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The Awful Fusion of Grief and Depression

It’s been 15 days since I got the news. My sister Suz passed away at 4 a.m. on a Thursday morning.

I hate that phrase, “passed away.” It makes it sound like she floated off in a gondola across the sea.

She died. Why do we shroud death in such wishy-washy language?

I never went to visit her before she died. I had plans to visit Memorial Day weekend. But that was a week too late. I really need to stop planning to visit loved ones who are sick and just do it.

The cards and condolences all give me permission to grieve this terrible loss. But I’m scared to let myself grieve. I can’t think about this loss of my oldest sister without remembering the loss of our sister Peggy (who also died on a Thursday), and Daddy before her, and Mom before him. The grief seems too much to bear.

Grieving is doubly difficult when every impulse to let tears fall feels like teetering on the rim of the pit of depression. What if I let the grief run free and it drags me into that hell I haven’t really known in over 20 years? I remember that place of desperation all too well and I refuse to go back there.

It’s not that I haven’t cried about her being gone. I definitely have, but it terrifies me when I do. And why do the tears keep coming back once they’ve been cried? How do I grieve but continue to live?

I know this deep sadness is different from major clinical depression. I know the reason for these tears. When my depression was at its worst I had no idea why I couldn’t stop crying. The incessant tears served no discernible purpose. But the head knowledge that my tears of late do have a purpose—the loss of someone I dearly love—doesn’t alleviate the fear they may drag me into another bout of depression.

The other day I queued up a few Chris Stapleton songs on YouTube while I worked on a relatively mindless project. I fondly reminisced about when she bought us tickets to see him at a small venue in Portland. Then a song came on that I hadn’t heard him sing before called “Drink a Beer.” The next thing I know I’m bawling and my heart feels like it’s breaking into a million little pieces and being compressed in a vise all at once.

Today, as every day for the last two weeks, the hard cider in the fridge calls to me. I usually wait until after work to have one. But I’m on vacation this week and today 3 p.m. seemed like a good time to quench my thirst and my sadness. It’s 5 p.m. somewhere, right? And at least I’m not drinking tequila in her honor.

Maybe it’s the compound grief that is making it harder for me to cope with this loss. I don’t remember it being quite so unbearable when Peggy died, but then Suz was there with me for that loss. We began the grieving together. Now all my family support it on the other end of a telephone line.

When Mom and then Dad died, I was already depressed. My grief was fused with the vague despair of my mental illness. I suppose it could be that fusion that makes grieving so difficult now. I can’t seem to separate the two states of sorrow.

And yet this spiritual discipline of writing my thoughts and fears on paper helps me to gain a clearer perspective. I’m reminded as I write of a favorite Bible verse. John 11:35 says, “Jesus wept.” The occasion was the death of his dear friend Lazarus. Even though Jesus knew he was about to raise Lazarus to life again, he modeled grief over the loss of a loved one. He declared in that shortest verse that tears are a normal part of this broken life we live in a world of sorrow upon sorrow.

The same apostle who recorded this verse penned the book of Revelation where we are told God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Revelation 21:4 NIV.

These tears I cry for my sister are normal. This grief is OK. Today won’t be the last time I grieve this loss. This will likely not be the last loss I will know in this broken world.

We will never be the same as we were before this loss, but are ever so much the better for having had someone so great to lose.