For the second time, I’ve just lost a sister. She slipped away in the early morning hours of May 14th, 2014. She was alone at the time of her death.
Her journey in life was not an easy one, and she developed a serious food addiction that she never owned up to, not even when she weighed 400 pounds and had secret stashes of candy and salty junk food all through the house. She detested exercise because it made her uncomfortable. If I were carrying around 250 pounds of extra weight, it would make me uncomfortable too.
Her family, me included, was sometimes angry and resentful when her health started to fail and she continued along her unhealthy path to an early death. There were perfectly good reasons for our anger and resentment because even though it was “her life”, her unhealthy choices impacted all of us hugely. She developed Type 2 diabetes but did nothing to change her unhealthy habits. Eventually, the disease wrecked havoc on her kidneys. Her daughter stepped up to donate a kidney because my sister could not lose the weight necessary to be eligible for an organ donation. Did her daughter get angry when my sister continued with her overeating/no exercise habits? You bet she did. Did it make a whit of difference in my sister’s behaviour? Nope. Eventually, her heart and lungs were affected and she was unable to sleep unless she was sitting up. She still maintained that it was all the drugs she had to take that prevented her from losing weight. We could all be unhappy and resentful from time to time due to what she was doing to herself, all to no avail.
After the death of her husband there was no one to take care of her. Four months after his death, she had a fall trying to get to the bathroom and could not get up. Luckily her grandson was there and called 911. After being taken to hospital, she never returned to her home again and lived the last few months in a nursing home because she was not ambulatory and no one could lift or transfer her without professional help. These last few months of her life were not very good. We can leave it at that as I’m sure you get the picture.
It is all very easy to say my sister created this situation and no one should feel blame or guilt over the fact that she died alone. Given what she had “done to herself”, perhaps a little self-righteous anger or resentment would be a little more understandable. The truth is, one or all of her family members felt all these emotions from time to time over the months.
The last few weeks of her life I noticed a change in her. She became less demanding and more loving. This may not happen to all patients in her situation, but it happened to her. I spoke with her by telephone on the last night of her life, just before I went to sleep 5000 miles away. She told me she loved me and how happy she was that I was her sister. It was very touching to me, but I did not even realize she was saying goodbye. What I did realize, however, was that I no longer felt angry that “she had done this to herself”. I only felt love for her and wanted her to be comfortable and at peace. None of the things she could have done differently in her life mattered to me anymore. I was empty of all those “could have, should have, would have” statements. I got the call the next morning that she had stopped breathing between 4 and 5 a.m.
My feelings were sadness at the loss of her, a profound grief that I wasn’t with her when she took her last breath, and awareness that her swift death had been a sweet mercy for her and for all of us. The feelings of anger and blame were gone completely, as if someone had pierced my heart and they had gushed out like air from a popped balloon. I got so clearly the old cliché “love is the only thing that matters”. Intellectually, I often have that saying in my mind and it is always flying around in my orbit but sometimes doesn’t make it in to the core of my being. This time, I really got it deep in my bones in regards to my sister’s life and death. Love is IT, and all the rest is just stuff we go through to get back to love. Next time I feel anger or resentment at someone I love, I will at least practice this simple (but not easy) concept. I will try to skip all the “stuff” and just get back to love.