by Leanne Friesen
When I was thirty-five years old, I held my oldest sister’s hand as she took her last breath and her body grew cold. I had spent eight years knowing this moment would come. Roxanne had been diagnosed with Stage Four Melanoma nearly a decade before, and the prognosis had never been good. I will never forget the day I googled “Stage Four Melanoma Survival Rate.” I sat in my office, in puddles of tears, as I stared at the words made blurry through my weeping: “Less than five years survival rate.” She got eight. It wasn’t enough.
So then I was thirty-five with a dead sister, and no one seemed to know what to do with me. “Your sister died?” they would say to me, shocked. “Your sister?” Yes, my sister. Yes, my best friend. Yes, my cheerleader, role model, confidante, mentor. Yes, she’s dead. And, yes, I’m grieving — and no one seemed to know what to do with that either.
I should have actually been pretty good at grief. I’m a pastor, and grief is part of what I do for a living. I conduct funerals. I provide grief counseling for the bereaved. I sit at bedsides. I keep vigil with the dying. But then I was grieving myself — and I was lost. I didn’t know how to talk about my grief. I didn’t know how to say what I needed. I didn’t know how to put words to my devastation and I didn’t know if I’d ever recover. I knew that I needed to fit my grief in somewhere, but it didn’t seem to belong. No one, it felt, knew how to give my grief room. I didn’t need anyone to fix me. I didn’t need anyone to make me feel better. I needed room to be sad and angry and confused and irritated and frustrated and lost. I needed some “grieving room.”
It took me a while to find those spaces. My first attempt at grief counseling was a complete disaster. The “counselor” was flippant and distracted, more concerned with filling out her paper work, I thought, than with actually helping me. When she commented that the funeral, held in my home province of Newfoundland where my family lived must have been “nice, like a family reunion!” I was OUT.
Friends often didn’t seem to get it. They would ask how I was and then move on to their own thing, or try to do things to “take my mind off it.” I didn’t want to take my mind off my grief. I wanted to wallow in it, despair in it, let it consume everything – because it didn’t feel fair that anything else in the world should exist anyway, with my sister dead. Acquaintances commented that they simply “couldn’t imagine” how awful I must feel. I wanted them to imagine. I wanted them to try to understand how hard it was for me, instead of reminding me that my loss was “unimaginable” to them. And people forgot so quickly. My grief seemed to settle in just as the cards and messages ended. For months, I just wanted to shout at people: “I’m still grieving!!! My sister is still dead!!!” I needed more time, more compassion, more space.
I found it, eventually. I got a better counselor. I found the safe people in my life who didn’t forget me, who I could answer honestly when they said “How are you?” I learned to give the space for grief I needed to myself. It was hard, but it was important. I had to dig my way to some grieving room, and it was only in finding that room that I began to move forward.
As I moved forward, I became passionate about helping give this room to other grievers. I had always loved writing, and a year after my sister died, I started a blog, writing about lots of topics. Every now and then, I would write about grief. “Should I?” I would wonder. “Maybe people are sick of hearing about Roxanne. Maybe they are tired of my grief.” But then I would find that my posts about grief were the ones that people seemed to respond to the most. I started to write more. And I started to speak about grief more. I discovered that a lot of people needed grieving room. They just hadn’t known where to find it.
In the nine years since my sister died, I have become what I call a “Grief Ally.” I am a grief advocate, educator, and support person. I do a lot of writing and speaking about grief, and it brings me joy to help grievers find the room that they need. I now run an Instagram group called “Grieving Room.” I create posts about the type of room grief needs, and every day there are floods of comments and messages from grievers who needed room just like I did. I joke that grief is my weird hobby. I know a lot of people wouldn’t see caring for strangers who are grieving online as a pleasant way to spend their spare time, but I wouldn’t change a thing. It just takes one comment from someone saying “This was just what I needed” for me to feel it was worth all the time it took to create a post. I am also looking forward to my book “Grieving Room” being released in the near future, and I hope it will continue to help forge space for grief where it is needed.
If I had to choose, I would still pick having my sister being alive over all the “success” I have had with writing about grief that has come from her death. I know it’s a bit selfish, but I also know any of you who have grieved will get it. We would never choose the “good” that came from our grief over the life of our person. Still, I am glad that a valuable thing came from my very bad thing. And I know Roxanne would have loved it. Roxanne was ridiculously generous. If you went to her house and commented you’d like something, she’d give it to you to take home. If you had a birthday, you could bet the best gift came from her. Half my house is still filled with things she gave me. It seems fitting that Roxanne’s life has found a way to keep helping others. And I’m glad to be part of that.
For more information about Leanne, you can check out her website.
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