As I sit here and stare at this pile of sympathy cards in front of me, it’s hard to believe it’s been over a month since we said goodbye to my sister. I’ve held onto these cards and have been meaning to send out thank you’s to those who sent them, but most days I just can’t bring myself to do it. And to be honest, most days this still doesn’t seem real.
Life after loss comes with waves of grief and emotion that come over you without warning. Imagine the biggest take-your-breath-away, tidal wave that crashes and knocks you over when you least expect it. That’s what it’s like. For me, it usually happens when something triggers a memory and I realize all over again that she’s really gone.
That’s probably the hardest part of it all- no matter how many times I go back and forth in my head about what happened, what I could’ve done differently, or something I could have said- I can’t change the fact that she is gone. And I know this, deep down I do, but it is still so hard sometimes when that realization of her being truly gone comes over me.
When a Random Date Becomes a Tragic Memory
Life after loss of a loved one is different in so many ways. I notice that certain dates are now more significant than ever before. Holidays, Mother’s/Father’s Day, and her birthday will never be the same again. Then there’s the date of her death and date of her memorial service. These are new dates that previously had no real significance in my life. But now, I will never think of the date ‘June 13th’ without reliving those memories.
I’ll never forget the night we found out. It was June 13th, and Cort and I were still staying in corporate housing downtown until we closed on our house. We walked to one of the nearby restaurants to have dinner and truly enjoyed ourselves with a bottle of wine and tapas. At the time, my sister was still missing, and I had just filed a missing persons report the day before. This dinner was a break from the reality that was setting in- I may never see or hear from my sister again. We laughed, we ate, we drank a bottle of red wine, and walked home in a brief moment of peace.
When we got back to the apartment, I received a call from a Pennsylvania number. I figured it was the Police calling to give me an update. I wish it was the police, and in my version of this story that I wish I could re-write, it would be the police calling to tell me they found my sister and that she was OK. Unfortunately, it was the County Coroner calling to tell me they had found my sister. She had passed away in the very hotel I had called just two days prior to look for her.
“My name is Lisa and I’m with Dauphin County.”
I’ll never forget her voice as that conversation plays back over in my mind on an almost daily basis. She called me instead of my parents because I had reported my sister missing the day before. She asked if my sister had any tattoos. I remember stumbling over my words as I recalled where her tattoo was located and what it said. After I told her, Lisa took a deep breath and delivered the news I was not prepared to hear- my sister was dead. They found her in a hotel room from what looked like an apparent overdose. They were struggling to get urine to obtain accurate toxicology results, so she said an autopsy was likely needed. However, I didn’t need any confirmation- I knew exactly what happened.
My sister was an addict. For many years, she used pills for chronic pain after multiple car accidents. Eventually, she admitted to being addicted to them and even told her doctors. But that hunger never left her, and she would later start using pills unprescribed until that got too expensive. She started using heroin in 2014 and had been in and out of rehab several times since then. She suffered and struggled for years to get clean and stay clean. When she was honest with me and wanted to do the right thing, I was the biggest supporter in her corner. And I always knew when she was using or treading the narrow path to a relapse. Because of this, my sister always avoided me or limited her communication with me whenever she was using.
A couple weeks prior to this phone call from the coroner, my sister had stopped communicating with me as often, and I knew something was up. She finally admitted to me on Memorial Day that she had relapsed and left the recovery house she was staying in. She swore to me up and down that she didn’t want to live this life and wanted to get back into recovery after she got her Vivitrol shot, which she had let “expire” so to say as it was no longer actively working in her system. With my encouragement, she scheduled an appointment to get her shot the following Tuesday.
An Unexpected Goodbye
The last time I spoke with my sister was Friday, June 7th, when she admitted she skipped out on getting her Vivitrol shot and had continued using. I was angry with her for lying to me. I had given her gas money to get a ride down to get her shot. And I had paid to put her up in the hotel for the first 3 nights with the agreement that after the 3rd night, she would transition to a recovery house.
I called her continuously that week, wondering if she had found a recovery house and who was paying for the additional nights at the hotel. When she decided to answer, which was rare, she spoke in slurs to me over the phone. Yet, she insisted that she got her shot and she was only talking that way because she had “pink eye.” Despite my better judgment, I tried to believe her. Until that Friday, June the 7th, when I couldn’t deny what her actions were telling me any longer. Her last spoken words to me were “I am so sorry, Nicole.” Never in my wildest dreams did I think that just a few days later, she would be gone from this earth.
