Death

Jarring. This word captures the jolt I experienced on February 8th. A “typical” Monday turned the-most-consequential-day of my life. Before my 7:30am alarm had the chance to chime; before I was able to hit snooze for the first time, I heard my mother’s all-too-familiar voice contorted with pain and disbelief –I braced myself for bad news. My nervous system felt displacement in the air –as if my body knew tragedy awaited.

As my mother lurched down the stairs, her voice grew louder. I leapt out of bed and hurried to my phone, expecting missed calls or texts explaining the unfolding panic. Nothing.

With anxiety constricting my chest and shallowing my breath, I bolted out of my room and downstairs. The scene of my mother kneeling face-buried in the couch will forever be imprinted in my memories.

What happened?

Felicia’s dead.

What? What hospital is she at?

She’s not at a hospital; they are taking her to a morgue.

In my stupor, I said the one thing I knew I should not: “it’s okay.” It was not.

Instantaneously, the world transformed. Every emotion drained itself from my body. I felt everything and nothing at all. My soul crashed into the earth, yet I felt untethered to reality –body floating.

I was thrust into the position of calling my two remaining siblings and dad. Hey, umm…Felicia passed away… I don’t know. We are going right now…Delivering the news of my sister’s death to my family has caverned into my heart. The memory dense with anguish –why did I have to do it?

All before 9am, I began a journey with death that would linger a lifetime. Just one year later, my relationship with grief dramatically evolved; the result of reading, conversations, self-exploration, and meditating on loss. The one-year anniversary of my sister’s death felt like a suitable moment to try an encapsulation exercise.

I am writing mostly to process my grief and create a written record of my year living with death. I also hope to create a moment of introspection for you, the reader, to contemplate death. By assigning words to abstract feelings, I wish to deliver comfort and companionship to those grieving and supply insight for those curious.

Lessons from Grief — Wrestling with Legacy

The shock wore off and reality settled in –my big sister died. I had never experienced the death of someone so close to me; someone that I emulated, admired, and who was a bastion of safety. My earliest memories are my big sister caring for me, letting me watch Scary Movie 2 in her room without my parents knowing, or carrying me from the couch when I fell asleep there. I lost a mother figure.

But it would be dishonest to write this without acknowledging the complications of remembering her, which provides the first lesson from grief: honoring my sister in death means wrestling with the good, bad, and ugly parts of her life.

The sins of the dead are often buried with them when considering their legacy. Eulogies and conversations honoring their memory leave out the thornier parts of their lives, whitewashing their existence –erasing their humanity. I consider this dishonoring. Grief taught me fully embracing someone in death means accepting all of who they were alive.

My sister was kind, motherly, sacrificial, loving, and a true light on earth. She was also selfish, caught in cycles of toxicity, and prone to every other affliction of human weakness. To write it seems harsh, to ignore it even worse. I did not love my sister because she was perfect, but because she was mine. Her complexity is what made her life beautiful, I would be dimming her light to pretend she did not have shadows.

Lessons from Grief — Regrets

Taking her full life into account means that not all my memories are positive. I bear no shame admitting feeling anger at my sister since her death. Fruitlessly pondering her decisions and experiencing frustrations that her death could have been avoided. I have learned that this anger, too, is a normal and healthy part of grieving.

The anger, however, is double-sided, reflected at me for not taking advantage of the time I had on earth with her. Leading to my second lesson from grief: accepting regrets. A recurring thought I have revolves around the final night of her life. While completing readings for my master’s program, I was reminded of my sister. I often ponder whether a phone call the night she died would have saved her life. I regret not reaching out.

I have come to accept that I did not. I cannot change what happened and there is no way of knowing whether a phone call would alter events. Still, countless are my sleepless nights of self-imposed torture scrolling through our final texts. I wish I told her exactly what she means to me. Why didn’t I reach out more? Did she know how much I loved her?

I will never get that time back. I cannot spend another day with her, receive another text, or phone call. While this regret is all-too-real, I have come to appreciate another framing: more time could never stem the regrets. I would need an eternity to express my love; one more text, phone call, or conversation could never fully encompass what I would like to say to her. With eternity being an impossible ask, I make-do reminding myself that I have been incredibly lucky to experience any amount of time on earth with my sister. Nothing can ‘fix’ the regrets, but this makes them manageable.

Lessons from Grief — Floating in the Tides

If loss is an ocean, then grief is the waves. There are moments when I can time it perfectly and watch it crash overhead –and others when I am caught unaware and tossed unforgivingly in frigid waters. Unlike the natural tides of the ocean, grieving does not abide to a predictable schedule. Over the course of the year, I have had weeks barely aware of her death. On the opposite end of the spectrum are entire days spent holding back tears while going through the motions of life.

