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Tuesday, March 03rd, 2015 | Author:

Eleven years. It’s been 11 years since she died. My older sister. Julie.

Two years ago on my birthday, I wrote a column about celebrating even when it’s hard, and I talked about when my sister died, and the birthdays that followed. In the piece, there was this line: “When my older sister passed away, the timing was really terrible.”

We were at dinner — my older brother, my parents, and me — when I read them my column for that month. When I read that line, they all laughed. I laughed a little when I wrote it. Because it’s true, it was horrible timing when she died. As if death ever comes at a good time, but hers was particularly bad timing.

She died 3 days after her 21st birthday. Two months before graduating college. Three months before her one year wedding anniversary (they’d just purchased a cruise for the occasion). And in the first month following her death we had to celebrate my dad’s birthday, her husband’s birthday, my brother’s birthday, and Easter.

But I was glad that my family laughed at the line. Because that’s what I have begun to see as a sign of healing — being able to call things what they are. Being able to say that the timing was horrible and laugh at how irreverent it sounds and how true it is.

It took us several years as a family to know what to do with our “Julie week” of her birthday and anniversary of death. It was hard to talk about her for a long time. We each processed at different paces, and while some of us wanted to remember, it was too hard for the others. And visa versa other times.

Eventually, though, we ended up creating a sort of tradition when we were all living near one another (I’m the one that lives elsewhere some years, like this year). We get together and go out to dinner at the Olive Garden (her favorite — but give her a break, she was a 21-year-old broke college student/piano teacher. The Olive Garden was a splurge to her) and we tell stories to remember her. Not the stories that were told at the funeral. Those were too nice. Too kosher. For a long time, that’s all we or anyone would do — tell the funeral-appropriate stories. The ones where she seems so much more lovely, and so much less like the girl we grew up with and loved indefinitely not even despite, but with her flaws.

It took several years to find the freedom to remember her more accurately. To laugh at her precociousness, her sometimes judgmental nature, her infuriating stubbornness. To admit that amidst her mounds of talent, she was deeply insecure. To remember her harsh exterior that came out quite a bit, not just the softness that existed underneath, too. To remember the way her long red hairs got EVERYWHERE.  It was literally over a year before I stopped finding her hairs woven into the fabric of my clothes from the laundry.

Again, I think it’s a sign of healing, of acceptance, to be able to laugh. I have this theory that I will teach my children if they are ever bullied — laughing at something takes it’s power away.

And I think for our family, when we were able to finally laugh again at the memories of our sister, it was a sign that we were taking power away from grief. We had to let it run its course. That’s not optional. But finally, we found our way to a place where we could remember what was true.

And with that allowance, it is a double edged sword, because remembering the real Julie, means acknowledging the realness that we loved that we don’t have anymore. It means acknowledging the loss, not of some idealized saint, but of our very real sister who we very real-ly loved.

I think we learned this from my mom. We grew up hearing what I would name the “rascal boys stories” — stories of her and her two brothers while they were growing up. But in the stories, there were two brothers, and in life when we were hearing the stories, there was only one brother. We were missing an uncle. He died before I was born. I only know him from the stories.

But the Uncle Randy I know was deeply troubled and deeply loved. He was a lovable little boy. But he had a lot of problems socially and relationally. He got into trouble. He lived a rough life. But in the stories, I could hear him laughing. I could hear him crying. I could see him be tricked by his brother. And blamed for something his sister did. And I could see him yelling. I could see him getting arrested. I could see him dancing at his wedding. I could see him hitchhiking across the country to his new home in New York. And I could sense how much my mom and her family loved this very real, imperfect man.

I’ve never met him, but because of the stories, I know him a little bit. A non-idealized, real version of him. And because of that, he’s never felt like a story character — he’s felt like family. Real-life, living and breathing, blood and guts family.

That’s my hope as we move onward in this life and we carry the loss with us. That we will continue to choose to tell the stories of real-life Julie. That we will remember her as she was, and laugh at what needs to be laughed at and feel for the things that need to be felt. That we will love her in death the way we loved her in life. Real-ly. Because she was real, and our love for her still is. It is good to remember.





Please keep our family in your thoughts and prayers this week as her birthday is this Wednesday and the anniversary of her death is Saturday. 

 Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon     www.storiesbyJo.com

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Thursday, March 06th, 2014 | Author:

Dear Julie,
Its been 10 years. How can that be? 10 years of life without you. 10 years of this ache in my heart and stinging sensation in my eyes and nose when people speak of loss. When they experience grief, my heart breaks for them, because I still know the feeling of my heart breaking over you. 10 years of thinking of you in those moments.

10 years of answering how many siblings do you havewith a different answer every time.

10 years to figure out who I am apart from you. Without your influence or your example.

10 years to figure out how different from you I am.

And 10 years to figure out how similar we are, after all.

10 years of seeing things about sister loveand feeling that hollow pang, knowing I dont have a sister anymore.

10 years of trying to establish a new normal.

And after 10 years, its clear that we have developed new rhythms, but that we still dont feel whole. Were still trying to figure out who we are as a family. And thats a really hard thing to admit. Because its admitting that this is not the way things were meant to be, even after all the healing, and coping and growing, and changing and redeveloping.

