We are privileged to have a dear friend, Lindsay, as a guest blogger this week. Lindsay lost her sister at the young age of 27 to a long-time battle with anorexia. Sibling relationships are often complicated and challenging, but sometimes illness adds to their complexity, especially a disease such as anorexia with extreme physical and emotional consequences. Lindsay shares her perspective on their relationship and her personal and honest view of its continuing meaning.
It’s hard to tell the truth about someone you loved who died.
I sat down to write this on the day that would have been my little sister’s thirty-second birthday. The last time I saw her we were at my parents’ house. I went into her bedroom, woke her up, and hugged her hard and for a long time. She had relapsed and was very sick. I told her to take care of herself, to get the treatment she needed, and that I loved her. The last thing she said to me was “I’m not going anywhere.”
Three days later she was dead.
Her death was both sudden and, in a way, not a surprise. She was sick for fifteen years, and her last relapse was the most severe. Anorexia is a chronic illness that is sometimes, but not always, terminal. We did not know if it would kill her, but everyone who loved her lived for many years with the fear that it would.
She died four days after I got married, when I was twenty-four hours into what became my aborted honeymoon. The next couple of weeks were a blur of contradiction. We mourned my sister’s death while scrolling through photographs from our wedding. My husband coined the term “congratdolences” from cards we got congratulating us on our marriage and expressing condolences for our loss. I ate baked goods sent by friends and snuck cigarettes bummed off strangers.
My sister was one of the most intelligent people I have ever met. She was a ruthless and skilled scrabble player. She loved to watch surgeries on the Discovery Channel. She was wickedly sarcastic and intensely loyal. She could be loving and deeply empathetic. She had huge, deep blue eyes and a wide, infectious smile.
My sister was tortured. She was anorexic, depressed, obsessive, and cripplingly anxious her entire adolescence and adult life. She agonized over decisions. She was paralyzed in social situations. She was deeply insecure; she never saw herself as smart or beautiful or funny or fun.
My sister was also kind of an asshole. She was self-absorbed. She was often passive aggressive. She was critical of others and could be downright cruel. It was hard to tell where my sister’s illness ended and where her actual personality began; hard to know for what she should be held accountable and what was beyond her control.
The truth about my sister is that she was all of these things at once. She was smart and funny and loyal and loving; she was tormented and insecure and ill; she was kind of an asshole.
I loved my sister, and I resented her. I was fiercely protective of her, yet her illness and the concomitant sturm und drang was often too much for me, and I deliberately withdrew even knowing it hurt her. One summer when she was in the hospital, I visited her every day, and we once went a year without speaking. I miss her every single day, and yet there are ways in which my life is simpler, even easier, without her.
The truth about our relationship is that it was all of these things at once. We were good to one another, and we were terrible to one another. We were close but sometimes estranged. We hurt each other accidentally and on purpose. She did everything she could to sabotage her relationships with the people she loved, and it was easy to let her.
It’s ok to remember the complex, hard, shitty parts of a relationship, of another person, of the way you were with that other person. It’s ok to see that and acknowledge it and look it right in the eye. It’s ok to allow someone to be imperfect in death. It’s ok to lay bare your own imperfections and failings.
It’s hard to tell the truth about someone you loved who died. But, for me, it is a necessary part of grieving and celebrating and acknowledging my sister’s life and our relationship with one another. The conflict no less defines sisterhood than the love, and to leave such a substantial part of the relationship unacknowledged is to discredit the resilience of that bond. In a complicated, difficult relationship, there are a lot of feelings: love, yes, but also anger and resentment, guilt and regret. Where do those feelings go when the other person dies? For me, mourning my sister and truly accepting and coming to terms with her death meant being honest about who she was and the relationship we had. It meant not glossing over the hard parts. It meant remembering all of her, every part of us. It meant forgiving her, and forgiving myself. And ultimately, telling the truth about us allows me to miss her and mourn her and celebrate her, the real her, all of her, with my whole heart.