Rather than fighting grief, I have learned to embrace its rhythms. Welcoming the swelling sadness when it visits and not forcing it to stay longer than it needs. Early on I learned to play in the shallow waters when the grief receded. A good friend gifted me wisdom imparted to her from years spent dealing with her father’s death: just because your sister died does not mean you have to.

These gentle words offered days after my sister’s death emancipated me from guilt when choosing to enjoy my life. I made sure not to keep myself from things I enjoyed: friends, trips, dating, nothing was off limits. I reasoned it’s what my sister would have wanted. I think she would hate to learn that I put away chances to experience joy because of her death. If anything, she would want her death to spur me towards an unashamed embrace of all things I loved. She would want me to be happy, and I learned not to feel bad about that.

Lessons from Grief — Final Goodbye

All grieving looks different. Even if two people are grieving the same death, the uniqueness of the relationship decides the shade of grief you experience. Another characteristic influencing grief is the way death comes about. Some deaths are drawn out, happening over months or even years — others are sudden. Felicia’s death happened suddenly; I was not given forewarning. I went to sleep one night and awoke to a world where my sister no longer physically existed –it still is gut-wrenching.

Whether the death is expected or unexpected –there must always be a final good-bye. Death is the natural end of physical life. One of the first lessons I learned is that grief is the process of saying goodbye.

The final goodbye is the one in which you are choosing to acknowledge death. The wide-eyed embrace of tremendous loss. It was the most difficult part of the process for me. It did not happen until her funeral. I made a conscious effort that at her funeral ceremony I would release her to death. It would be unhealthy clinging to her memory as an illusionary attempt to stave off grief, I thought. The best way would be to honor her life by realizing her death.

Realizing the final goodbye came about through writing her a letter. I left the letter with her body at the funeral, shortly after that it was cremated with her. The letter was the final conversation I wish I had with Felicia. I told her exactly what she meant to me and recounted the memories indelibly lodged in my brain. I also expressed my anger, venting about her decisions, how much her death changed my life –how much I wish it did not have to.

It was all-in-all, a conversation I never could have had while she was alive. I am not sure I could have been as honest as I was in that letter, as straightforward, as raw. She could never read it, but it provided me with the closure I needed. The one-sided conversation allowed me to realize the finality of her death. The symbol she becomes to me in death is vast and explorable, but to get there I needed to acknowledge who she was to me while alive.

Lessons from Grief — Carrying the weight

Carrying grief is a feat worthy of admiration. Much of the last year spent bogged down by the burden of her death felt like being tied to a sinking weight. It took everything I could muster just to keep my head above water. While in survival mode, I often felt helpless as passions, goals, and hobbies were cast aside just to prevent drowning. I had no energy to write, pour into friendships, or engage in the dizzying amount of ‘self-care’ tasks typical of healthy living. All my effort was engaged in carrying my grief.

For this reason, I hated my grief. I considered it an undue burden slowing my life down. I longed to cast it aside and pick my old life back up.

Until recently, I framed grief as anchoring me in place. A conversation with my therapist challenged me to consider grief as a weight like any other –healthy, necessary, and part of my growth. The only difference being that I did not choose grief the way I chose graduate school, or my career, or any of the other work I commit myself to. Grief was placed in my life by forces outside of my control. Still, I should be proud of myself for carrying it.

Some burdens are not our choice. That unfair reality can mask the truth that those burdens can still serve to strengthen us. My sister’s death was not something I expected facing last year, and it took all my strength to not completely fall apart. That alone is worthy of celebration. The fact that I was able to carry such a thing should make me proud.

Welcoming Grief

Death is guaranteed for everything that lives: friendships, passions, ideas, careers. Grieving is an essential part of our lives. It marks the end of something, and most importantly -the beginning of another thing. Without grief, we can never genuinely appreciate the ephemeral beauty of life. The lack of concerted effort to mourn death prevents our full recognition and celebration of change, transformation, and new life.

I never wanted to grieve my big sister. I wanted her to live forever. Her death deflated my heart and filled my lungs with lead. But even when faced with the reality of her no longer existing this side of creation, I did not have to grieve. And that is the biggest lesson I have been taught through my experience: Grief is a choice. I chose to grieve my big sister when she died because I knew it was the only way to fully appreciate the beauty of her life –and open myself to the possibilities of a new life for me. It was the only way I could grow; it is what she would have wanted.

I will always grieve her, when I play her favorite songs, consume her favorite drinks, or read the letter she wrote me. Doing so will always be painful in some capacity, but it will also always be necessary to remind myself that life is forever being renewed. When I grieve my sister, I am grieving for the life I knew, the person I was, and the way I experienced the world. Along with Felicia, those things have died. I grieve to acknowledge that and remind myself that there is a new life awaiting me.

To my big sister, Toksa Ake (I will see you again).

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Kevin Anthony Velez

Musings, ramblings, and anecdotes. Processing the journey of decolonizing my faith.