When my father called that day, I was preparing to head home and clicking through my email, making sure I’d responded to everyone I needed to that day. It was quitting time, and it felt like Friday. Most of my coworkers had gone home or to the pub down the street.
When I glanced at the tiny blinking light and the caller ID read Falls Church, I knew it was bad news. My father never called me at work.
I could never in a million years have imagined it would be that bad.
My younger sister, the middle child of three girls, was a doer, a thinker and a contributor. If you didn’t know her well, and you happened to read her resume, you might be a little jealous. What kind of person manages to run ten miles, read Don Quixote, take a Portuguese lesson, tutor immigrant high school students, and bake homemade chocolate chip cookies to include in a care package for a friend all in the same day?
Not that she bragged about it. Not a bit. My sister was just one of though naturally inspired people who felt compelled to spend every minute productively. Except, perhaps, when she was sleeping. She was not a morning person and she could definitely exemplify crankiness at its best when her rest was interrupted.
So when my father told me that she had been killed, I changed physiologically, spiritually and emotionally. Even professionally. At the beginning, I did not know exactly how I was changed. But as the years unfolded and my reflection upon her life and my own grew deeper, I found myself gravitating toward playing a more significant role.
Professionally, I didn’t long for change, though I did quit my job less than eight weeks after she died, and move 3,000 miles away to a city that I had never stepped foot in before. My husband and I had frequently discussed moving out west, and a job opportunity (his, not mine) gave us the chance. It turned out that leaving Washington, DC was a bit of a drag for my career, but six years later, I’m finding my way.
Spiritually, I was angry, angrier, and even angrier in those first years after Liz’s accident. I prayed often and reluctantly, and today remain unconvinced of a higher power that is capable of intervening in the physical world (so what’s the point of prayer?). But my belief in something bigger than all of us does give me some comfort, and I found my tolerance for people involved in organized religion actually increased after losing my sister. It’s not for me, but I can respect those people that actually practice their faith. One of my mother’s best friends comes to mind. A progressive, intelligent and talented woman, she is also a practicing Catholic. Once upon a time, I confess I would have found the two versions of this woman to be incompatible. Today, as I observe her composure, energy and commitment to friends and family, while also going through her own personal challenges, I find I can accept those who take comfort and strength in ways other than my own.
Physiologically, I became depressed and anxious. I panicked when unable to reach my loved ones by phone and sometimes behaved irrationally. I drank more. A lot more. I ran a lot, intermittently, which was actually a bonus – when I was running daily I ate better, drank less and ran several personal record times. Four years after losing my sister, I was finally diagnosed with moderate post traumatic stress disorder, and unenthusiastically began a course of anti-anxiety medication. The change was profound. I no longer rely on any meds, but for a year or so, they really helped. And so I find myself among those millions of Americans who take mood-altering drugs, most definitely over-prescribed and not entirely understood. I wish I hadn’t had to resort to this, but the anxiety, insomnia, nightmares and overwhelming sadness wasn’t going away.
The theme of some grief workers is that “time heals all wounds”.
In my case, this wasn’t, and isn’t, true.
Emotionally, and I’ve touched on this, sadness poured into the depth of my soul and seemed determined to stay. The sadness was, and sometimes still is, heavy and dark. But the moments of joy, lightness and breath, so fleeting during those first few years, have become more and more frequent. The direction in which I am moving is now one I actually want to move in. I am no longer being swept away with the madding crowd of grief, anger, and despair. I look to my sister as an example of how to live my days. I do not long to do as she did, or attempt to do as much as possible in each of my 24-hour allotments. But I wake each morning (even when I’m exhausted) with a feeling of purpose and contentment, and more so on each passing day.
Yes, some days are harder than others. I know, too, that change isn’t always a forward-motion concept, and I’m still riding the roller coaster of grief. But I know I’m definitely on board for the journey.
Sara Padilla is a freelance writer, book reviewer, and blogger for Sunshine and Salad (http://sunshineandsalad.com/). Sara has over fourteen years of experience working in public health and program management in the United States and internationally. She holds a master’s degree in Public Health from Tulane University and speaks Spanish fluently. Sara resides in Portland, Oregon with her family.
Sara, your story is so moving, and it shows how grief resulted in a major change within you. “I look to my sister as an example of how to live my days.” I am inspired by how you can help others, who have experienced a loss in their life, find a way to become positive in their outlook towards the future. I truly thank you for sharing your story with us. Please leave your comments for Sara, and she will be over to respond.
Do you have a “My Gutsy Story”?