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The Last Gift I Carry With Me After Losing My Sister

It was a time cherished by our family. Something that had been part of us for as long as I could remember. Garden City, South Carolina – Fourth of July. Some of my earliest memories of childhood centered around this special place, and special time that our family spent together each and every year.

My mom has a huge family. When all is said and done, there are over 50 of us – grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandchildren, great-grandchildren – like I said – a huge family. Each year, we would come together, from all parts of the country, and every imaginable walk of life, and spend the week together as a family, enjoying a week of vacation together.

Only as I grew older did I realize how unique this experience was, and how few families did this year after year, for 30+ years. It was a time that shaped me as a young man, and bonded us together as a family, reminding us that there were few things that were more important.

Yet this year was different, and we knew that after this, it would never be the same. It had been a hard year, especially the past six months. During that year, my daughter and nephew had been born. It was an exciting time of celebration in our family that quickly became tragic. In December, following these births, we received the devastating news that my sister had brain cancer.

It was a diagnosis that rocked our world and overshadowed the new births in our family. As we walked this new and difficult path, nothing prepared us for the news we received six months later, in late June, that my sister was rushed to the hospital and was not doing well. Two days later, huddled around her bed, we said goodbye. My little sister, only 16 months younger than me, the person I always remember having with me, was gone.

Words cannot describe the grief we felt. The loss was deep, and now, even 20 years later, it is still deeply felt. Until that day, I could not remember a day without her in my life, and now, everything was changed. The next week after her passing was the annual trip to the beach, and it was the first time I realized how different life would be going forward.

Everything about that week changed. Yes, we still came together as a family and treasured the time together. We still ate, talked, and had fun together, but there was a quiet undercurrent, a void, an emptiness that was not there before. It became the first of many events, that while joyful, was mixed with loss and sadness. It began the process of simultaneous joy and sorrow that I would experience with each new life event.

It was the first of many things that showed me that no matter how much time passed, I would always be saying goodbye to her. I would always have that part of me that was missing and would forever feel the loss of her presence with each new life event and milestone: the first Christmas, the first Thanksgiving, the first New Year’s Eve, birthdays, trips, exciting news, graduations, life events – all would be changed. As our children grew, she would not be there. When I had exciting news, like publishing my first book, she was not there to tell. For my entire life, she was always there, and now there was a void where her presence had been. Would healing ever take place? Would our hearts heal? Would that void ever be replaced?

The answer was “yes” and “no.” While she would never be replaced, never physically be with us again, in some ways, she would always be with us. While I could no longer see her, over time, I began to realize, that even in this long goodbye, she was still there, in my mind, memories, and heart.

Even though I lost her, in some ways, I always carried her with me, and her loss helped make me who I am today. It was not easy, and there were very dark days, and days I did not think we could make it. There are still times I hear her voice in my mind, saying something I no longer hear her say aloud. Her loss changed me, it changed our family, but it also bonded us together and showed us how special and treasured life truly is.

Since that day, there have been many more losses and goodbyes, and while each has been difficult, and each has changed our family, each has shown us and reminded us to treasure those with us on the journey and helped us see what truly is important. Perhaps that is the last gift from those that have gone before gave us – a simple reminder in our loss and pain that these times will never come again, so cherish them and hold close to those you love and hold dear while you still can.

Getty image by Jenny Acheson.

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