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A grieving siblings story of hope and surviving immense grief

As I sit here in early morning stillness with the lights from Christmas tree reflecting off my laptop screen, I am reminded of the joyous nature of the Holiday season. It is nice to finally feel gratitude and love when I look at my home decorated for the Holidays. It’s been quite some time since I was able to feel this joy, years really.

Growing up, Christmas was hands down, the most exciting time of the year for me. For my first 6 1/2 years on this planet, I was the main focus of my Mom, Pop & Nan on Christmas. I was an only child, and it was all about me! I remember coming down the hallway or steps (depending on the home we were in) and being completely in awe at the sight of gifts spilling out from around the bottom of the Christmas tree, the lights on the tree twinkling, the magical feeling in the air that not long ago the big guy somehow made it into my home and brought me all of these meticulously wrapped presents. It was AWESOME.

Then came Christmas of 1988. This year’s Christmas Festivities held a slightly different dynamic as it now included my fresh out the box baby sister! My sister was born on November 3, 1988, so she was almost 2 months old for her first Christmas. Her birthday marked the beginning of the Holiday season for me. I will never forget the new wave of excitement this brought. Proud doesn’t even begin to describe the feeling of holding my brand-new baby sister tightly as I now shared Santa’s lap with her for our 1st obligatory Santa mall picture together. Just when I thought Christmas couldn’t possibly get any more thrilling, now I had this little human to share the excitement with. I don’t recall ever feeling any resentment having my gift amount cut in half to share with her, it never really mattered to me, after all, now I had a best friend in a matching Christmas nightgown to wake up every hour with to peek to see if Santa came yet. As we grew older, the matching nightgowns faded and the Holiday season evolved annually.

The time eventually came where I was at the age to help my mom with “Santa duties”, wrapping presents, carefully placing them under the tree, this was a whole other level of excitement. For as exciting as it is to come out to a tree full of gifts from Santa, it is even more magical to watch little humans’ faces light up at the magic of what you have created on under that Christmas tree. Coming down the steps now with my little sister as her cherub-like face lit up at the sight of Christmas Morning was so frigging cool. I felt like such an adult, and my heart was full of pride and love.

Eventually, the Santa jig was up for my sister as well. This, along with the fact that I moved out when I turned 18, opened the doors for yet another shift in the way the Holidays felt. Now that I was out on my own, I could finally decorate MY tree the way I wanted. No more colored lights and traditional ornaments that were passed down and held meaning. I wanted white lights and silver, sparkly ornaments, and now I could do this in my own home! My sister loved coming over and hanging at my house, and I loved having her. She helped me decorate my home and laid on my loveseat next to the tree looking so happy, comfortable, and proud of the freshly decorated tree- with white lights.

I was out on my own for about a year before our parents separated. My sister’s behavior started to become an issue and she was expelled from school in NJ. My mom sent her to Pennsylvania to live with my Aunt and Grandmother, where she would go on to attend a catholic school in an effort to curb her acting out. I was fighting some of my own demons at the time as I wrestled with some substance abuse and spending WAY more money than I actually had.

We needed a fresh start. My mom and I both sold our homes in NJ and started our new lives in a big, beautiful, new home in Pennsylvania. This was the largest home we had ever lived in and we loved it. It was big enough, that I was able to have my white light tree in my space, and my mom had her colored light tree in her space. But most importantly, we were back under the same roof with my sister, for a little while anyway.

My sister’s teen years would go on to be tumultuous at best. A small altercation her freshmen year of high school would land her in a juvenile detention facility, and start a chain of gut-wrenching, heartbreaking goodbyes with every incarceration. She, unfortunately, got caught up in a fucked-up juvenile detention system in Pennsylvania that would go on to be a nationwide scandal (see Kids for cash) The Holidays were weird around this time. Some years she was home and we would sing and dance to holiday music as we decorated the tree, and some years we would head out to whatever detention facility/camp she was in that year and try to smile through the incredibly painful tears.

Looking back, I’d give anything to spend Christmas in a Juvenile detention center with her again. Her juvenile detention experiences set the tone as she transitioned into adult life. She struggled to stay out of jail. When she was home, it was awesome. I have photos of the last Christmas we spent together with her not incarcerated. Her face is glowing with Pride as she helped me set up all of my 2-year-old daughters’ new toys. My sister was the proudest Aunt ever, her bond with my daughter was one that could never be broken, or so I thought.

