Telling Our Story: Is This OK?

There are many moments where we are hit with the overwhelming absence of our sister, Colleen. This summer was full of new experiences and big events but, still, the recurring pangs of her absence. It just keeps happening, you guys! In the past several months, we have cried in front of a large audience (more than once) and spoken our truth about our sister dying to strangers and friends alike.

We cried during our presentation about sibling caregivers, which we knew was a strong possibility but still took us by surprise. We thought that we could be like robots and simply share our reflections on caregiving, but when we talked about our sister and our experience as sibling caregivers, our feelings got the best of us and we did get choked up. Although we shed a few tears, we were able to keep speaking and we made it through our planned remarks.

More recently, we once again found ourselves in front of a large audience talking about our sister, Colleen, while giving a toast at our younger sister’s wedding. We wanted to acknowledge our oldest sister who was absent from this monumental family occasion. Although we had practiced the speech a few times, it was even more difficult to get the words out, perhaps because we were speaking in front of friends and family who shared our sense of loss.

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Although we can’t help but worry how we appeared during these events - like, was it really bad ugly crying or was it respectable? - we also have bigger questions about how to talk about and share our experience with others - like, will we be known as the girls that always cry about their sister and are sad? Yet, for the most part (we think?) when we opened up, our comments were well received. At the conference, an audience member told us to remember that it is our story and no one can change that or take it away. That remark has stuck with us. We realized that we can share our story even though it is sad because well, those are the facts. We can’t make up a different story, the story is what it is. And as our aunt told us after our wedding toast, we had to address the elephant in the room - Colleen - because she was on everyone’s minds.

Since these experiences, we have been learning to push aside the voice inside that questions whether we should be talking about it. Am I making others uncomfortable? Am I being overly dramatic if I do talk about it? Am I being weird when I don't talk about it?

These instances of showing emotion and being honest about what happened felt like such positive steps that lately we have been brave enough to talk about Colleen and our loss in everyday life! Regardless of the reaction we get, we have realized that it doesn’t help us in our grief to avoid the topic or try to cover it up, and why should we have to? It hasn’t gone off without a hitch, though... We often wonder, did I just drop a big bummer in the conversation? Was that ok?

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On the day of our sister’s wedding, a wedding vendor who we had just met was asking about our family and we were explaining each of our “numbers” or birth order. She paused and said, “oh, well, who is the oldest? Was she unable to be here?” It felt like a punch to the gut. We also felt badly for her, who innocently wandered into this conversation. But without hesitation, we replied that our oldest sister died a few years ago. She was very kind about it and it didn’t end up feeling awkward. It was a freeing feeling to just be honest and not worry how it would sound or make others feel.

In the past few months, we have told coworkers and new friends about losing our sister for the first time. Sometimes the topic comes up when you’re getting to know someone, and questions about our family were more frequent with a family wedding this year. New friends or colleagues would ask: “So, there are FOUR girls in your family?” And we’d be forced to explain: “Well, actually, five, but our oldest sister died…” It was interesting to see that when we told the sad truth, some were very sensitive around the subject and others just passed over it, as if we said that our hamster had died. It is shocking and maddening when the latter happens - like, you have no further questions on the subject? Weird. And a few times, a new acquaintance or coworker was dealing with a loss and we had to navigate whether to bring up our experience or not - like, is it helpful to explain that we might know something about what they are going through (although we know that no two experiences in grief are the same), or does it just bring the attention back to ourselves?

We aren’t sure where these self-conscious feelings come from and have been trying to figure it out, likely a combination of others’ uncomfortable feelings surrounding death and grief and our own nerves. Do people make us feel like we shouldn’t tell the truth? Or are we nervous about showing emotion in front of other people? Are we supposed to just keep it to ourselves, like that was “the past”? Do we feel weird because others are so awkward? (probably yes) Are we still scarred by the grief police?

Of course there are situations where it may be best to keep to yourself, but we are trying to be more forthcoming. Maybe if we can show strength in speaking about our experience, it will make others more comfortable. We also don’t want to worry constantly about others and how THEY feel. We will probably still struggle at times to share our experience, and some may judge our grief, but it doesn’t change what happened. It is our story.

Don't Get Caught by the Grief Police

Grief police or, worse, grief bullies are terms we have been using privately to describe people who have expressed disapproval at our continued grief or questioned that there may be something wrong with us. The grief police felt that we were taking too long to grieve or were too sad, or pressured us to do things they claimed would be good for us. Yet, we noted that these grief police had never been through a similar situation of grieving. We learned to recruit our own grief bodyguards – spouses, friends, or coworkers – who were in charge of shutting down any weird comments or uncomfortable moments. They saved us many times.

We thought that we coined these terms as a funny way to complain about people to each other: “She tried to grief bully me!” So we were surprised to see an article, Enter the Grief Police by Megan Garber, in The Atlantic about grief policing in the wake of the death of David Bowie. It is not, apparently, a term that we originated. The article defines grief policing as a tendency to tell mourners how to mourn the “right way.” Enter the Grief Police also makes the larger point that, culturally, we are confused about how to mourn publicly and, amidst this confusion, social media is offering new ways to express grief and sympathy. Other articles have tackled the topic of grief on social media as well. Before Facebook added new reaction buttons, you might have questioned if it is appropriate to “like” a post about someone’s death or if an emoji is ever an appropriate reaction to death.

But when grief is not about the loss of a public figure, why do the grief police care about me and my grief? People seem to think that they can tell you whenever you aren’t “doing it right” in a variety of areas. You’d think that grief would be the one thing that people would leave alone but, sadly, the grief police can’t let you be. We know that our baggy eyes and extra gray hairs are noticeable, but instead of commenting on how well you think we're coping, maybe you could compliment our effort to wear matching clothes today.

Another article in The New Yorker, Good Grief by Meghan O'Rourke, addresses similar subjects and provides a brief history of how grieving in the West has changed over the past century, with fewer public grieving rituals (now mainly reserved for celebrities and statesmen) and an increase in the privatization of mourning. Good Grief also notes that grief can be isolating because there is a temporal divide between mourners and everyone else. We often experienced this divide: “Oh, so you don’t actually want to hear about how I’m doing, since you’re already walking away?”

Following our loss, we quickly realized that many people are bewildered in the face of grief. Or, perhaps, they are just naive and inexperienced with loss. When uncertain of what to do or say, some people choose to avoid the topic entirely. Others choose to voice their discomfort by telling the bereaved that they “just can’t handle it.” They may be the flip side of the grief police - the grief deniers. In our experience, nothing you could say would upset us more than we already are. There is no perfect thing to say, so why don’t you give it a try. We can’t handle this, either, but have been forced to, so please don’t use that as an excuse to do or say nothing. 

We were fortunate to have supportive and loving family and friends who outnumbered the grief police and we found ways to turn the badgering from the grief police into humor. Thanks to them, we were able to share many laughs over the awkward comments, the blabbering on about sick cats, the propositions to be in the holiday spirit, and the suggestions to get it together. In some ways, we would have had much less to vent and laugh about if it weren’t for the grief police.