November 18, 2011: a day of grief, love, inspiration and hair-loss

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’



Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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  1. Thanks Elyse… i know exactly how you feel. 12 years since I lost my Dad under similar circumstances.

  2. Oh, also, “how do non-believers cope”?

    We realise life is nasty, brutish and short. Also, capricious, unfair and arbitrary. We also enjoy it to its fullest without fear of any judgement.

    1. Well said!

      Though I’d also like to add that it can be fantastically fun and fulfilling as well, at least for some of us. It’s the little things that make it that, though: Friends, family, pets, a good movie … ice cream for breakfast (I’m an adult, fuck yeah!).

  3. …*cries*

    Elyse, you are fantastic and inspirational. I haven’t lost anyone as close to my as my brothers (and I hope with all that I am that I never will), but I lost three friends to accidents and suicide with the space of a year about 5 years ago, and there are still days where all I want to do is cry for the loss. Doing something like this, turning grief into progress, is amazing. Keep being fantastic, and doing what you can to make the world a better place.

  4. That was a beautiful piece–thanks for that.

    November 18 is a significant day for me as well. My father died on this day 26 years ago. I’ve felt like mentioning it to people around me, but, really, it’s not the kind of thing to point out. Makes for a bit of an awkward moment. The date just sticks with me. I don’t think either my mother or my brother remember the date like I do–and my day was too busy to call either of them to check in. So, this post is my way to tell the universe, “Hey, my dad died 26 years ago. I miss him. It still sucks, but I’m OK.”

    Yeah, November does kind of suck.

  5. in October, i lost my mom and gave birth to my twins at 22wks gestation, too early to survive past a few hours. There is nothing unfair about the universe. This is just what happened. In dealing with grief as an atheist, I feel more open and free and less apt to assign blame. I’m not trying to find a reason anymore.

    Kudos to you Elyse for keeping your sister alive through your actions in your heart and for the world to share. i see now how important it is to “do” in memory of our loved ones. Keep sharing her story.

  6. Thanks for writing this, Elyse. I just had a chance to read it and I’m sitting here behind my table at Skepticon pretending I have something in my eye…

    Love you.

  7. I love that you shared this. I love that you’re such an amazing and articulate person. You do so much good. So much.

    I love you, Elyse.

  8. That was beautiful.

    How do I deal with grief as an athiest? For every comfort that is provided by believe your loved ones are waiting for you in the afterlife, there is an equal and opposite shame/guilt/self loathing that comes with it. I grew up in a very rural and religious area in South Alabama. My stepbrother took his own life. You should have seen the “good Christian folks” trying to dance around their own rule of suicide being a damnable sin. Someone actually said to me “since he was mentally ill the lord may forgive him”. MAY? FORGIVE? F*ck you and any one/thing/power that would judge him. The “comfort” that might come with blieving in a higher power brings more baggage than it’s worth.

  9. I spoke to a man I know at work after the death of my grandfather. I was having a very hard time coping with the fact that I didn’t feel the loss as much as the rest of my family, and that when I did think of the loss, I felt more like it was unfortunate, but I didn’t feel that sore feeling in my heart that I still feel when I think of the loss of my great grandmother (who I didn’t know as well, but I think I felt more love for) and my great grandfather.

    He said, “The only reason to feel sad after someone dies is because we don’t want to stop having them in our lives. It’s selfish.” He explained that whether you believe in heaven or not, the only reason to not want them to die is because we want them to be here with us, not for any worry of their suffering or lack of existence.

    Since then, I’ve had a very different outlook on death. I still feel sad when people die, but I acknowledge WHY I feel that way. I haven’t lost anyone very very close to me, but I think about it a lot.

    The way I see it, regardless of whether I believe in heaven, the last few seconds of brain activity can feel like an eternity, and many people see the things that make them the most happy in that moment, and that can be their heaven, and I would never begrudge anyone that momentary happiness. I try to think of that when I think of how sad and scary death can be.

    Grief is hard, but it is a selfish thing. I think remembering the lives of the people we lose, and doing things in their honor, instead of feeling bad that we don’t have them anymore, is the best thing we can do. It is amazing what you’re doing to honor your sister!

  10. Ugh, I lost my dad six months ago to cancer, and I am not looking forward to all the first anniversaries that will bring it all up again: Christmas, my birthday (which was the last time he was able to speak and he said goodbye), his death day and birthday, my kids’ birthdays, father’s day, plus all the little things that just blindside you. My wife’s mom died 8 years ago and she still has difficulty on those days, even if she only realises why afterwards.

    We’re both on antidepressants right now because it’s be such a shit year. Sometimes I want to say, in the words of Mulder “I want to believe”, because then I could believe my grandma and dad were still watching over me. But I couldn’t ever reconcile that with my rational and scientific world view, and I’d feel I’m lying to myself (and my dad, who was a matter of fact atheist to the last). But I like your sentiment that we just have to work a bit harder to feel their “spirits”; I think I can do that.

    I feel that bit sadder and that bit better having read this. Thanks.

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