My sister, Mary Ann Hartman, passed away a few weeks ago after a brief illness. She was 77. A widow, the mother of five and grandmother of nine, she was my only sister and my best friend.
The day before Thanksgiving she learned she had cancer in her stomach, liver, and kidneys. Prior to this diagnosis, she was essentially asymptomatic. Mary Ann declined chemo and dialysis, saying, “It’s all in God’s hands.” And later, “I’m ready to die.” She died ten days later in hospice surrounded by her children, their spouses, a couple of grandchildren, and me.
Losing a loved one is always difficult. But losing a loved one right before Christmas is especially hard. Here are a few of my thoughts taken from my journal during those first few weeks after her death. Though the grieving process is different for everyone, maybe something here might speak to your own experience of loss.
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+ The sympathy cards keep pouring in. And I appreciate every one—honest I do. But today I wanted to say, “Enough already!” Each card underscores the gravity of my loss.
+ People ask, “How are you, Melannie?” How do I answer that? Do I say, “Fine”? No. My sister is gone. How could I be fine? From now on, my “fine” will always be tempered by the loss of Mary Ann.
+ I wish I had had more time to talk with Mary Ann those last few days. And I wish she had had more strength to stay awake and speak to us, to me. But there I go again, trying to orchestrate the perfect death…instead of giving thanks for all the time we did have with her as she lay dying. And all those countless times over the years that I did have to talk with her—whether on the phone, across the table in a restaurant, beside her on her couch, with her in the park, next to her in the car. I tell myself, “Regret less. Give thanks more.”
+ Christmas cards are mixed in with sympathy cards. Before I open a card I try to guess: Christmas or Sympathy? The hardest to read right now are the Christmas cards—especially from people who haven’t yet heard “the news.” All that bright cheer amid my dark sorrow. It’s almost too much to bear.
+I feel strangely immune from pain. With Mary Ann’s death, I’ve been dealt one of the hardest blows life can give. And yet, here I am still alive. Limping from the blow, yes. But still walking.
+ It’s her fault my grief is so great. If only she hadn’t loved me so much. If only we hadn’t gotten along so well. If only we hadn’t enjoyed each other’s company so much. If only I hadn’t loved her so much. If only. If only.
+ When I crawled into bed last night, the tears came. Finally. I haven’t cried since the funeral. But last night in the darkness, I cried on and off until after midnight. The tears didn’t pour out. They trickled out. I whimpered more than sobbed. My mind was flooded with questions: How could she have been filled with cancer and nobody know it? Not her. Not her doctor. There’s anger in my question. If we had only known, maybe she could have received treatment. Maybe she would have had more time with us. But then I hear her words, “It’s all in God’s hands.” She really believed that. Can I?
+ She died with such courage, such dignity. Though she slept a lot, she was easily roused when family came to see her. Lori would whisper, “Mom, Zach’s here (Lori’s college age son).” Or, “Aaron (another son studying in Colorado) is on the phone. He wants to talk to you, Mom.” And Lori held the phone by her ear. Mary Ann listened, nodded a few times, and ended the “conversation” with a soft, “I love you too.”
+ She told us she was ready to die. But how did she “get ready”? She got ready by embracing the challenges and blessings life set before her: by being faithful to her husband, by raising five children, by working at the deli, by welcoming in-laws and grandchildren into the circle of her love, by doing small acts of kindness for her neighbors, by praying every day, by appreciating the beauties of nature, by feeding the birds, by volunteering at the animal shelter. She got ready by dealing with ambiguity, sorrow, disappointments, loneliness, worry, and fears with her gentle yet steady faith. She got ready to die the way we all get ready to die: by the way we live our life.
+My friends have given me permission to do whatever I need to do these days. Cocoon. Or be with people. Write. Read. Sleep. Clean a bathroom. Sit and stare out the window (which I’m getting good at). The ones who best understand my needs, are the ones who have already been where I am now.
+I had forgotten how tired grieving makes you.
+I will miss being known so well.
+I feel as if I’m walking around in a envelope of grief. Part of me wants to break out. Part of me wants to stay inside.
+Aaron said to Lori as she drove him to the airport after the funeral. “I was thinking, Mom. I lost my grandmother, but you lost your mother…” And his voice trailed off. Lori had tears in her eyes when she told me this. I have tears now as I write this. Mary Ann’s death has poured down blessings on all of us. One blessing: the deeper realization of how much we mean to each other.
I chose a simple song by Marty Haugen: “We Walk by Faith and Not by Sight.” Not only are the words appropriate for Mary Ann, so too are the images: flowers, ponds, pathways, ducks. May our deceased loved ones who now see God “in full and endless sight” help us to maintain our belief that God is always near.
What has been your experience with grief?
Does this reflection or this song evoke any thoughts or feelings in you? Any you would like to share with us?