Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Day My Sister Died

Thursday March 25 was moving day. It was already a chaotic week due to a last minute move when Dad announced we were moving. But it all came together thanks to mom’s organization and perseverance coupled with, just do it, because she had two days’ notice to pack up a house and three little girls.

Moving day
March 25, 1971
Getting ready to follow the moving truck to our new home, I was privileged to carry my 3-month-old baby sister Sandra Gay from the house to the car where I placed her in the plaid car-crib that took up half the back seat. Mom showed me to how to support her new neck in the crook of my arm. Once I managed the cement steps and walked towards the car in our driveway, I was relieved I didn’t drop her. After I carried her something shifted in me, a sense of responsibility, a sense of protection, a sense that at seven-years-old I was the oldest sister and the oldest of three siblings.
The moving truck unloaded boxes into our new home while I ran back and forth to the car to check on Sandy. Taking to my new role as the oldest I bugged Mom to let me hold her. She insisted I wait till the movers had her crib set up. I’d run and stand on tip toes as I peered through the back car door window and watched her sleep as her baby blanket moved with each breath.
Finally mom said, “You can go get your sister now.” Excited I ran, opened the car door, and reached in to lift her out of the crib. As I picked Sandy up with her baby blanket, she looked and felt funny. I didn’t need to support her neck like hours earlier. She wasn’t the same soft baby and she had turned funny colors.
I ran to get Mom who broke down and sobbed hysterically as she told me to get my other sister Cyndi Jo, who was six, then she drove us to the hospital. Dad met us there after someone found him over the CB radio in town. The candy striper who was assigned to watch me and Cyndi Jo walked us through the halls of Danbury hospital while staff comforted my parents grief.

The move put me and my sister in a new elementary school midyear. I hated my 2nd grade teacher because she was mean and whacked my knuckles with a ruler. I wasn’t sure how I landed in this place. I was in a fog, a different town and a new home.

The house we just moved into was sparse because much of our belongings still sat in boxes. After the service, silhouette’s mingled throughout our home, now tainted with loss. Some brought casseroles because they didn’t know what else to do while others spoke in solemn tones. Whispers echoed in the empty rooms as they paid their respect to the dead, but it's not like she could hear anymore.

All I wanted to do was hold my sister on moving day. I thought I had done such a good job carrying her to the car crib. My mother cried, my sister cried, my dad was angry. I didn’t cry. I'm still playing hide and seek with my cry.

I’ve learned from my own losses that I don’t know how I’ll react until I go through it. I’ve also learned everyone handles grief differently and at their own pace and in their own way. There is no one size fits all, even if we’ve had the same experiences.
"Grief is like a chameleon blending in with the ordinary parts of one’s everyday life. It hides well, then when least expected, its many colors come out sideways and reveal the day’s new shade of grief."by TSW
Our instinct as an adult is to protect the children, however because everyone’s situation is unique to them, how they define 'protect' may differ. Having said that, what I can share is from the view of the little girl I once was:
  • Don’t assume a little child doesn’t understand something happened because they look blank, laugh or go about their business.
  • Allow children to talk or not and cry or not, but not forced.
  • Try not to stuff or dismiss their questions with platitudes.
  • If a child is asking questions it’s because they sense something going on.
  • Because a child may have a limited vocabulary, don’t underestimate the power of the lived life experience they just had.
  • The answer to your child doesn't have to be detailed; it just has to be honest.
When there is a loss 
adults and children and a community
are experiencing something different with the same loss
that has created a grieving tension in the air. 
We can plan and prepare ahead of time or have short notice, but we’re never prepared for the unexpected things that are never part of our life-plan. Our family was forever changed because that's what a loss does. But a question might be, does the loss win or do you find victory over the loss?

Victory does not mean we forget. It means, we move on alive and living while God applies his balm to our wound.
After our loss we gained our wonderful brother two years later. He never knew Sandy, but he became the keeper of her Teddy bear.
I’m still the oldest of three.

As adults, our family has been able to talk about moving day at each other’s personal pace.

Cyndi Jo and I make random visits to her grave and leave a flower
Sometimes when all we know as a child is what we know, an event can make us think we should've known more, done something different. When an adult is often caught of guard with an unexpected event, why should a child think they should've known better? And known better about what?

So somewhere along this God breathed journey we call life, as I continue to grow in my faith, I’ve come to realize that I was really only 7 years old, not thirty or fifty or seventy. I have learned I didn’t fail my role as the oldest sibling, I didn’t hold her wrong, I didn’t screw up moving day, it wasn’t the movers fault, my mother’s fault, or mine or the crib. It wasn't anyone's fault. She died of SIDS.
The first time I recall sharing about finding my sister dead was when I was 15 and wrote a short story about moving day. I continually prune dead vines that don’t help me grow. While it’s an ongoing process, I no longer need to carry that burden of failing. I was only seven and it was just a bad bad day.

December 1970

"She is more precious than rubies..."
Proverbs 3:15
This post is not about comparing stories but identifying with a piece of the wound to let someone know they are not alone.

