By Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond
Source: The New York Times
My sister died of a rare and aggressive disease. She was sick for 10 years, but the disease progressed quickly in the end and I never really got to say goodbye to her. By then, she couldn’t speak, so I’m not sure if she understood what we were saying to her. She was my best friend and the best person I’ll ever know.
It’s been nearly four years since she died, and I’m still completely grief stricken. I miss her every day and waves of intense sadness strike often, even when I’m at work or out with friends. I cry myself to sleep most nights. I’ve seen two therapists, but it hasn’t helped because there’s nothing I can do to change my problem. My sister is gone.
I have good parents and friends, but it isn’t enough. There’s a hole in my heart. My grief hasn’t lessened or gotten easier to deal with over the years, it’s only become stronger and harder. Sometimes I pretend my sister is still alive and I call and text her even though her phone is no longer in service. I’m not suicidal, but I honestly don’t know how to continue on in this way. Everything feels wrong. My heart aches. Will things ever get better?
Stuck in Sadness
Cheryl Strayed: I’m sorry for your loss, Stuck. I know precisely what you mean when you say that nothing can be done to change your problem, because the only thing that would change it would be for your sister to be alive again. There’s a stark truth in that. You’ll never stop being sad your sister died. You’ll always want her back. But the other stark truth is that you have to find a way to thrive again, even if your heart aches while doing it. In the years after my mother died, I had to accept the upsetting reality that I’d never get her back. You’d think that would have been clear from the moment she was gone — and of course, in a rational sense, it was — but grief isn’t rational. I think you haven’t truly let go of the idea that if you love and grieve your sister hard enough, she’ll be given back to you. You’re stuck in your sadness because it’s better than being stuck with the idea that you’ll have to live the rest of your life without her.
Steve Almond: You don’t specify this in your letter, but I sense that your sister died relatively young, in her prime, and the 10 years she was sick constituted a significant portion of her lifetime. Part of your struggle, therefore, beyond having to live without your sister, is living with the feeling that you were the lucky sister, the healthy one. My hunch is that you’ve felt intense guilt about that for a long time, especially given your intimacy. So maybe the problem isn’t just that your sister is gone, Stuck, but that you’re still here. Guilt often takes the form of doomed loyalty: If you allow yourself to take pleasure in life that means you’re moving on, which is a betrayal of your sister. This may be why you feel these waves sadness when you’re at work or with friends — because you’re at the greatest risk of finding meaning and joy in these settings. It’s as if your guilt has installed an alarm system of sorrow. I wonder if it might help to think a bit more about what your sister would have wanted for you. Would she have wanted you to cling to her loss so ardently that you feel stuck? Or would she have wanted you to embrace life?