A few weeks before my sister died, I was lounging on her couch when she screamed for me to get to the bathroom. Normally I ignored her screeches, at that point I had weathered 34 years of her overreactions. But Alison had been diagnosed with small cell cervical cancer the previous year and I had been on edge for 14 months. From the moment I knew that cancer was in her body, I was willingly at her beck and call. I ran to answer every FaceTime alert, completed every obscure favor (including sewing her a neon pink and green fanny pack), and fretted nervously whenever I couldn’t reach her. After hearing her scream, I anxiously turned the corner to see her crouching in front of my 20-month-old nephew, inspecting the contents of the potty underneath his naked bum. “It’s a blueberry!” she shrieked as she lifted her bewildered son so I could get a better look.
As she hopped from foot to foot in excitement, I peered over to investigate the cause of her commotion. And there, against the white of the bowl, was a fully intact blueberry. An extra-large blueberry. A blueberry so big that we couldn’t understand how he had managed to swallow it whole. Alison meticulously cut all of her Sam’s berries in half. How did this one make it past the blade of her knife? It sat there, pristine-looking, as my sister narrated a zoomed-in video to send to her husband.
Atheists tend to let it all hang out.
I am an atheist. I find that agnostics usually go for gentler terms — I am without faith or I’m not religious or I’m a lapsed Catholic. Atheists tend to let it all hang out. I do worry about the judgment that comes from this confession. Sometimes it’s met with strong convictions trying to make me change my mind. Sometimes people give me a look of sympathy and behind their gaze, I hear them thinking, “Oh, bless your little lost heart.” Sometimes people look downright frightened, perhaps because it makes them consider what I firmly believe. A world with no afterlife, with no higher power, and with no plan. A belief that there is no fate, no divine intervention, and no answer to prayers.
In the face of tragedy, it can be hard for people to stick to their faith (“I’m so angry with God” is something we’ve probably all heard) but it can also hard to stick with your lack of faith. Traditionally, I had often found comfort in my atheism. After watching my dad live in pain and discomfort with various critical illnesses for more than two decades, it was hard to believe that there could be any plan behind his daily suffering. How could there be a plan for anyone’s suffering? (Yes, I know the arguments that those with strong religious convictions will give me, but I don’t buy it). I believe the earth is random, and bad things happen for no reason at all. These beliefs allowed me to function in a world where my dad could suffer so much. In a world with malaria and child abuse and school shootings. A world with the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge and the Rwandan genocide. I believe in the insignificance of each life. In the grand scheme, we, and all living things, from dandelions to emus, are just minuscule undetectable blips in the history of the universe. My father died when I was 20, and I have always accepted that he was gone. I don’t believe that he is looking out for me. I miss him terribly, but I don’t count on us ever being reunited.
I started talking to her, desperate for her to hear me.
But when Alison died unexpectedly three weeks after she found that wayward blueberry, my beliefs scrambled. Hours after she was declared brain dead, I lay on her porch swing and looked at the lazy summer sun hiding behind the clouds. The pain in my heart was unbearable. I started talking to her, desperate for her to hear me. I asked her if she was ok. I questioned where she was. I told her I loved her. I repeated these questions and statements over and over for the next few days.
My need for her to be somewhere was startling. I haven’t believed in an afterlife since I was a teenager, but she was ripped from my life so suddenly and unexpectedly that I couldn’t process her absence. My brain throbbed as I tried to sort through this absurd reality. I understood the logic that life was now different, but it was hard to convince myself that this was our new truth when I could simply glance over and see her paint-stained blue canvas shoes in the corner of the room. The spot she had left them a few days earlier after she took a break from painting the hallway. I knew I would never see her again, but that seemed impossible when I sat on the bench she wanted to refinish, fingering the sisal seat that she had cut with a razor blade before she had a plan for the repair. I had to prepare meals for her son, but bypassed the three ears of sweet August corn that she was planning to cook for her family for dinner. Eventually, I stepped out her mud room door and threw them into the woods. I couldn’t bear to eat corn that had outlived my sister.
I was confused by this deep desire to talk aloud to my sister and to look at the sky while I was doing it. I never wavered in my beliefs before, but I suddenly found myself longing for faith. Jealous of the thousands of people I encountered in the various Facebook grief groups I had recently joined who spoke of future heavenly reunions and angels and dream visits and daily signs. And so I found myself hoping that there was something else, desperately longing for the certainty that this wasn’t my sister’s end. How do sisters die when, for your whole life, they were bigger and stronger? Even after I officially outgrew my sister in the late 90s, she would still give me piggy-back rides up and down the stairs.
Siblings are referred to as the forgotten mourners. When I was in my late 20s, I heard that a high school classmate’s sister had died about six months after the fact. I sent a card to her parents recalling a fond memory of their eldest daughter, but never thought to extend the same courtesy to my old friend, her sister. The depth of her loss wasn’t on my radar. And this was even after my dad died. At that point I considered myself to be some sort of sage on all matters grief because I’d been there and I was supposed to be one of the people who ‘got it’. (Clearly, I didn’t).
