The Mighty Logo

With Grief, It Doesn't Matter How 'Strong' You Are

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

My sister died at age 37. She didn’t have cancer or an accident. She killed herself. One day she was alive and struggling with mental illness and the next day she was dead. She left behind her son, husband, parents and tons of friends. There were no goodbyes. I could write a novel about her struggles, the mental health system and loving someone with mental illness — but this is about me; the older sister left an only child at 46 and how my own mental health has taken a nose dive since my sister left me one year ago.

The lead up to my sister’s death was a long, slow, crisis filled slog. As the big sister, my job was to help her, be there, pick up the pieces. Put myself to the side to make her feel better. I was happy to do this. Her happiness was my happiness. When she was up, so was I. When she was in crisis I was down. Codependent was our middle names. When she gave birth to her son, I loved him like my own and cared for him when she couldn’t. My own daughter grew up with her cousin more like a brother. He was ever present in our life. My mission was to make sure those kids were happy and well-adjusted. I spent money I didn’t have and took trips I couldn’t afford. I was the gatekeeper to “normality.” My own needs were pushed to the side and my reactions to my sister’s suicide attempts, alcoholic binges and marital troubles were squashed and ignored. I was the master of conceal don’t feel.

Then she died and I crumbled. Not right away. Those first weeks I was a pillar of strength. Planning the memorial, picking cemetery plot, comforting friends. I thought I was grieving normally. Crying every day but functioning. Laundry, check. Groceries, check. Kids as happy as possible, check. I took three months off work as a nurse and when I returned I felt good. Ready. After all I was a strong person. I pushed emotions aside and tried to keep moving.

Then the holidays came and and the dreaded winter. I fell into a giant hole filled with molasses. I couldn’t move. Everything became a chore. Facing Christmas without my sister was excruciating. Buying gifts, deciding on dinner, getting a tree… all agonizing events that had to be done for the kids. We got through it and then things got worse. By January I was experiencing panic attacks at work. Needing to leave in the middle of the day and going home to bed. I tried switching shifts hoping the anxiety would improve. No such luck.

By March I was sleeping all day, stopped showering, did the bare minimum to make it through the day. My mother stepped in to help care for my daughter. I stopped drinking coffee and ate maybe once per day. I was terribly depressed and couldn’t stop crying. There was no joy in my life. Reading my sister’s texts, looking at pictures all night, listening to her voice on video. Wallowing in my anguish not knowing how to get out of it. Not even wanting to sometimes. Knowing that the memories were all I had left.

Life has had to go on, however. I was already seeing a therapist and was already on meds so I thought I would just have to wait it out, and in someways that’s just what has been happening. I did tweak my meds and took a leave of absence from my job, but really it has just been time. And some work on my part. I’m still depressed but much more functional. I started walking.  Not every day, but some days. I don’t sleep every day, I do the laundry again and grocery shop. I care for my daughter. We took a weekend trip together for the first time in months. Coffee tastes good again. I don’t cry every day and I try not to wallow. I’ve learned that no matter how strong you are as a person, grief is an emotion with no rules. It hits hard and at random times. There’s no cure but to do the best you can.

Getty image via phaustov

Originally published: June 16, 2019
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home