Be patient and kind to yourself as you grieve your loss. It takes time.

It's not like I haven't been hurt, had tantrums or cried at losses throughout my life, I am human. God made me that way. But I fight through the emotional pain with or without tears, I fight because I cannot allow my focus to remain on the dark of despair or it will swallow me up. Rather I choose to put my focus on God's new mercy every morning for that is where the light is. And Light is Hope. And I decided I grow and blossom much better with His light.


My disclaimer: I realize kids ask a million and one questions, like 24/7, and that this is a sensitive subject so please hear the spirit of what I’m sharing from my experience. You can also consider praying for parental wisdom and discernment with your personal situation.


Anonymous said...

You are so gifted as a writer, I too lost my younger sister many years ago. Your story touched my grief in a good way- God bless you Tammy Sue!

Tammy Sue Willey said...

Dear anonymous, our experiences may help define who we become but it doesn't have to hold us prisoners. I'm sorry that my story spoke to your loss, but glad that you understood it in a good way. It always helps to know we're not alone and that we can live in His victory! God bless you too!

Tammy Sue Willey said...

Donna Cominsz Pike wrote on FB: I'm so sorry. Such a haunting memory to carry with you then and now. March 14 at 3:02pm

Tammy Sue Willey RESPONDED on FB: It's true we cant forget but we can move on. I think the grief of loss takes on different shades of guilt in a situation one has no control over. My hope is that if someone (adult or child) is carrying a burden of loss that maybe something i shared will resonate with them and they'll feel like they're more normal than they think and feel hope. March 14 at 3:13pm

Tammy Sue Willey said...

Kathy Curran Smits wrote on FB: That's a hard story to write about and live with. You are a brave woman to keep that pruning going....
March 14 at 3:48pm

Tammy Sue Willey RESPONDED on FB: Thank you Kathy for your encouragement. I don't like thorns, they hurt, so I must prune!
March 14 at 4:23pm

Tammy Sue Willey said...

Lee Sullivan WROTE on FB: Such sad stories and difficult memories to have to carry with you. Glad to see you are finding sturdy ground to place your feet in the midst of the deep waters. Knowing Our Lord's love and trusting in His promises are our only hope in the mire of hurt... "All other ground is sinking sand." In His grip
March 14 at 4:09pm

Tammy Sue Willey RESPONDED on FB: Amen to that my friend! Our stories may help define us but we don't have to remain stuck in the hurt of them. March 14 at 4:14pm

Lee Sullivan WROTE on FB: So thankful for that...March 14 at 4:16pm

Tammy Sue Willey said...

Carol M Anderson WROTE on FB: Beautifully written TSW, truly brought tears to my eyes ♡♡· March 14 at 4:34pm

Tammy Sue Willey RESPONDED on FB: Thank you Carol.❤
March 14 at 10:30pm

Tammy Sue Willey said...

Linda Krob WROTE ON FB: Tammy, I am so sorry. You are in my thoughts and prayers. March 14 at 5:53pm

Tammy Sue Willey RESPONDED ON FB: Thank you Linda. I'm okay, its just part of my story so I share in hopes it helps someone else. You're a love. March 14 at 10:33pm

Linda Krob WROTE ON FB: Right back at you Girlfriend! You just never know what other people's lives are. March 14 at 10:54pm

Tammy Sue Willey said...

Deborah Spry Halpin Smith WROTE ON FB: Tammy Sue you're so brave to share your story with us! It's beautifully written and you're such a testimony!! Love you 💙 March 14 at 6:18pm

Tammy Sue Willey RESPONDED ON FB: Thank you. I don't think of myself as brave until i see it through someone elses view. I hope it helps others. Thank you for your encouragement❤ March 14 at 10:37pm

Tammy Sue Willey said...

Nancy Boyden Pantaleo WROTE ON FB: I was crying while reading your story yet I was praising God for how courageous you are to be able to work through the emotional pain you experienced, with God by your side, even in the midst of your healing journey. "Light is hope"....Love that. Looking forward to reading the completed version of your book. March 14 at 6:55pm

Tammy Sue Willey RESPONDED ON FB: It's funny how healing unfolds because sometimes you don't know you did until you look back and realize you got through it! Thank you for being such a cheer leader for me! You always encourage me.

My book is done as far as I'm concerned. Now waiting for last person to finish editing with red pen. I'm praying for that person to be expedient and have decisive focus. ❤ March 14 at 10:48pm

Nancy Boyden Pantaleo WROTE ON FB: You are a very strong person and an inspiration not only to me but many other people. Probably more people than you will ever know. We are stronger than we think especially with God and friends to lean on. And Amen you got through many difficult circumstances one day, one minute, one second at a time. Please save me a SIGNED copy when it is published. I will always remember the saying "Light is hope". It will remind me to focus on God (light) in the midst of a bad day to receive the Hope of His promises. March 14 at 11:09pm

Tammy Sue Willey RESPONDED ON FB: I'm not gonna save you a copy. I'm gonna invite you to my book launch whenever i have it!
March 14 at 11:18pm

Nancy Boyden Pantaleo WROTE ON FB: Can't wait!!! Will be praying for the publishing of your book. March 14 at 11:20pm

Tammy Sue Willey said...

