and then you remember and the tears come. Those flames scorch when you feel anger at someone who is alive while your person has died. Those flames burn and burn when you can’t stop yourself from thinking, “but, what if…”

I have no advice on how to get through grief. There is no magic spell; no easy way; it’s a road with sharp turns, glass and tacks strewn everywhere, and lots and lots of fog. And even if it never really ends, the fog eventually lifts.

joan-didion-quotes-14436I have advice, though, for those of us who surround those who are sitting in that fire. Don’t try to put it out. The searing pain of grief must be experienced by those whose loved one has died. Sit with them. Avoid platitudes and preaching. Hold their hand. Make sure they eat – or at least drink some tea. Admit you don’t know why. Don’t be embarrassed by tears – those tears will eventually calm the flames. Cry with them.

You know, there’s no magic spell here, either, except to be there. Share happy memories. Agree a lot. Listen. Make more tea.

The holidays can be hard enough without death; add that in, and man, the holidays can take a dark, dark turn. Make space for yourself whether you’re dealing with death or standing in the gap for someone whose loved one has died. Things may not get better, but we do not stay mired. We cannot stay mired. Hope might not spring eternal, but it does spring. And, even life-altering sadness evolves.


(For KR, GV, PH and all those who love them.)





7 thoughts on “At A Loss

  1. You put such difficult words in a way that describe how others feel or have felt. You have a gift with words and expression. But even more so, you have a gift of heart. You are oh so ever kind. Accepting. Beautifully blunt. And above all else, a good human being.


  2. I never knew that you lost your sister until I read it in something you wrote recently. Wow. That really sucks. Amazing how I see your kids in her face. Strong genes y’all have.

    We, too, have had a season of walking through the valley of the shadow of death with several people we love recently, and our kids have had friends and acquaintances lose their lives (including one you refer to here). I heartily agree with your advice for how to help someone in the throes of grief. Reminds me of the admonition to “weep with those who weep.” That – and perhaps toilet paper – is about all we can offer those walking through that fire.

    When I was a teenager, my brother’s girlfriend was abducted and murdered on her college campus. His testimony is what sealed the conviction of the man who was charged with her death. My brother had given her a unique necklace that was found in the perpetrator’s possession. I saw his pain up close and watched it impact his life for years. There was fire. And there was fog. But eventually it cleared. Her parents, though, have never recovered. And I don’t blame them.

    Grace to you and all who are grieving this holiday season.


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