I was still mourning the death of my father when my sister succumbed to cancer on a very cold day in January.
On the eve of his death, we wrapped the kitchen pipes and placed towels on the 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 roadside McDonald’s, employees wore parkas as they served cups of lukewarm coffee.
It was a prohibitive journey to an unbearably sad destination. My sister was the person she had loved the longest, my confidant, my lifelong friend. Losing her so soon after my father seemed to make the brutal temperatures even more cruel.
She had fought bravely and endured indescribable pain for months before passing away peacefully at home, surrounded by love.
As arduous as our four-hour drive was that day, I couldn’t imagine not being there to hold his hand and whisper words of comfort as he lay dying.
The trip home was equally exhausting. And the days that followed seemed empty. It was a pain she 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 talked to almost every day. It 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. Be numb. To be out. To let the overflow of sadness flip my internal switch and allow me to simply shut down.
And I did it for several days and I would still be doing it now if the universe hadn’t had other plans for me. It burst into my despair with community, commiseration, and love.
The same day my sister died, my column about the importance of “just being there” for loved ones in need was posted online. In the following days, it was published. And the answer has wrapped me in the warmth of a handmade quilt.
I have heard from men, women, sons, spouses, daughters and 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 care and from those who have faced the challenge only to lose their loved one.
They all expressed how deep the struggle has been to care for someone in need, but also their gratitude for the strength and courage to do so.
“It took me months to overcome the deep, deep-seated anger at what is happening to (my wife)… But in caring for her, I never get angry and, somehow, I discovered an unlimited reserve of patience…”
“I cried while reading it. He made me feel affirmed, proud and encouraged.”
“I’m my wife’s caregiver… We’re still together, we’re still in love.”
Their stories are proof that love can transcend all and that none of us are ever alone in our struggle.
I am reminded of the wise words of “Lord” Fred Rodgers, who helped calm a nation of grieving children time and time again during his career: “When I was a child and saw scary things on the news, my mother told me, “Look for those who help you.” You will always find people who are helping you.’”
In the weeks since my sister’s death, there seem to be helpers everywhere.
They texted me, sent emails, brought food, sent cards, donated to St. Jude in my sister’s name, and delivered to my house the most touching keepsakes: a tree, a garden stone, a huge gardenia plant .
The gestures are symbols of love and a reminder that even in the darkest night, light is always on the way.
When there is nothing to hold on to, hold on to that.
I don’t have any wisdom about how to deal with loss. But a dear friend reminds me that we can learn to “sit with our pain and our happiness.”
Throughout my life, I have been fortunate to meet 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 people have endured real hardships and yet somehow come out kind instead of bitter or cruel.
I often wonder if they are not angels, sent here to show us how to live, how to treat each other. Time and time again, I have been humbled and inspired by their kindness and humility, wishing I could look at life and people through such gentle and tolerant eyes.
As a tribute to 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.