Behind the scenes at Skepchick, we’ve been discussing grief. How do nonbelievers cope with the loss of a loved one? Maria and A are will soon be discussing their experiences losing their parents recently. My story picks up a bit later… 10 years later. And ends with me shaving my head.
In 2002, I lost my sister Colleen. She died after being hit by a car while crossing the street in front of our childhood home. A few years ago, I wrote about losing her, and how losing her fast-tracked me into skepticism.
Today would have been Colleen’s 31st birthday, a mostly non-monumental milestone in life. But today is the 10th anniversary of the last time I celebrated my sister’s birthday with her. And it’s strange. It’s not “10 years since she died” or “10 years since I saw her”… just “10 years since her birthday”. And that seems significant in an awkward way. Adding to the awkward significance is that 2 months ago, I moved to Texas with my husband and two kids. I’m here, with my family… but my parents and friends and extended family are still in Chicago. So I’m here with my family, but not with my whole family, on a milestone anniversary that almost seems forced.
But here’s the thing about anniversaries and grief: they don’t have to be big ones to be extremely painful. They don’t have to be recent or long ago or a birthday or holiday to leave you breathless in despair. And sometimes you won’t even feel a thing. And your experience is completely yours and may be totally opposite of everyone around you.
I’ve learned through the years that there’s no right or wrong way to feel about anything involving death and loss. I used to torture myself with guilt over being happy with the life I have even though there’s no way I would have it without losing my sister. As if I had a choice. And as if chains of events must be emotionally homogenized… if I was happy with any link in that chain, it meant I must happily embrace the entire chain. But I don’t. I don’t have a choice. I don’t have to embrace anything. And because of that, I am free to embrace what I want, and throw everything else into my bitter-bin in my head where it can fester as I please.
Grieving never really gets easier or harder, more or less painful. It changes. And you never really know what it has planned for you. Today it might be a punch in the face… and then maybe you get a few weeks or months of whatever it is you do when your life has gone on.
For me, November is always hard. It’s my crabby month. November 18 may or may not be the hardest day of the month… but even if I’m not consciously considering that November is, well, November, I’m still less happy, more irritable, and shorter tempered. I’m stressed.
I don’t really know what else I can say about it. I’m only a grief expert in that I’ve been grieving for almost a decade. There’s ten years between me and the last time I hugged my sister, or fought with her, or complained about our parents with her or stolen each other’s clothes. I still have and wear her favorite T-shirt… or rather my favorite of her tees. I also have and wear a pair of her boots. And there are still times that something happens and I grab my phone to tell her about it immediately only to realize I can’t… or I’ll walk into my parents’ house and look upstairs to see if she’s coming down to greet me. And she’s not. Which is funny, because in my mind, she’s still 21 and living with my mom and dad… even though I’m 34 and living in Dallas.
But today is her birthday. And it’s been 10 years since she last celebrated. And I’m in a different part of the world from pretty much everyone I know and love. I anticipated that this year would be hard. Especially hard. So I decided to try something different this year hoping to take some of the edge off of the sad by making the world a little bit better than it was last week.
This year, in Colleen’s honor, I set a goal of raising $500 for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation… a fantastic charity that raises money for children’s cancer research. They raise money through charity head shaves. My sister was feisty, tough, and generous to a fault. Shaving my head for cancer seemed perfectly fitting. So last weekend, I committed to doing it… and at this point I’ve raised just under $2400!
Doing something this good, this bold and doing it this successfully has made my day a little easier to cope with. Maybe tonight will be different, maybe it won’t. I don’t know.
What I do know is that raising this money in her honor makes me feel like she’s a little closer to me. As nonbelievers we don’t get those small temporary comforts where we think our loved ones can still see us. We don’t get to call out into the night and believe they can hear us. We can’t just chit chat with them. They don’t visit us in dreams. In exchange, we don’t blame them for fucking with our electricity when the lights flicker and we don’t accuse them of moving our keys from the place we know we left them, yelling through the ceiling to give us back our keys because it’s not funny anymore and we’re late for work.
We have to work a little harder to feel their “spirits”. Today, I think I did that. I can’t know if she’d be proud of me, but maybe she’d find it at least amusing (and honorable) that I’m shaving my head. I’ll never get to ask her and that makes me profoundly sad. But I know that I’ve accomplished a lot since she died. I’m a better person than I was 10 years ago. Part of that is because of her. I’m proud of who she was. I’m proud to have been her sister. And I’m proud of the things that I’ve done that were inspired, in whole or in part, by her.
So today, I mourn her. I miss her. I celebrate her. I cry over her. And I honor her. I can’t get her back… but I can make the world a place she would be proud to come back to if she could, a world that’s better than the one she left.
So come February, when it’s 10 years from the day she passed away, and I’m still a half a country away from my parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t know how I’m going to feel. I hope I’m inspired… but if I’m not… that’s okay, too. There’s no wrong way to miss her except to not miss her at all.
If you’d like to donate to my head shave in honor of Colleen, and I hope that you would, you can do so at St. Baldrick’s.com.