“I’m So Sorry I have to Tell You This…”
The rest of my conversation with the coroner is kind of a blur. She asked me for my parents’ addresses and said she would send officers out to tell them. I remember initially thinking that I should call and tell them myself, but my husband urged me not to. He didn’t want me to carry around the burden of telling my parents they would never see their daughter again. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make, but I decided to let the cops tell my parents.
I sat there in agony waiting to hear from my mom after she got the news. Those were probably the longest 20 mins of my life. I sobbed as I answered the phone when my mom called me. I knew that she knew, and that broke my heart into a million pieces.
About an hour and a half passed and I still hadn’t heard from my dad. I decided I couldn’t take it any longer and texted him and my stepmom. I asked them to call me right away. Turns out, my stepmom wasn’t home and my dad was sleeping when the cops came. They called me a few minutes later and I could hear the concern in their voices. It wasn’t like me to call this late about anything, especially on a random weeknight. I took a deep breath and said “I’m so sorry, Dad…” From his response, I knew that he knew what was coming next.
I will never forget that moment for the rest of my life. My dad didn’t say too much after I told him, but I could feel the sadness in his voice as he spoke. His worst nightmare had come true.
Telling your parents that your sibling passed away is something I don’t wish on anyone. Drug overdose was something we all knew was a possibility, but none of us ever wanted to believe it would be our reality. And all of a sudden, this possibility was our real life. There was no waking up from this nightmare.
Stages of Grief
They say you go through stages of grief when you lose someone. I don’t recall any stage coming first and feel like it all just came at once. Sadness, anger, guilt, denial. It was all there from the very beginning – spinning like a wheel, not knowing which emotion would come next. I know my mom was angry- at anyone and everyone- for about a week or so. Can’t say that I blame her; I just didn’t want her to blame herself.
I always feel like I have to be strong for my mom and my family. After my sister died, it was hard for me to process how I was feeling because I was too worried about how everyone else was feeling. However, most days I’m still not even sure how I’m feeling.
Grief, Guilt, and Moving On…
Right after a loss, you hear from all kinds of people – extended family, best friends, acquaintances, even people you haven’t seen in years. People check up on you and express their sympathy, and it feels good to have their support. But soon after, they move on. Since most people aren’t close enough to the situation to experience what you’re going through, they tend to lose sight of the fact that you’re still going through it. Which is totally normal for them to do; it just sucks when you’re suffering on the inside yet surrounded by people who’ve moved on with their lives when you’re just beginning to process yours.
I’ve actually felt guilty talking about it because I worry I’m bringing the energy of the room down. I guess that’s part of it too – feeling guilty over your loved one’s death and then feeling guilty talking about it afterwards. I’ve realized though, that I can’t continue to feel guilty and move on with my life at the same time. This has now become part of who I am, and until I acknowledge that and really live and grieve in the present moment, I will never move on.
One Day at a Time…
I started grief counseling a few weeks ago. I’ve been struggling with opening up and really processing where my emotions are on any given day. My therapist wants me to do this thing called an “empty chair session” where I write a letter to my sister, invite her spirit to join us in an empty chair, and read it to her during therapy. I’ve been putting this off because I haven’t been sure what to say. But, I think opening up like this is helping me find those words, and I may be ready to give it a shot.
Life after loss is so many things – denial, frustration, anger, guilt, depression, fear, and somewhere along the way, finding the strength to simply live your life again. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about my sister from the moment I wake up until I go to sleep at night. The pain is getting a little easier in some ways, but I’m still very much a work in progress. And for now, I think I’m OK with that.
I never thought I would write a blog post about this. If you’re still reading, thank you for taking the time to read my story. One day, I plan to share my story of loving my sister through her addiction with the world. I guess this is just the start….
In Loving Memory of Amanda Lynn Davis – 04.16.1984 – 06.13.2019
Deb Stoudt says
You did a great job of explaining grief and it so hard when people says time heals but losing a sibling is such a loss
Cathy Hockenberry says
Nicole… I just want to say your words have brought me to tears… I could relate to parts about someone dear to you going through what you went through with your dear sister, Amanda…I tried to be there for my niece, Amanda, and tried letting her know she could talk to me and trust me…and I know she appreciated that as I know your sister appreciated your support and love…💗