When I was twelve years old, my nineteen-year old sister, Barbara, was killed in an automobile crash on an icy road in New Jersey. Thus, at a relatively tender age, I was introduced to the world of grief and grieving. On the one hand, I had the opportunity to observe the grieving process of others around me, and learned early on of the very many forms in which grief manifests itself in different people; and of the danger of judging others’ expressions of grief as measured against one’s own. On the other hand, I learned, too, that my own grief was a living, ever-changing emotion, taking many forms, and emerging in varying degrees of intensity and kind in the months and years following my sister’s death.
The seven-year difference in our ages had – for most of our lives together – precluded, for us, a very intimate or mature relationship in the sisterly sense. All of that, however, was beginning to change in the last months of her life, as I approached maturity and my teenage years, and we began to interact more like peers, heading toward a friendship that was cut short the night she died.
In the years that followed her death, the grief at her loss evened into the background of my life, rising occasionally to the surface when some event – such as seeing a movie involving the escapades of sisters, or observing the relationships between sisters that I knew – would remind me, again, of what I had lost that tragic night. To fill the void left by her death, I, over the years and decades that passed, developed deeply rich and satisfying relationships with many wonderful and beloved girlfriends, who became my family of “sisters.” It was much to my surprise, therefore, when last year – during our observance of the High Holy Days – that grief resurfaced with a magnitude and intensity that nearly incapacitated me.
As I walked through my neighborhood one evening on one of my regular, nightly strolls, thinking about the celebration of Rosh Hashanah just past, and contemplating the Days of Atonement ahead, culminating soon in the awesome and anticipated observance of Yom Kippur, my sister’s presence filled every corner of my being, hitting me with a wave of grief so fresh, so raw and so powerful as to belie the passage of the forty years it had been since her death. Nearly doubled over from the sobs that rushed up my throat, and the effort needed to suppress them, I raced the remaining eight blocks to my home where I relinquished myself to my anguished weeping and desolation. Thoughts of all that I had missed out on with my sister for all of these past decades overtook me, and shook me to my core. My tears seemed without end, and the void in my life left by her passing, unfillable. Mixed in with my thoughts of sorrow, however, also came thoughts of wonder and astonishment that I should be hit with so intense an episode of grief over my sister forty years later, and seemingly out of the blue.
When I shared this experience with some of my friends, it was suggested that the incident may have been prompted by my sister, reaching out to me across Heaven and the decades to let me know that she had not forgotten me; that I still mattered to her; that we remained sisters. The comfort and peace this brought me was profound.
As we approach, again, these most Holy of Holy Days of Atonement, Awe and Remembrance, may we transcend our sorrows and our griefs, and find in their expression the opportunity to touch and be touched by the lives of all whom we have loved and lost. May the Echoes of their memories bring us closeness, comfort, and Shalom.