The phone rang in the middle of the night. It was Elizabeth, and she was frantic. "Sue had a heart attack!"
WHAT?! I panicked. I had seen her only a month before! I tried to get details, but my sister was too upset. I immediately called my parent's house and my father told me it wasn't a heart attack. Sue had been found unresponsive in her bed but was now in the hospital being monitored. He seemed hopeful, so I went back to sleep, relieved that it wasn't a heart attack and that she was definitely in the right place. I knew, though, when the phone rang at five am that she was gone.
My husband answered and I closed my eyes. I walked into the living room. He said the words. "Your sister passed away." I broke down and hugged him. Then, I instantly thought of my mother. She had to be devastated. I needed to go to her. She would need me to be strong. I was.
The next several days were a blur, as we traveled west to be with my sister's husband and three kids. We were all in shock. The kids were young, aged seven to fifteen. I felt helpless in my attempts to console them, but I was grateful for the time we had spent together over that past year. It was unusual for me to have the opportunity to visit with them more than once every year or two, and that year I made three trips.
I was there to witness a notable decline in Sue's health. She was in a lot of pain and obviously depressed. She insisted on forging through her housework past midnight, and would sleep during the day, often until noon. One day I found her laying face down and sideways across her bed. This was not normal.
The sparkle in her eyes had disappeared and she engaged in conversation less and less. I begged her to rest and helped her any way I could, but she was driven and stubborn (ingrained family traits) and her house had to be perfect. Elizabeth would remark about how Sue's cleaning obsession reached unhealthy levels when she resorted to wall washing. You could eat every one of her four course meals from the floors. Her home was her castle and she took pride in keeping it beautiful. It was her greatest desire to make her guests feel comfortable and welcomed.
In all of her efforts to care for everyone else, though, she never took care of herself. It was heartbreaking to watch her suffer in silence. During my last visit, I caught her crying in her bedroom while listening to Celine Dion's "Because You Loved Me." I asked what was wrong but she wouldn't talk. Looking back, I'm not sure I ever actually saw her really break down. It was usually a single tear or two accompanied by a far away stare.
There is no more helpless a feeling than not being able to reach someone when you sense they are in trouble. I saw that same vacant look in Elizabeth's eyes before she died. The look of utter exhaustion and emptiness. It was as if the body was present but the will had checked out. That's what hopelessness looks like, and it is utterly terrifying.
Ultimately, Sue's death was determined accidental. At the time, reading that word in the report was a comfort. Now, after recent events, that determination has become more of a question. One day it will be clarified, and until then, I will rest in the knowing that her energetic presence is still alive and well and very, very near.
In early August of 2015, my sister took her life.
After receiving the news of her death, I made a promise to myself to grieve openly and genuinely. No hiding. No judgement. No timeline. It was time to stop pretending and living according to other people's expectations. I would no longer display a false self or smile to help others tolerate the pain that I radiated. I wouldn't. I couldn't. I was heartbroken and my life would never be the same. I had just lost my sister, surrogate mother, mentor, and protector. My soul mate and advocate. I was terrified, and felt utterly and completely... alone.
It's been almost a year and a half since her death, and the loss still leaves me feeling haunted, stunned and breathless, as if it just happened yesterday. Sometimes I awaken in a panic only to realize that it wasn't a dream, and that the hopes I had for rekindling the closeness we once shared have already been shattered.
Elizabeth was fifty six; eight years older than myself. She was always the wise, responsible one...the strong one...the one who, in the midst of a traumatic and chaotic upbringing, managed to maintain focus and drive headfirst into every one of her goals, including a master's degree, athletic notoriety, a full and active social life and, eventually, a beautiful family. She had it all. She was humble and kind and I deeply admired her. She was the family go-to. In the midst of any crisis, she was there with an easy answer, making the rest of us look like life amateurs...which, indeed, we were.
Our bond was the earliest and most important of my lifetime. It was the impetus for all I've been able to accomplish, and from it, came the strength and wisdom that would help me to survive the mess we came from. Her six year struggle with mental "illness" (I prefer the term anguish) created the sense of urgency I needed to put together the broken pieces that resided in (both of) our bodies. It revealed itself at random times and would eventually manifest into debilitating anxiety and depression. Classic PTSD.
When the puzzle started coming together, I didn't want to accept it.The suicide removed all remaining doubt, and I knew my days would be numbered if I didn't find a way to make some sort of peace with it. Every one of my siblings (including myself) has made at least one attempt at suicide. For the first time in years I felt deeply concerned for my own well being. I had never truly given myself permission to come first in my own life. That was about to change.
I decided that my grief journey was sacred, and that nothing and no one would stop me from my right to process this devastating loss in a deeply authentic way. I had already lost my oldest sister Sue tragically, nineteen years earlier, at the age of thirty nine. Not Elizabeth too. It was more than I could handle. This was my time and my sacred journey.
Little did I know everything was about to change.
R Jade McAuliffe-
Author, coach, mom and poet; believer in things unseen.
"Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o'er wrought heart and bids it break."