We have adapted, and while we have found joy again, we have entered back into life again, part of us still knows that there was another way this story couldve gone. And I am starting to see that that knowledge will never go away completely.

Walking into this, I never knew just how long death takes its toll. Never realized how deeply woven into our stories the threads of grief would be.

Here is the truth that no one says out loud.

I dont think about you every day anymore. 10 years ago I wouldve been appalled at myself for this being true, for admitting it. I thought about you every day for years. For the whole first year I didnt want to move on. But my soul began to die, to suffocate from unobserved grief after a year of it. Grieving and finding joy again felt like betraying you at first. I was 15, but I imagine it must feel similar even to adults who walk through that valley.

But at some point I did establish new rhythms of life. I gradually stopped having those moments where I expected to see you somewhere, expected you to be at dinner that night, thought of something to tell you only to remember that you were no longer there to tell.

At some point, I began to be able to tell people that I had a sister, but that you had died, and I began to be able to do it without my throat tightening, without tears falling too easily from my eyes. The statement stopped being a reminder, and started being a fact.

Eventually, people stopped calling me by your name accidentally. That was both a helpful thing yet a sad realization a few years in. It meant that you had been gone long enough that even acquaintances had made the mental shift to know your name should no longer be in their name bankfor the OHanlons.

People stopped comparing me to you altogether by the time I graduated high school. I had already begun to blaze my own trail. And of course by the time that I graduated college, I had surpassed the point in life that youd lived through, so the mention of your name didnt even come up.

I thought of you, though. I thought about the picture we took together at my 8th grade graduation. The only graduation of mine youd get to attend. I hope youd be proud of me, and happy for me for the happy things of my life, and sad with me for the heart-breaking ones. I trust that that would be the case. You were always really compassionate like that, deep down.

This is what makes me saddest. How much youve missed, and how much weve missed that wouldve come in your life. So much has changed for us in 10 years, Im sure life wouldve changed for you, too.

Ive met a few people in life who remind me a lot of you.  They are people that others sometimes have a hard time getting close to, but they feel so familiar to me, because its like seeing a glimpse of you.  It is comfortable to be near them, just as I was always comfortable around you.

Heres another painful confession. I dont remember what your voice sounded like anymore. I wish we had had digital cameras and video cameras back then, but I didnt yet. I got my first one the Christmas after you died. I haven’t heard your voice in a decade.

I havent heard you play piano in just as long.

I know from memory what you looked like still but the details of your face, or your person, theyre starting to get a little fuzzy. I have static images of you in mind, from the pictures, but I dont remember how you moved.

There are, of course, lots of pictures of you at mom and dads house, but I only have a couple of my own. I have a picture frame collage with 2 in it of you I have taken it with me everywhere Ive lived even in another country.

It is a very weird thing to look at pictures of you from the end, and to know that you are only 20 years old. You are 4 years younger than I am now. Which is so strange because you were always so much older and cooler. How could you be younger than me?

I remember what you smelled like still, vaguely, because I still have one of your shirts. Ive washed it a bunch of times (because Ive worn it), but sometimes, on the occasions that I did wear it, I would catch a whiff of you.  I stopped wearing it because I was afraid that eventually, after too many washes, the smell would leave. Thats the last piece of your clothing I have. I just cant get rid of it. I got rid of the rest though which was much harder than getting rid of clothes should ever be. I blame you, and grief, for me staying out of current style for so long.

Heres another confession. While I have gone to the cemetery a lot over the past 10 years, I have visited your grave only a dozen or less times. It is hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that your body is there. But I like to visit the cemetery in general, because I feel close to you there I know that was a place you used to go when you ditched school, or just to get away from things. It is because of that, not because of your grave, that I go.

I always think of you when someone makes a comment about red heads being feisty.

I always think of you when I see one of those pens that you always used. Youre right, they really are the best pens.

I always think of you when I watch Ever After, Sweet Home Alabama (I still have your burned copy), Gattaca,  and Finding Forrester (which I watched yesterday, and yesI cried when he talks about his brother). I watched Monsters University the other day finally (sequel to Monsters Inc.) and I remembered you really liked the original. The sequel is pretty cute, too.

I always think of you when I see something or hear something about the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I remember all of those afternoons of all three of us watching some combination of that, Sister Sister, The Nanny, and Arthur that added up to an hour of our TV time. I love that we all watched all of those together.

And of course, anywhere that they sell cheap, gas station, soft-serve ice creams makes me think of the times you got Jason and I to pay for yours if you drove us there and back.

Whenever a phone book is delivered to my door step I think of that summer, and the fact that the dress you bought me was not NEAR enough payment for the hours I put in, but I had no idea at the time. I thought you were being so gracious. I wish I could rag on you now about that.

After 10 years without you, the pain has lessened, the heaviness of the sadness has lifted, but the fact is that the loss remains. Weve lost you and life will never be the same.

And while we have to make peace with that, and we have, we do, and we willwe still miss you. We still love you. And it seems that time will not wash that away. Nor should it, I suppose.

P.S. This picture, this is how I remember you. No wonder I know how to make a splash. I got that from you, I think. (Julie, age 17, after a Mock Trial competition. Those are boxers.)


Category: Everyday Stories  | Tags: , , , , ,  | 8 Comments