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Traveling with Grief

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story | Professor Robin Hemley

photo | IowaNow

My sister had been sick for a long time, and when she died of a prescription drug overdose, it was not entirely unexpected. Apparently, the overdose had been accidental, the mistake of a pharmacist who filled her prescription wrong, giving her a dose of Lithium that made her kidneys shut down. But it didn’t really matter whether her death was accidental or not  She had tried to kill herself a number of times. Between the ages of 12 and 15, I had lived through at least three of her suicide attempts. This might sound shocking or heartless, but in some ways, my sister’s death came as a relief to me, or at least a culmination of something that had seemed predetermined for a long time. She was 11 years older than me and I loved her fiercely, but I sometimes hated her for interfering with the happy childhood I thought I deserved, with her hallucinations, her talk of spirits and fairies and beings that only she could see. 

When I remember her now, I don’t dwell on the sickness but on her brilliance and her magic. Together, once we found a patch of four-leaf clovers and once we ran away together – I was five and she was 16 and we walked a country road while she told me the stories of the stars in the firmament and the lovers and animals they comprised. And the Irish folktales she read to me growing up, and her lovely voice as she played the Irish harp. These are the things that I choose to remember, but that still wash me in grief again, all these many years later.  That’s the thing about grief. It never goes away, but that’s not a bad thing. What’s wrong is any attempt to banish it because grief is an enduring expression of love, and sometimes that love is painful but still necessary.  

Before she died, I had signed up for a trip to Europe with a group called Scholastic International that specialized in shepherding groups of teenagers through Europe. My sister Nola died less than a month before my trip was to commence, but my mother, whose unselfishness astounds me now, said I should still go, and being the selfish 15-year-old that I was, I went. I should add that my mother had already lost my father seven years earlier, so letting me go on this trip was something almost heroic. She never let me feel guilty but urged me to take this trip, though she had hardly ever traveled outside of the U.S., only once to England four years earlier with Nola and myself. On that trip, I had virtually ruined the experience for them with my bratty-ness. If I sound guilty, that’s not exactly the tone I mean to strike. I’ve long ago embraced my inner brat and come to terms with him. It’s my mother’s unselfishness I mean to highlight, that she in her own deep grief could wish to lighten mine.  

So I went on my trip to Europe. There were times that I forgot my sister entirely, when I gave myself over to a crush I had on a fellow 15-year-old. And there were times that I remembered her, when I lit a candle for her in Notre-Dame and Chartres, though we were Jewish. It was still a gesture, feeble as it was, to at least mark my loss, to mark the world’s loss of a 25-year-old who could have done so much, not a coming-to-terms-with, because there is no coming to terms with grief, there is never a coming to terms with it, never. I was simply marking my grief as I’m doing now, lighting another candle that will eventually burn out.  

When I think of that trip I took with Scholastic International now, as I sometimes do, I rarely associate it with my sister’s death, though really, I should. One followed the other. But on the trip, I tried to compartmentalize Nola’s death.  Did I even tell any of the other teens that my sister had died only a month before? I don’t think I did. And because I didn’t acknowledge my grief, the oddness of my behavior on the trip seemed inexplicable to my fellow travelers. I remember one boy telling me to stop staring at him as we sat on a bus on our way to Innsbruck, Austria. Was I staring at him? I hadn’t noticed. I’m sure I was staring at him, but not at him, through him, remembering my sister, wondering what I was doing here. What was I doing here? I still don’t know the answer to that, but my staring, though it disturbed this boy, was really an inward stare, the stare of someone in shock, who to this day, doesn’t know why she had to leave when she left.  

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