I lost my younger sister in January 2013 at age 43. When she died, a part of me died too. Having lost both of my parents in their fifties, I thought I knew how to handle grief. I was wrong. I hope that sharing my story will help others deal with grief and know that it is normal.
Maura was the baby of our family and I looked out for her when we were growing up. I remember when our family moved to a new neighbourhood. The move meant we had to change schools. I remember bringing Maura to her new classroom and watching from the doorway to make sure she was okay. And being Maura, she was just fine.
Maura and I walked to and from school together when we were young. They were carefree and happy times. I did however, annoy her from time to time by singing Kenny Roger’s songs to her on our walks.
As adults, we remained very close. Maura was my best friend. She was never judgmental and always gave me good advice. I often told her she should be a therapist and not a police officer. Maura was my rock.
I moved from Boston to Ireland in 2001. When I moved to Ireland, I had daily contact with Maura. We talked on the phone, skyped, exchanged details of our lives in emails and sent text messages. Technology helped us maintain a very close relationship.
A year after my move, Maura was diagnosed with a rare and incurable cancer called GIST. (Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumour). I remember my brother calling to tell me Maura had cancer. I could not comprehend it initially and hung up the phone in shock, not wanting to believe what I was hearing. I had to call my brother back to confirm what he told me. We lost our mother to cancer when she was 56. I could not believe that cancer was hitting our family again. It was unfair for Maura to get cancer at age 33.
Her diagnosis was particularly difficult because she had just given birth to her second child. Now she had two babies and cancer. Maura’s cancer had already spread when she was diagnosed.
Maura spent the next ten years concentrating on two things:
- Staying alive
- Making memories with her two daughters
Maura appreciated every day. She made sure every holiday and special occasion was recorded or photographed. Her girls were her life and she did everything in her power to be here for them.She looked for the best in everyone and everything. She taught us to value every minute of every day.
Following her cancer diagnosis, Maura was on chemotherapy for the rest of her life. When one drug stopped working, we found another one for her to try. She never gave up hope and was determined to be with her girls as long as she could.
Maura was a good person and I am mad at God, the world, everyone for taking her from us. I struggle to make sense of her death and then realize it just does not make sense – maybe it never will. Why would a mother be taken from her two young children?
The sadness and despair I felt when she died was overwhelming. I did not remember grief being this bad. Now I know it was so difficult in part, because people around me expected my grief to magically end three months after my sister’s death.
Here are some things I found helpful after my sister’s death.
- Give yourself permission to grieve. You and only you know how much the death of your loved one has affected you.
- Keep a journal. Thoughts will pop into your head about your loved one and you may be afraid you will forget something you did together. Keeping a journal lets you write down your memories and helps you grieve. I also wanted to write down my memories of Maura’s life to share with her daughters. You can use anything as a journal. I found a pen and paper easiest as I could bring it in my purse. I also wanted the journal to look special because Maura was special! You can find ideas on what to include in a grief journal on websites such as Yourtribute.com and JourneyThroughGrief.com.
- Make a memory box. I wanted to collect everything I could about my sister – articles and obituaries from newspapers, cards she sent me, photos, etc. I wanted a special place to keep all of these things so I bought a large decorative box and it is my memory box.
- Save emails, voice messages and text messages from your loved one. You may not want them now, but you do not want them to be erased and out of your reach forever.
- Rest. I was exhausted a lot in the months following my sister’s death. This is not unusual. Grieving is hard emotional work and sometime you will be overcome with fatigue.
- Get support. Grieving is a very lonely experience, even when you are surrounded by people. A grief counsellor or support group can validate your feelings and help you through the grieving process.
- Prepare to be struck by intense grief and pain even years later. Sometimes I am in a store or listening to the radio, and something reminds me of Maura. Then, the raw pain surfaces and the tears begin to fall.
My memories of Maura are so vivid, I remember her smile, her love for her daughters, and the kindness she showed to others. The only explanation I found for Maura’s death is this:
Maura was very special.