I was still grieving the death of my father when my sister succumbed to cancer on a bitter cold day in January.
On the eve of her passing, we wrapped our kitchen pipes and stuffed towels along window sills before heading south on an icy Interstate 55. When we stopped for gas, most of the pumps were out of operation. Inside the wayside McDonald’s, employees wore parkas while pouring lukewarm cups of coffee.
It was a forbidding journey toward an unbearably sad destination. My sister was the person I’d loved the longest, my confidante, my lifelong friend. To lose her so soon after my father seemed to make the brutal temps even crueler.
She’d fought bravely and endured unspeakable pain for months before she passed peacefully at home, surrounded by love.
As arduous as our four-hour journey was that day, I couldn’t imagine not being there to hold her hand and whisper words of comfort as she lay dying.
The journey home was equally exhausting. And the days that followed seemed hollow. It was a sorrow I had not experienced before. Of course, I was sad to lose my parents but my parents weren’t the ones I traveled with, partied with, shared deep secrets with and chatted with nearly every day. It was a different kind of love and a different kind of loss.
The only thing I wanted to do was sit in a dark room and not think. To be numb. To be off. To let the overflow of sadness trip my inner switch and let me just shut down.
And I did that for several days and would still be doing it now had the universe not had other plans for me. It burst through my despair with community, commiseration and love.
On the very day my sister died, my column about the importance of “just being there” for loved ones in need posted to the internet. In the days after, it ran in print. And the response has wrapped me in the warmth of a handmade comforter.
I’ve heard from men, women, sons, spouses, daughters and siblings; from readers in Northfield, Burbank, Elgin, Chicago, Western Springs, Naperville, Mokena, Oak Lawn and even Cape Coral, Florida; from people now in the depths of caregiving and from those who’ve met the challenge only to lose the loved one.
All expressed how profound the struggle has been to care for someone in need, but also their gratitude for the strength and courage to do it.
“It took me months to overcome the deep, rooted anger over what is happening to (my wife) … But in caring for her, I never get cross, and somehow, I discovered a boundless reservoir of patience …”
“I wept as I read it. It made me feel affirmed, proud and encouraged.”
“I am the caregiver for my wife … We are still together, still in love.”
Their stories are proof that love can transcend all, and that none of us is ever alone in our struggle.
They remind me of the wise words of “Mister” Fred Rodgers, who helped calm a nation of grief-stricken children time and again during his career: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
In the weeks since my sister passed, helpers seem to be everywhere.
They’ve texted, emailed, brought food, sent cards, made donations to St. Jude in my sister’s name, and had delivered to my house the most moving keepsakes: A tree, a garden stone, an enormous gardenia plant.
The gestures are symbols of love and a reminder that even on the darkest night, the light is always on its way.
When there’s nothing to hang on to, hang on to that.
I don’t have any wisdom for how to deal with loss. But a dear friend reminds me that we can learn to “sit with both our grief and happiness.”
In my lifetime, I have been fortunate to know so many people who are (or were) symbols of this light. They seemed to walk through life on a higher plane, always approaching life’s challenges with compassion. Among them, of course, my sister.
Many of these individuals have endured real hardships and yet somehow emerged kind instead of bitter or cruel.
I often wonder if they aren’t angels, sent here to show us how to live, how to treat each other. Again and again, I have been both humbled and inspired by their kindness and their humility, wishing I could look at life, and people, through such soft and tolerant eyes.
As a tribute to my sister and to all of you, I will keep on trying.
Donna Vickroy is an award-winning reporter, editor and columnist who worked for the Daily Southtown for 38 years.