The best way I can describe my life as a surviving sibling is that I’m a b-side widow. I relate to the loss of a partnership that a widow experiences on the death of their spouse. But I am a little different because unlike a husband or wife, a sibling is supposed to be our full life partner, our mirror from childhood to old age. As a child, I had always assumed my sister would die three years before me. That our age gap, written in stone the day I was born, would hold until the end.
My sister was my landing board. My source of unwavering support. The person who would always be in my corner, regardless of a moment of weakness, a break in my character, or an off-color joke. The person who would edit my cover letters and button up my wedding dress. We shared a similar and specific humor that came from our shared 80s childhood influenced by the movies we adored, afternoons exploring in the woods, and stories about farting classmates.
The death of a sibling is accompanied by the loss of so much fun. Her texts and emails were an endless source of entertainment. She would come into your home and leave behind little drawings in her wake. Sometimes a doodle of her dogs on your junk mail, or her husband as an owl with glasses on the chalkboard. After she died, I desperately tried to find people who understood my pain and so I attempted to gain membership to a secret online grief group reserved for widows and widowers. In the entry questions, I explained my situation, and my longing to be in a group of people missing their life partners. I didn’t make the cut.
Was this Alison telling me to focus on my child?
A few weeks after Ali died, I dreamt that I was standing in my kitchen sobbing because of my sister-less state when I suddenly felt her invisible hands pushing me out of the room. I kept trying to get her to stand still so I could wrap my arms around her and keep her close, but she wouldn’t stop tugging me. Her hands were frantic with urgency and she roughly moved me upstairs to my third-floor bedroom where my 1-year-old daughter was leaning out the window, seconds away from falling. Was this Alison telling me to focus on my child, and not let my grief distract me from caring for my infant? Or was this my brain telling me the same?
I believe that you notice things when you need to see them, but that they have been there all along.
I go to a grief group with many grieving parents and I hear a lot about signs. Joan’s son takes the form of moths illuminated by the light of the moon. Bluebirds at the feeder are Shawn’s daughter saying hello. Jeremy’s spirit likes to play his mom’s favorite song on the radio in the car. Rebecca’s parents find coins with her birth year in the most unlikely places. I understand the appeal of signs. But I don’t believe in them. I believe that you notice things when you need to see them, but that they have been there all along. After September 11, I became semi-scared because it felt like every time I looked at the clock it would read 9:11. My then-boyfriend made the point that I was not seeing it any more than usual, it’s just that 9:11 now has meaning.
When I do dream of my sister, she is weak and frail. In one dream I had to carry her emaciated body while feeling the sharp daggers of her shoulder blades against my bare forearms. My sister was never sick like this, but in my dreams, she is barely alive. The dreams are unwelcome, and I wake up in a terrible mood, heavy with the weight of her absence. But then, last fall, I dreamt of Alison, and she was herself. She was strong and smiling. She was there in front of me, but I knew she was dead. So at that moment I hugged her hard and asked her if she was ok and told her I missed her. She didn’t respond.
I woke up and felt surprisingly content. Maybe because it felt like I had a chance to say goodbye, something I didn’t get to do in real life. Dreams like this one can be bittersweet because the harsh reality of death abruptly shadows the bliss of a good dream. But on this morning, even when the dream was over, I felt a lingering wisp of contentment. I smiled as I walked across the hall to my daughter’s room, feeling more at peace than I had in a long time. I picked Corinne up from her crib while she babbled about nonsense. When I unsnapped her wet diaper I found a blueberry.
Well, a blueberry sticker.
There is nothing like the sweet message of a sign.
My body was immediately enveloped in the ultimate comfort that comes from a strong connection to someone you miss so desperately. There is nothing like the sweet message of a sign. “Alison is joking with me about that blueberry poop!” I thought. I know that if my sister could send a sign, it most definitely would have had something to do with doody (her preferred term, not mine). But ever so quickly, logic came into play. My daughter had been playing with food stickers the previous day, one must have stuck to her.
But, my heart counters, she had been playing with the stickers downstairs. She had been playing with the stickers downstairs, and then she had a shower, and then she got a fresh diaper and new pajamas. Pajamas that zipped from her feet to her neck, enveloping her in a cocoon of cotton. Then she had on a sleepsuit because my child cannot die of SIDS on top of everything else that’s going on. So even though she was nearly two, she stayed in that sleepsuit and slept with no additional toys or blankets or pillows. The sleepsuit was another layer in the pajama Alcatraz that would have made it very hard for a blueberry sticker to traverse to the inner depths of her diaper.
I know there is an explanation for the blueberry. But part of me still smiles in the comfort of the message. Whether it’s a sign or not, I feel like I am nestled in a hug from my sister, and there’s no harm in that.
Kellyn is a cofounder at Here For You, a company that’s trying to change the way people support each other in grief. She also believes in the power of story-sharing, and hosts take-over style accounts on Instagram for surviving siblings, children and parents.