What I Still Can’t Do

Ten months after my sister’s death, I can laugh and smile. I can sometimes care about other people’s problems. I can’t listen to voicemails or write thank you notes or stop waiting for the other shoe to drop.

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The author, right, with her daughter. Her late sister, Alison, is at left with her son. (Courtesy of Kellyn Shoecraft)

As I am writing this, it’s been about 10 months since my sister’s unexpected death. A short enough time that I can think back to a year ago today when life was significantly better, but a long enough time that it feels like I never had a sister. Within days of her death, it kind of felt like she had been gone forever.

I have a semi-reliable list of things that help me feel better, or prevent me from getting to a really dark space — things like going outside, accomplishing something (anything!), fun with my toddler and nephew, and visiting a friend are a few such examples.

I still get a lot of comfort from reading about other people’s grief experiences, even ones that seem very different from my own. I want to know as much as I can about other people’s sadness.

I read memoirs about pregnancy loss. I follow a widows group on Instagram. (I think widows and surviving siblings are tightly bound because, in some sense, we’ve both lost life partners.) I attend bimonthly Compassionate Friends gatherings for bereaved parents and adult siblings. I eagerly listen to podcasts that focus on tragic stories. I’m particularly fond of Terrible, Thanks for Asking, Everything Happens, and Grief Out Loud. I find comfort in hearing the voices of people who know this sadness of loss.

My emotional state and what I am capable of have changed since she died. I no longer spend a portion of everyday weeping, the raw grief of this loss seeping from my body. I still feel panicked in most social situations, worried about how it might force me to talk about myself, and therefore my loss. I wish that it was easier for people to know what I am capable of 10 months on, and what’s still too hard.

The author’s late sister, Alison. (Courtesy of Kellyn Shoecraft)

So here’s how I’m doing today — nine months and 23 days without my sister:

What I can do:

  • I can reliably take care of myself and my daughter.
  • I can be productive for short windows of time.
  • I can go a few days at a time without crying.
  • I can remember things that I need to do and do them.
  • I can smile and laugh.

What I can sometimes do:

  • I can sometimes look at pictures of my sister without crying.
  • I can sometimes talk about my sister without crying.
  • I can sometimes respond to texts/emails.
  • I can sometimes (ok, rarely) return phone calls.
  • I can sometimes tell funny jokes.
  • I can sometimes engage in conversation and stay focused.
  • I can sometimes care about other people’s problems.
  • I can sometimes feel sad about something that’s happened to someone else.
  • I can sometimes socialize in large groups.
  • I can sometimes be a good partner to my husband.
  • I can sometimes go a few hours without thinking about my sister and her death.
  • I can sometimes feel happy.

What I still can’t do:

  • I can’t write thank you notes.
  • I can’t listen to voicemails.
  • I can’t pick up the phone when it’s ringing.
  • I can’t stop feeling scared for my sister and wondering where she is and if she’s ok. (I don’t believe in an afterlife, so I feel very confused by these questions.)
  • I can’t sing songs/read books to my daughter that my sister used to sing/read to her son without crying.
  • I can’t inform people that my sister died without crying.
  • I can’t handle thinking about the enormity of this loss. She was 37 when she died. Her son was 22 months old. She will miss nearly everything that would have mattered to her.
  • I can’t imagine believing that my life is safe and predictable.
  • I can’t stop waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I don’t consider these categories complete or static. I’m not where I was 10 months ago, and I’m not where I will be 10 months from now. There may be some can’ts that transform into cans, and some cans that revert to can’ts — and that’s ok, too. Everyone has their own list. This one is mine.

Kellyn Shoecraft has been intimate with grief since 2004, when her dad died after two decades of autoimmune illnesses. She is now navigating life without her sister, who died unexpectedly in 2017. Inspired by these losses, Kellyn is a co-founder at Here for You, a company that delivers thoughtfully presented practical care packages (think toilet paper) for people living through life’s toughest moments.

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