When my brother, Brett, died I was ten years old. Old enough to understand something horrible had happened. Old enough to have my world turned upside down. Old enough to miss him for the rest of my life. Yet, young enough to be shielded from the practicalities of death such as arranging a funeral, contacting family and friends, and managing his estate.
After my sister, Ivy, died this past year I was given a much wider and more intimate view of after-death care. Along with my parents and oldest sister, I was involved in most of the decision-making and arrangements. Looking back on it now, it was both overwhelming and a great honor to be able to tend to my sister after her death. Truly, I’m so privileged to have the time, community, and resources to dedicate to Ivy, my family, and our grief.
There’s so much I could write about my experience and process with Ivy’s death over the past ten months. I don’t know how much of it would actually translate into shareable words. Right now, I keep thinking about what was surprising to me and what was helpful following her passing.
One thing that was incredibly helpful to my family and me was a funeral plan that Ivy and I had made a few years before. She had been sick for about 15 years and as her health deteriorated we would talk about her death. A few years back, we sat down in her backyard and talked specifics about what she would want for a memorial. I don’t think we had any formal questions or process, it was literally me asking questions like: “What food do you want? What music should be played? Do you want to be cremated? Is it okay if mom reads a prayer?” Just to give you some insight into my sister, here are a coupe of her answers: “Hamburgers with cheese and bacon on the glazed doughnuts. Glazed doughnut as the bun for the hamburger. A cheese plate with really good cheese, all cheese must be white cheeses… Shot glasses as favors if possible (an Ivy shot)….”
I realize some people won’t have the time or ability to make a detailed funeral plan with their loved ones. I wish it were a more common activity for us all. Not only was it a bonding experience for Ivy and me at the time we did it, it took so much pressure off of my family when she died. I KNEW we had honored her and loved that even in her passing we could share so much of who she was.
My family decided to do a more formal service at my parent’s church and then a few days later we did a reception and celebration of life at Ivy’s house. I’m so grateful we decided to break these pieces up and have time between the two. During the more formal service there were eulogies and a short prayer (nothing religious as directed by Ivy), tears were shed and we all mourned deeply. Then, during the reception and celebration of life several days later we were able to tell funny stories, eat together, and laugh just a little bit. This gave people two chances to gather and mourn, this was especially helpful for people who couldn’t come on one day but were available on another.
Honestly, had we done these two events back-to-back it would have been too much. As it was, I was exhausted. Putting together the obituary, her final outfit, the services, picture boards, and myself was A LOT. Emotionally, I think it would have been really difficult to go from deep mourning to celebrating in the same day or couple days. And, it was really important to me to grieve and mourn openly with our community, not just celebrate her life. While I understand and appreciate the want for “celebrations of life,” I also think it’s important to recognize that a significant loss has occurred and it’s effing sad. Sometimes I think people jump to celebrations of life in order to skip over the pain of death and grief (which I have a lot of compassion for given how grief illiterate and death avoidant the dominant culture is).
After the reception and service were over there was still a lot to do. Selling her car and cleaning out her house were the hardest emotionally. I often felt like my chest was going to cave in or my body was just going to go limp but there were practicalities we had to take care of.
When my brother died, I remember going to his college apartment with my dad and Ivy to clean out his room. I was young, and so I mostly remember the feel of it which was heavy, sad, and awkward. I also remember my dad opening up his guitar case (my brother was a talented musician) and as the three of us looked at his guitar he said, “What a shame.” That moment is forever in my psyche.
Cleaning out Ivy’s house I was surprised at how protective I felt of her privacy. I didn’t find anything that shocked me (I knew her pretty well) but there were things that I knew she wouldn’t want anyone else to see. She had a lot of journals and drawings, some of which I have looked at, others I haven’t had the emotional strength to sit with yet. Overall, I feel blessed to have been able to tend to her things. It was also one of the hardest experiences of my life. Right now, many of her things are still in storage. I couldn’t bear giving away too much of her stuff, it felt like I was getting rid of her and I don’t ever want to rid myself of her.
During all of this, my family and I had a lot of support. There were so many helpful things people did and offered (I may write a whole essay on this). Here are a few of the most supportive acts we received: one friend opened all of her mail that we found and told us which needed to be responded to right away and what could be tossed, another person fixed my parent’s gate so they could have her dog in their yard, her friends came over and cleaned out her car and weeded her garden, after the reception a group of people cleaned and put away all the dishes, a couple of my friends came in from out of state and just hung out with me, and many people kept asking what we needed help with.
I know this seems obvious but I just want to write it out: reaching out and offering something or simply saying, “I’m sorry for your loss,” makes a difference. Sure, there are a few things you could do or say that may be hurtful but these are few and far between (a simple google search will probably reveal unhelpful statements including “everything happens for a reason” or “at least she’s in a better place now”). Generally, something is better than nothing. I genuinely feel comforted by the amount of people who offered something, even a slight smile or hug.
Thinking back on this now I can’t believe I somehow made it through to this point. There were moments when I did not want to go on. The thought of me, Holly, without her, Ivy, just didn’t make sense. Up until she died I had never lived without her physically alive in my life. Life is different without her now, less creative and full. I wonder if I’ll ever feel okay about her not physically being here. I hope not.
One thing that really helped was a grief witnessing group I put together. I had four of my friends who I trusted join me on zoom for about an hour once a month for several months. The space was dedicated to me sharing and receiving support. I would read her poetry, share my deepest pains, and talk about Ivy. While everything felt foggy for at least six months, they helped me locate myself in the fog. (At some point, I’ll write more about this and how it was structured because it was immensely beneficial.)
There’s so much more that happens, or needs to happen, when someone dies. I suppose these are just the cliff notes.
For me, the part that is most present now, ten months later, is tending to her memory and our continued relationship. She will always be my sister. I want to include her on my altars, in my songs, and as a part of all my days. I feel blessed that my partner, many of my friends, and my main mentor, Francis, are all ritual and grief literate. Ritual has helped me so much, from the micro-ritual of shuttling (prompted writing) to land-based practices that help me compost my grief.
Sometimes I think most of my “career” as a grief therapist has actually been me preparing for Ivy leaving. She was so sick and we both knew she would die before her time. And, I knew I would barely make it through it. So, in the last five years, I’ve spent a lot of time becoming deeply intimate with the terrain of sorrow. Even with all of my experience and knowledge around grief it’s still overwhelming half the time.
Ivy’s poetry (she had two published books of poems) has been a comfort in these times. I can’t imagine what I would do without her enduring words, it makes me think about what any of us could leave behind that might ease the pain for our loved ones. In closing, here’s a poem of hers that both fills my heart and brings me to tears:
i feel the ache of my old age
i feel it set into bones
i feel it when i talk to you
how young you are
in body and mind
i feel the years of a life well spent
most of it anyway
i would not trade these scars
and aches and wrinkles
for all the money in the world
and when i think of all
those mistakes made
i now look on them fondly
like old friends
long lost but not forgotten
and i have no envy
for your youth
my time may be short
but it was worth every damn second
(written by Ivy Maxey Truhlar)