August 21, 2004

The recent news that my cousin has a form of cancer has stirred up old feelings, and awakened new fears in me. My sister, Amy’s, death from cancer cast a long shadow over my family. For years I couldn’t understand why that one event seemed to define and limit the rest of our lives. I know now that the members of my immediate family, myself included, didn’t grieve enough. Moreover, we never grieved together in any meaningful way.

My mother and I have talked about Amy, and cried about her many times in the years since her death. But I never got a sense of relief from this crying, or the connection it provided between Mom and I. There was always a sadness in our house, one that was present all the time. As Christmas approached the tension would become thicker and heavier. The Christmas holiday itself become a perfunctory exchange of gifts and a rigid set of events, year after year after year.

Even today there are still traces of the “tradition” that became our Christmas. Amy is never talked about, and certainly never brought up in front of my father. When she died my parents couldn’t afford a grave site for her, so her remains were interred in Pennsylvania with her paternal grandmother. She was gone, ripped from our lives and we didn’t even have the ability to go visit her.

My observation is that it altered and forever damaged the relationship my parents have with each other. Their individual styles of grieving were incompatible, and rather than seek a common ground to resolve their emotion needs, they, through inaction more than anything else, left their grief for Amy lying in between them. I am sad to say she lies there still. Chris and I, as children, had our own struggles with losing Amy. I know that true cognitive ability doesn’t manifest until a child is about 12-14, and then it takes time to develop. I was just at the verge of being able to comprehend what had happened to my sister, Chris was still at an age when death was too abstract. Neither of us had a healthy outlet for our grieve, nor did we have a place to move forward.

My parents were stuck, they didn’t know how to console themselves, much less Christopher and I. Over time the collective wound we all shared scabbed over, but it hasn’t really healed. In my late twenties I sought out counseling and started to address some of my issues of anger and guilt over her death. It wasn’t until I met Michele that I finally had a safe, loving, nonjudgmental place to sort out the complex stew of emotions I had for Amy. I was shocked to discover I was very angry with her, and more shocked to discover the tremendous amount of quilt I had that she had died and not I.

The work I did, and continue to revisit from time to time, has given me Amy back. Her memory is now a happy one, I am content with my relationship with her. I still grieve her dying, and I still miss her everyday. But I am no longer stuck in time 31 years ago. I believe we all have a purpose in life, and I know that once we complete our task for a given lifetime we move on to the next. Amy completed her life goal very quickly and she moved on in a manner that left us all a gift. The way to receive the gift is to work through your grieve over her passing. Once I found peace with her life, her whole life, then I get her last gift. I regained the warm feeling of love and companionship we shared. Amy was, is, a wonderful sister, who cared very deeply for her family. Even as she lay painfully dying in the hospital her thoughts were of us - she made sure we got a small Christmas present from her. She was selfless and loving, an ideal I try to live up to even today.

Amy is a part of my life today. Not just her dying, but her living too. I still have her favorite stuffed animal, Myrtle the Turtle, she always has a special spot in our home. Myrtle smiles her wise, knowing little smile, and she is infused with the goodness and joy that was Amy. After I release my anger and accepted my quilt about her passing, I was able to start reconnecting with my parents in a truer way. I cannot imagine the sense of loss and horror losing a child must produce, so I will never fully understand what they continue to go through. I have seen a rebirth of happiness in my mother in particular, as she dotes on and beams about her granddaughter, Riley. I think too, that having daughters is helping to heal my brother. Having a family is hugely important to him, and he has blossomed into a strong and caring father.

In the end it isn’t that failing to understand our past dooms us to repeat it, it is that our emotional life is shaped by all that has happened to us, whether we deal with those events or not.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.