2010 was my sister’s last Christmas on this planet. We were not together for Christmas that year. She moved to Florida with my Mom and grandmother, along with her new baby girl- my sweet niece. I was in NJ with my husband and daughter, and boy did I miss her, but I never in my wildest dreams thought it would be her last Christmas.

On July 13, 2011, I got a frantic phone call from my mom at 4 am, a phone call that would haunt my brain for years to come. I will NEVER forget my mom screaming that my sister was gone. I could not even begin to process this. I think I actually hung up on my mom before calling her right back to confirm that I wasn’t actually having a nightmare. My sister went to sleep after mixing some pills and some booze together and would never wake up again. She left a week before her daughter turned 1 year old.

My whole world was Completely. Fucking. Shattered. Life would never be the same, let alone the Holidays. For the next few years, I would walk around in a grief-filled, alcohol-fueled daze. The first few years without her were hands down, the hardest years of my life. There were many days that I wished that I too would not wake up so that I could be with her again. I had to keep going though, for my daughter, and for her daughter.

It was rough for all of us.

My parent’s history of drug and alcohol abuse was only fueled by this devasting loss.

It seemed like we were all on some sort of path to destruction. The pain was more than we could all bare and covering it up with binge drinking surely didn’t help. I HATED the next few Holiday seasons, from November 3rd right on through Christmas. I was angry, bitter, resentful and DRUNK. Everyone was worried about buying gifts and all this Holiday Hoopla, and all I wanted was my sister. I remember telling my husband that I didn’t even want to celebrate one year ( this may have happened more than just once). It took everything in me to pull it together and put on a nice show for my daughter and niece.

One year, my parents stayed with us Christmas night, so my niece and daughter were able to wake up together for Santa that year. While I did find brief bouts of joy that morning watching them open their gifts together, I felt as though I was being gutted as I was reminded of childhood Christmas mornings together.

Fast forward a bit. In 2015, I embarked on my mindfulness journey and made a pact with myself to start healing. I now had 2 daughters, a teenager, and a toddler, and they needed their mother to be the best version of herself. They didn’t need their Holiday memories clouded with their mom to being a drunk, blubbering mess.

I still cringe thinking of some of the scenarios that my oldest had to go through and deal with as I tried to navigate my terribly hectic and unpredictable grief process, but all we can do is learn, grow, and move on from those darker times. It wasn’t an easy process, but I had to make some serious changes.

In the past few years, I have done some serious work on myself. Diving headfirst into my mindfulness practice. Going within through meditation and journaling and getting to the root of my demons and pain. I’ve been doing lots of hard work to address the fuckedupedness, staying present with it, and then letting it pass with love. Getting my ass up at 4 am each day to sit in peace with myself hasn’t been always been easy, but it sure has been worth it. When I am sitting in the darkness meditating, I often feel my sister’s presence, and rather than being sad, I feel an overwhelming sense of pure love and comfort.

The past 2 years have been a more positive experience. I can now watch my babies open their gifts together with an overwhelming sense of love and peace rather than sadness and resentment. I now focus on gratitude for 22 years of Holiday madness that we spent together. I still place her ornament at the top of my tree (with white lights) and I always will. It’s become a tradition of sorts to place that ornament with love in my heart, and I feel her presence every single time it is hung right below the bow at the top. I will never, ever let her memory die but have also realized that I don’t need to wear my pain and wallow in my own misery to keep her memory alive.

Now that I have quieted some of the madness, I have created space that allows me to feel her presence and pure energetic love. I will always grieve my little sister, but I can finally make peace with my grief. I know that she is proud of all of us, and I can FINALLY smile knowing that she is ALWAYS with us.

For some more about mindfulness and mindful meditation, check out these other posts:

What is mindfulness? and why should you give a sh*t about it anyway?

Mindful Meditation practices for people who don’t like to sit still

To take a deeper dive into Mindfulness, check out this Course by Jon Kabat Zin- A pioneer in the Mindfulness community: