Grief and the Power of Denial

True story… My sister just died 5 days ago. She was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer 3 1/2 months ago, so it was a relatively fast (but horrifying) way to go. I’ve also lost both of my parents, my oldest sister and a niece – who hung herself in prison.

Let’s go back to the sister that just passed away. We grew up in a rough part of Baltimore and had 5 older siblings, so we saw a lot at a young age. To say we were close is an understatement, she was more of a mother to me than our own. Honestly, I resented it when I was younger, but something changed one day.

When I was 8 and she was 12, a new friend invited me over for “chili night.” I agreed to go because I liked the girl and she had a REALLY cute older brother, named Clinton… that I didn’t mind looking at one bit. My friend answered the door and showed me to a small table in the kitchen, where her brother was already sitting. I couldn’t have been more excited.

I noticed that her Dad – who seemed wired and intense – was hovering. And, he kept talking about his prize truck in the driveway. The mother didn’t say a word the entire time I was there, she just cleaned an already-clean kitchen. My friend’s father put three bowls of chili on the table and instructed his son to try it. Clinton took a spoonful, and his dad asked, “How is it?” Clinton said two words, “It’s hot.”

At breakneck speed, his father took off his belt and started whipping Clinton like a slow horse. Stunned, I ran from the house and all the way down the street, forgetting my bike completely. Opening the screen door to my house, I ran up the stairs two at a time and shimmied up to the top bunk. My sister stood up and asked what was wrong. I told her what happened – including how he seemed to love his stupid truck more than his son – and she said, “I’ll be right back.”

Remember, she was 12. I asked her where she was going and she said, “Just to get your bike.” There was something about the look in her eye that told me that wasn’t all she was going to do. She was gone for about 25 minutes and when she came back she didn’t say anything except, “Your bike is in the garage.”

The next day I saw my friend at school and she said, “Your sister is crazy. Cool but crazy.” I asked what she meant and she said, “Didn’t she tell you? She came over last night with a baseball bat and smashed the lights on my dad’s truck. She would’ve done more, but my dad came out to stop her.”

My jaw dropped.

Later I asked my sister about it, “Weren’t you afraid of him?” She said, “No. I told him if he touched me – or any other kids in the neighborhood, including his own – that our brothers and all of their friends from the neighborhood would destroy his truck and that would just be the beginning. Then I called him a f*cker.”

We laughed, but I knew she would always have my back.

So how do you process grief without numbing yourself? “Sit with” the memories, light some candles, burn some incense, cry your frickin’ face off, laugh like you’re a lunatic. Rinse and repeat. When you stop crying, go through old photos and remember some more. Cry some more and then give yourself a break.

Grief isn’t a static feeling. Numbness is a form of denial and there’s a reason it’s part of the grieving process. And, just when you think you’re “over it” a tidal wave of grief will swallow you whole and you’ll wish you could remember how to be numb.

Me… I’m so far in denial right now, I feel like a sociopath. The day after my sister died, I looked up at the night sky and said, “Where are you?” Instantly I heard her sarcastic response as clear as if she was sitting right next to me. She said simply, “In processing.”

Funny. I never pictured a queue on the “other side.”

She was one helluva strong woman while she was alive and I have no doubt that she’ll find a way to let me know she’s ridding the world of bad guys on a much grander scale now. God, I hope the denial never completely wears off!

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