Lila Carpinelli Floyd WROTE ON FB: Tammy, I remember that day too. I was five years old, and couldn't understand why. Sandy was the first person I knew that died. It made me cry even now as I was reading your story. March 15 at 9:18am

Tammy Sue Willey RESPONDED ON FB: Lila, wow, i had no idea. She too, was the first person i remember dying. I only remember my experience. If you're ever comfortable with sharing, I'd love to hear what you remember about that day. My mom thought we spent the night somewhere but couldn't remember. Was it with you guys? If you'd rather share privately, i can give you my email. March 15 at 9:26am

Lila Carpinelli Floyd WROTE ON FB: I don't remember if you did spend the night. I asked my mom and she said you very likely did. She said she was helping you move that day. She told us that Sandy just fell asleep, that she looked just like she was sleeping. I remember thinking, when my baby sister Carrie was born, would she go to sleep forever too. Very frightening for a child to contemplate.
March 15 at 10:06am

Tammy Sue Willey RESPONDED ON FB: Yes it is much to contemplate. I remember all us girls, your sisters and us, were close in age. How old was Carrie then? March 15 at 10:07am

Lila Carpinelli Floyd WROTE ON FB: Carrie was born not too long after Sandy died. I remember going by Carrie's crib and touching her, often accidentally waking her. I didn't want her to die too.
March 15 at 10:11am

Lila Carpinelli Floyd WROTE ON FB: Tammy, when will your book be released? I definitely want to read it. Do you have a background in psychology? Your story is so well written. As I was reading your post, it made me realize how it made me feel too. I think traumatic events as a child, effect children much more than we know.
March 15 at 10:53am

Tammy Sue Willey RESPONDED ON FB: Lila, I'm going to self-publish. My goal is this summer. All pending final details and things I don't know about. Never done this before. Quite an adventure. No background in psychology. If you go to my blog and click on the tab that says AUDIO CLIP you'll see what I've done. Your story about how you felt with your sister Carrie makes my point that I shared in the blog about how many people are affected by one loss. When I started babysitting I poked every kid I watched to make sure they were breathing. Thank you for sharing Lila! March 15 at 12:23pm

Tammy Sue Willey said...

Mary Liebig WROTE ON FB: Just realized all the times babysitting I did the same thing - always checking on the sleeping baby to see if he/she were still breathing. I am sure all tied in to the loss of my baby sister too. Even though she died in the hospital, for me one day she was there, the next she was not. I was just 5 years old so really did not understand it at all. Thanks for sharing your story.
March 15 at 5:19pm

Mary Liebig WROTE ON FB: Today would have been her 54th birthday. Her name was Patricia - we called her "Tricie" March 15 at 5:25pm

Tammy Sue Willey RESPONDED ON FB: Mary, how uncanny the timing of your sister's birthday. Mine would be 46. Even though your Tricie died in the hospital, we don't escape the loss that we sense or know happened. To me this shows how powerful a young memory can be and that we're not too young to be affected. Love HKBC March 15 at 5:59pm

Tammy Sue Willey WROTE ON FB: Well 46 next week. March 15 at 5:59pm

Mary Liebig WROTE ON FB: I remember when you and I first found out we shared this similar loss - and that bonded us even more!! I know my loss affected me my whole life, still does in many ways.
March 15 at 6:04pm

Tammy Sue Willey RESPONDED ON FB: I remember too. I think although it doesn't leave us, there's comfort in knowing someone understands.
March 15 at 6:06pm

Mary Liebig WROTE ON FB: I find it pleasantly ironic that I now work in that same hospital where Trishie was born and where she died. I find myself on the maternity floor and in the NICU many times, bringing up handmade blankets for the babies, introducing a new volunteer to the floor, lots of reasons. I think my mom would love that I work there. March 15 at 6:07pm

Tammy Sue Willey God has a way of weaving us gently through our pain so our wound can heal. March 15 at 6:09pm

Tammy Sue Willey said...

Steve Hodkinson WROTE ON FB: Your words resonate, your words are a lovely part of a healing process... angel with a pen x
March 15 at 12:36pm

Tammy Sue Willey RESPONDED ON FB: Poetically encouraging xoxo
March 15 at 4:58pm

Tammy Sue Willey said...

Janine Cote WROTE ON FB: I love your special way of communicating your God-breathed journey with the rest of us. Thank you again for your special gift as a writer that enriches all of us. ❤
March 15 at 8:43pm

Tammy Sue Willey said...

Lollie Carpinelli WROTE ON FB: A very touching story, so tragic.
March 15 at 10:36pm

Karen Casey said...

I remember 😢... With all my Love cousin Karen..

Karen Casey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karen Casey said...

💜💜 Tammy Sue I'm going to try my best to make it to your book signing 😆. It's going to be amazing just as you are..