Life After Death
Life brings us gifts sometimes wrapped up in tragedies.
My sister Karen would have been 43 years old this year. If you have never lost someone close to you, it is true that you think about them almost every day – even years after their passing.
Karen died the August before her 17th birthday.
I remember vividly when my boss called me into her office to let me use the phone – my mom on the other end told me Karen had been in a car accident and that it wasn’t good and that they were picking me up to go over to the hospital. When we arrived there, the doctors pulled us all into a small room and indicated that Karen was on life support and was not neurologically functioning They were running tests to see if there was anything they could do but that it didn’t seem likely she would come out of the coma she was in.
My 17-year-old self couldn’t move as I attempted to process what the doctor had just told us. I hadn’t seen Karen for a few months, we didn’t live in the same house. I couldn’t even begin to understand what it all meant. I asked if I could see her.
They ushered me into a private hospital room where Karen was hooked up to a few machines. One was monitoring her heart rate; she had a catheter and drip IV and other wires that I didn’t understand. She was swollen presumably from all of the drugs that had been pumped through her and she looked cold and distant. I grabbed her hand and started talking to her in my head – telling her about my day and asking her to wake up. I was afraid that if I spoke out loud that people would hear me. Reflecting back, I think that I was trying to stay inward and present at a time when something so unthinkable was happening, maybe even trying to connect to Karen’s inner voice while tapping into my own.
She was in the hospital for four days. I didn’t leave her side for more than an hour at a time and I never stopped talking to her with my inner voice as I was afraid she would leave me if I stopped. I sang to her and pleaded every day with her to come back.
The second day in hospital, the doctors spoke with my parents and explained again that Karen was brain dead. This time they expressed that there wasn’t anything more they could do for her. They recommended taking her off of life support. I wasn’t part of these conversations; however, I can imagine this was a horrible thing to have to hear and do. My parents decided to do what the doctors suggested and Karen was taken off of life support the day after she arrived at the hospital.
She breathed on her own for three days. At the time, I didn’t think about where Karen was. I assumed she was with me however she seemed very distant. I know now that her soul had already left. All of the machines were keeping her body with us however couldn’t bring back her soul. The machine that monitored her heart kept on beeping to indicate that there was still life in her body. Continuing to speak with her through my inner voice, I wept inside and out for this beautiful being who had been such an important part of my life.
We were a year apart in age, we had many of the same friends and even though we didn’t live together, we would often call each other and check in (and write each other letters as this was before the internet). We had fights like all siblings do, however we would always go back to each other.
It was a Saturday night around 2am and I was just about to leave the hospital for a bit to get some sleep. I went into Karen’s room to say good night and the nurse told me to get the rest of my family as Karen was going to die soon. There weren’t many of us at the hospital at this time. I sat with Karen holding her hand and sending her love and singing to her with my inner voice as I heard the heart monitor do that beep, beep, beep, beep, beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep….to a flat line. And then her body was gone.
As I reflect on all of this I understand that Karen was gone before this flat line. When they had found her after her car accident, they had to revive her. They flew her in a helicopter from Muskoka to Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto and performed tests to see if she had any signs of life. When I saw her it was clear that her soul wasn’t actually there, however we all stayed on the hope that maybe she would come back to us.
Where did she go – this is a bigger question that I don’t exactly know how to answer. I know what I understand to be true for my now adult self. That her energy is still permeating this earth and that perhaps she has reincarnated as someone else or another spiritual being…that she is still amongst my circle maybe in part through my daughter, my other sister, my neighbours’ cat. I believe we all leave when we need to or are ready to – we agree to all of this learning before we arrive.
I often think about what would have happened if Karen had woken up that Saturday. Oh how life would have been changed, but for the better? Would she have still been my beautiful sister Karen or would she have been consumed by brain damage…how would my life be?
Over 25 years later, I wish more than anything to have my sister with me – have my daughter know her auntie – even for a minute/day. Have the two of them laugh together, have the three of us embrace.
Instead, I continue to speak to Karen with my inner voice (sometimes out loud). I tell her I love her and sometimes I tell her how angry I am that she drove a car without her licence and somehow drove it into a ditch. How she was stupid for getting out of the car and to allow it to fall on top of her taking away her ability to breathe. I tell her she sucks for leaving me. Most of all, I tell her how stupid she was for being so reckless with her life – for driving the car to begin with.
Sometimes, I thank her.
I believe that when we are young, the things that happen to us can be glimpses into events that may happen as we get older. So, that near hit from the car whose driver didn’t see us as it turned right or that baseball that hit us when we tried to catch it are all warnings and opportunities to give us ways to avoid bigger tragedies when we are older. I wonder what Karen’s warnings were? I saved her once from drowning when she was six years old. She also averted a meningitis infection where she spent almost a week in the hospital. Also, she almost got hit by a car when she was ten or twelve. However, what would have prevented her from getting into that car and driving? I am not sure.
I am witness to the idea that her death has averted something for myself.
I do know that my life is directly informed by her death, in most things I do. It took me a long time to fully grieve her passing and I believe that I still do grieve the loss of her. As I get older and experience different life events, I grieve that I can’t share in them with her and it is often at times that catch me off guard. Like the time I saw a double rainbow for the first time and wanted to call Karen to tell her how cool it was. Or that time I gave birth to my amazing daughter, Poplar, and wanted to introduce her to Karen but couldn’t.
During these times, when I am not consumed by sadness, I use my inner voice and share the news with Karen, make the introduction or just tell her how different it is that she isn’t here.
And then I remember, my life wouldn’t be the same if she were still here. For me, the crisis averted by existing after Karen’s death is the option of not living my life. Really living, allowing myself to feel what I feel, be who I am, not compromise or dull my light for anyone or anything.
I am likely a bit more cautious too and try to be more responsible and courageous. I try to mirror to my daughter the type of person I would love her to be. I attempt to appreciate and be kind to everyone I meet.
I don’t always achieve all of this, however I also try to be kind to myself on these days.
It took me a long time to get to this realization and application of this learning. It didn’t happen the day after Karen died – I’d say it has taken in and around 25 years (give or take a few).
Thank you Karen for this gift.
My inner voice out loud is here now to say that I am thankful and would like to demonstrate this gift for the rest of my life.
With love and gratitude
The image above was taken a few years ago – it’s my daughter and me in Malta.