They say losing a child is the most emotionally trying thing a human being can experience. After watching my mom suffer through the loss of her first child almost 16 years ago, I would say that statement is true. There are a lot of books written on the subject. There is not, however, much literature on surviving the loss of a sibling. I lost my sister, Katie, when I was 20 years old. My mom called me at work to tell me that my sister had been in an accident in Mexico. Growing up in San Diego, going down to Mexico for the day was very common. I asked my mom if I should leave work and come home and she said no. I assumed that my sister had been involved in a car accident and needed a ride home. I thought I would drive down to Mexico after work to pick her up and we’d figure out what to do about her car. About 30 minutes later, my younger brother, Sean, called and asked that I come home right away. I left work immediately. He was waiting for me in the driveway when I got home. He was 14 years old at the time. We lived at home with our older brother Scott, who was 22, our mom and our grandmother.
My memories of that night are fuzzy. My mom went down to Mexico to get my sister. My Aunt Sherrie was my mom’s “rock” of support. She drove my mom down to Mexico along with their friend Rosa, who thankfully speaks fluent Spanish. I stayed home to watch over Sean & my grandmother. I remember that the telephone kept ringing. Family members living on the east coast were calling over and over throughout the night for updates. Although I understood that they were worried and they felt helpless being so far away, I was starting to get angry at having to keep answering the phone to pacify them. I was feeling quite helpless myself. My sister was in another country and there was absolutely nothing I could do but “hurry up and wait”. My oldest brother, Brad, lived in New York at the time. He and I spent several hours on the phone that night convincing each other that Katie was fine. There must have been a mistake, a miscommunication. Something was lost in translation and my mom, Aunt Sherrie & Rosa would be pulling into the driveway any minute with my sister. We were numb and refused to believe that my mom went down to Mexico to identify my sister’s body.
My mom still wasn’t home when I woke up in the morning. I was so convinced that everything was going to be okay, that I actually went to class to turn in my physics homework. I remember what I was wearing and I remember that I took Sean with me. I don’t remember anything else that day.
They say losing a child is the hardest thing a human being can endure. The hardest thing I have ever had to do was tell my brother Scott that our sister was dead. In late August of 1996, Scott was on vacation in Hawaii. We had a family meeting and we all agreed that it would be best to let him enjoy the last few days of his trip, We would wait and tell him when he got home. My cousin Kelly and I picked him up at the airport. That was the longest fifteen-minute car ride of my life. He could sense that something was wrong as soon as he saw us, but he’d had enough cocktails on the plane that he didn’t sense just how wrong things were. I didn’t know where to begin. I didn’t know how to tell him. I didn’t know what to say. To be honest, I can’t recall what I said. I just know that I waited until we were almost home. He was confused and angry. He jumped out of the car and started running. He made it home a few hours later.
There were people in our house constantly those first few days. Coming and going, bringing food and mixing drinks. Hugging, crying. It was a nice buffer to be surrounded by constant activity, delaying our reality. We didn’t want them to leave. When they were gone, we were left to deal with the reality that a piece of our puzzle was missing and our lives would never be the same again.
Being catholic, there was a viewing and rosary, followed by the funeral the next day. Surprisingly, the “viewing” was just that. It was an open casket service. I haven’t told you yet how Katie died. She was driving up the coast after a day of wine tasting with our stepmother. It was the night of a lunar eclipse. The two of them stopped to take a picture of the sunset. Katie was trying to catch the “green flash”. Our stepmother, Karen, saw that the moon was rising and told Katie to turn around and look. She did. She lost her footing and fell 150 feet to her death. For many years after her funeral, I wished that I hadn’t looked in that casket. She didn’t look like my sister. She was broken. She was dead. Now, 16 years later, I am glad that I did. I’m glad I was able to touch her one last time. I was able to tell her that I loved her one last time while she was still physically here.
Having my three brothers to lean on immediately after Katie’s death was a lifesaver. We supported each other when my mom was unable to support us. After about the first year, that dynamic changed. We all started talking about Katie less and less. I think we did this subconsciously as a way of protecting each other. If I was feeling blue, but they seemed okay, I wouldn’t want to bring up Katie’s name for fear of bringing them down. I struggled with talking about her at all for the first few years because I didn’t want to have to explain to people what happened to her because it was too hard to talk about. As more years passed, I didn’t bring her up not because it was too hard for me to talk about, but because it made them feel so uncomfortable. I think I had told the story so many times that I was kind of numb. I would just describe the accident completely void of any emotion and that shocked people, which made me feel awkward. I felt like they expected me to cry and since I didn’t, maybe I didn’t love my sister enough. Eventually, when asked about my siblings, I would describe what the boys were up to and say that my sister lived in Santee with her husband. This was true prior to August 29, 1996. I wasn’t lying, I just wasn’t telling them the whole gruesome truth.
I am very lucky. My family has always been very close. We are and always have been friends as well as family. My siblings and I are blessed that we were raised in such a loving environment and were not afraid to say, “I love you”. That is something that so many people regret when they lose a loved one-not saying “I love you” enough or, worse yet, not saying it at all. Luckily, that is a regret that I do not have.
In closing, I cannot imagine going through this pain alone and I am so lucky that I didn’t have to. I have my three wonderful brothers; Brad, Scott & Sean on this journey with me. If you are reading this and have just lost your brother or sister, I hope these words have helped. It got annoying for me to hear how sorry people were for my loss. One of the most beneficial sentiments for me during that time was, “just keep moving forward”.