I was still grieving my father’s death when my sister succumbed to cancer on a cold day in January.
On the eve of his passing, we wrapped our kitchen pipes and stuffed towels on window sills before heading south on icy Interstate 55. When we stopped for gas most of the pumps were not working. Employees at the roadside McDonald’s were wearing parkas and serving them warm coffee.
It was a difficult journey to an excruciatingly sad destination. My sister was the person I loved the longest, my confidant, my friend for life. Losing her so soon after my father seemed to make the brutal circumstances even more brutal.
He had fought bravely and endured untold suffering for months before passing peacefully at home, surrounded by love.
As challenging as our four-hour journey that day was, I couldn’t imagine not being there to hold her hand and whisper comforting words as she lay on her deathbed.
The journey home was equally tiring. And the days that followed seemed empty. This was a sadness I had never experienced before. Of course, I was sad to lose my family, but my parents were not the people with whom I traveled, attended parties, shared deep secrets, and chatted with almost every day. This was a different kind of love and a different kind of loss.
All I wanted to do was sit in a dark room and not think. Being numb. Being closed. Allowing the flow of sadness to trigger the switch inside me and allow me to shut down.
And I did that for a few days, and I would still be doing it if the universe didn’t have other plans for me. My despair exploded with community, compassion, and love.
The day my sister died, my column about the importance of “just being there” for our loved ones in need was published online. It went to press in the following days. And the answer wrapped me in the warmth of a handmade quilt.
I have heard from men, from women, from sons, from wives, from daughters, from brothers; From readers in Northfield, Burbank, Elgin, Chicago, Western Springs, Naperville, Mokena, Oak Lawn, and even Cape Coral, Florida; from people who are now in the depths of caregiving and those who have simply faced the challenge of losing loved ones.
They all expressed how profound the struggle is to provide care to someone in need, but also their gratitude for the strength and courage to do so.
“It took me months to overcome my deep, deep-seated anger about what happened to (my wife)… But I never get angry when dealing with her, and I have somehow discovered an unlimited reserve of patience…”
“I cried as I read it. It made me feel validated, proud and encouraged.”
“I am my wife’s caregiver… We are still together, still in love.”
Their stories are proof that love can conquer all and that none of us are alone in our struggle.
They remind me of the wise words of “Mr.” Fred Rodgers, who repeatedly helped calm a nation of grieving children throughout his career: “When I was a kid and I saw scary things on the news, my mother told me: ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find the helping people.’ ”
In the weeks since my sister’s passing, helpers seem to be everywhere.
They texted, emailed, brought food, sent cards, sent St. Louis on my sister’s behalf. They donated to St. Jude and delivered the most touching keepsakes to my home: a tree, a garden stone, a huge gardenia plant.
Gestures are symbols of love and a reminder that light is always on the way, even in the darkest night.
When there’s nothing left to hold on to, hold on to it.
I have no wisdom on how to deal with loss. But a dear friend reminds me that we can learn to “live with both our grief and our happiness.”
Throughout my life, I have had the good fortune to know many people who are (or are) symbols of this light. They seemed to walk through life on a higher level, always approaching life’s challenges with compassion. Among them, of course, there is my sister.
Many of these individuals endured real hardships and yet somehow emerged kindly rather than bitter or cruel.
I often wonder if they are angels sent here to show us how to live, how to treat each other. Time and again I am humbled and inspired by their kindness and humility, I wish I could look at life and people with such soft and tolerant eyes.
In memory of my sister and all of you, I will keep trying.
Donna Vickroy is an award-winning reporter, editor and columnist who worked for the Daily Southtown for 38 years.