There should be a manual for how to behave when your sister dies.
It would be helpful to know if you’re crying too much in the beginning, or maybe not crying enough. Should you let it all out at the funeral, the more appropriate place to be emotional? Or is it better to pop a high dose Xanax, survive the service, and unravel months later in the middle of a restaurant, when someone walks by wearing a tank top identical to one you gave her?
The manual should outline what is appropriate in terms of anger. Is it okay to be mad at God, as long as you still believe in Him? Is it okay to still believe in Him but not have the same relationship you used to? And what if, for a while, you’re so angry that you really don’t believe in anything?
What about feeling resentment towards people who still have their siblings? Is it more appropriate to feel upset in the presence of siblings who get along well and love each other, or is anger better directed specifically towards those who don’t appreciate what they have? Or maybe it’s best to not play favorites and just hate everyone for a while?
The manual would provide responses to use when people say stupid and insensitive things to you like, “she’s in a better place now” or “God needed her more than we did.” It could appear as an appendix, a helpful chart with two columns. Instead of being caught off guard when someone tells you, “God needed another angel”, you can open your manual, flip to the back, and select your response. You might choose to say, “I understand that’s how you feel, but it’s not how I feel” or “That’s not going to work for me, and it’s okay if we disagree.”
It would be beneficial if the manual outlined how frequently you should visit your sister’s gravesite. Once per day? Once per week? Never again after the graveside service? Is there a positive correlation between public displays of mourning and love for the deceased? This would be good to know because people tend to draw their own conclusions.
The manual should explain the term blessed. It’s used so frequently when people narrowly escape accidents or survive illnesses. “We are very blessed,” people say. The manual should define this word. And provide an antonym. Because what adjective do you use for someone who doesn’t survive?
People tell you in the beginning to grieve any way you like. But they don’t really mean that. What they mean is to grieve in a socially acceptable way that is not messy, “ugly” or obtrusive. A manual could clarify all of this so that no one other than the bereaved feels uncomfortable.
A manual could provide helpful hints for passing time in the early months of loss. Is it better to escape through drinking? Taking a few pills? Enrolling in a class? Starting a project? What will serve as a good distraction but also give you the best shot at living a normal life?
A normal life. There really is no such thing as a normal life after a significant loss. My life is now divided into two compartments: the years I had with my sister and everything after. All aspects of my life have been affected: my faith, my expectations of others, my relationships. Grief can be ugly and messy, and it can rip apart even the closest families.
It has been almost fourteen years since she died. Each year the pain stings a little less, but in exchange, the memories become fuzzier. I can’t remember her voice anymore without listening to a recording, and I can’t remember the details of our conversations.
But I do remember what it felt like to be completely happy and whole, my family of four, seated at our dinner table, or taking a trip in our car.
I wish I hadn’t gotten mad at my sister for embarrassing me in front of my boyfriend. She was only showing off, trying to make me laugh.
I wish I had come home for her 16th birthday. It would have only been a five-hour drive. I could have asked for an extra day off from work.
I wish I had visited her more at college, sent more care packages, and called more often.
I wish there were a manual for surviving the loss of a sister.
Somebody should write one.
Prince George, VA
Melissa Face lives in Prince George with her husband and two children. She is an English Instructor at the Appomattox Regional Governor's School in Petersburg, VA, and she writes creative nonfiction when she is not grading student work. Email Melissa at firstname.lastname@example.org.