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One Month Later

On Friday, September 16, 2016, I said the most painful goodbye I’ve ever made when my older sister, who had been battling cancer for almost five years, died at the age of 38.  I had thought I was prepared for her death, having watched her suffer for months.  I saw her grow weaker in her final weeks at hospice.  I knew death meant a release from pain.  I believe in heaven, and I feel joy in knowing I will see her again one day.  However, nothing prepared me for the huge, gripping pain that overtook me in the days after she died.  I missed her.  I needed my sister.  She was a part of me, and I wanted her back.

Just as difficult as losing my sister was seeing my parents grieve.  They rarely show emotion in front of me, yet the anguish they experienced in Christie’s last months and upon her death was so profound that it affected me deeply.  I watched them help care for her, feed her, give her small sips of water, trying to make her comfortable as the end drew near.  And as I watched, I thought of my own daughter, my firstborn, and was struck by the realization, “This would be like me losing her.”  Or like me losing any of my children, really.  The imagined grief was so real and overwhelming that I could not face it; I had to push it far from my mind so it would not consume me.  I don’t know how anyone can survive losing someone they love without turning to God.

Time has eased my pain; now I am able to think of my sister and smile.  I remember so many funny stories, like the way she used to sit our pet bunny in her Barbie car and push him around the house, or the way she made our kitten ride in a doll carriage, sometimes even with a bonnet tied beneath his chin.  I can look back and laugh, and feel light inside, because I know she would want me to feel that way.  This is one lesson her death has taught me about life in general – to focus on the times that made you smile, rather than those that made you angry or broke your heart.  Novelist Tim Robbins wrote, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”  I think each of us must make a conscious decision to look back and remember the moments that brought joy, and at this point in my life, it is a choice I want to make.

Christie’s death also taught me that we always should try to better ourselves.  One time I was sitting in the passenger seat of her car, waiting for her to run inside her house to grab something, and I noticed a folded sheet of paper stuck between the seat and center console.  I was curious (okay, nosey), so I pulled it out and found a typed list titled “Books Everyone Should Read before Finishing High School.”  My favorite subject has always been English, so the nerd in me was excited as I read through the list of familiar titles: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, and a couple dozen more.  About half had been checked off with a pencil.  I realized my sister, who had left school at age 16 to raise her daughter, never had a chance to read these classics, so she was reading them now – not because someone else required it or pushed her to do so, but because she wanted to reclaim part of her past, and make up for those experiences she never had.  I was so deeply touched by this that I quickly put the list back where I found it and never mentioned it, because something told me it was private – that she wanted to keep this journey to herself.  However, that list stuck with me, and the memory inspired me to try to better my own self.  As author Francis Chan wrote, “Our greatest fear should not be of failure but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.”  This summer, as my sister grew sicker and weaker, I remembered that book list, and I thought about my life, and though I know being a mother is my most important role, I realized I also wanted to make an impact in the larger world.  For me, this means moving forward to work toward a graduate degree in counseling, but it can mean anything for anyone.  I think God wants us to honor him by always moving toward the next thing, as long as the next thing makes us stronger, wiser, and less selfish, and as long as it draws us closer to him.

Finally, Christie’s death taught me to look for God in everything.  The morning after the funeral, my sister-in-law and her young daughter, Elizabeth, were driving to school when a rainbow appeared in the sky before them.  I have been around children all my life, so I know most kids automatically would think of leprechauns and pots of gold.  However, when Elizabeth saw the rainbow, she turned to her mom and asked, “Do you think God put Christie in charge of the rainbow-maker in heaven?”  This story makes me smile and cry at the same time.  Through the wonderment of a child, I was reminded that everything in existence belongs to God, and that his plans are always intended not for evil, but for good.  And so, I praise him.  I praise him for Christie’s life, for the impact she made in her relatively short time on earth.  I praise God that he is perfect in everything he does.

Author and speaker Joyce Marter seems to capture my message beautifully: “Loss can bring unexpected and enormous blessings. Hardships are opportunities for growth.  Unimaginable losses are openings for the soul to receive healing love from new sources….  While it may be impossible to understand our losses, I believe all people come in our lives for a reason; setting our lives on the correct trajectory for our psycho-spiritual development.  Notice the blessings you have received from your losses and be grateful for the ways those experiences have carved wisdom and depth into your being.”

Yes, I lost Christie last month, but I know where she is.  And I am richer for having had her as my sister.

Jessie Tucker Mitchell

Jessie Tucker Mitchell graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with Honors in English and Creative Writing. She has written dozens of articles for various publications, including Carolina Alumni Review, Our State, Business North Carolina, Cat Fancy, and She lives in Winston-Salem with her husband, Robert, and their children Elsa, Truman, Fletcher, and Archer. Fletcher has autism, so autism awareness is an important part of their lives. Jessie and Robert feel incredibly blessed to be members of Reynolda Church.

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