Eight months and four days ago my little sister died. Though she was mentally ill – bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety – and had attempted suicide more times than I want to remember, when she died I wasn’t ready. Suicide attempts I understand, was prepared for, a heart attack in her sleep, I don’t get.
When people die, we lean to introspection.
We try to think of ways we failed. We look for ways to take the blame. We try to involve ourselves because to have someone taken away from us, and to know our insignificance in the thing, hurts.
I didn’t fail Libby. Neither did my other little sister. We had our roles with our sister and we fulfilled them. We looked after her in the ways we could and the way she wanted, respectful of the idea that we were all adults.
You don’t see off a loved one without learning something.
I spent most of my adult life waiting for Libby to die. Any phone call late at night could be the one. Anytime I saw her number in my phone, I got ready. And a few of the times I made that drive. The last two times were in a park. Same picnic table, same method; razors, alcohol, blood and pills. She was calm, it was unnerving. I relieved her of her razor blades, called for an ambulance and followed her to hospital. They were traumatising days I’d have back in a heartbeat rather than have her dead. Yeah, what does that say about me?
But when Libby wasn’t undergoing an episode she had all she wanted – her partner, her pets, her job, her life. And I didn’t see it until nine days before she died. I’m lucky though, at least I did see.
So what have I learnt?
To pay attention. I was paying attention in a physical, what can I do way, but I wasn’t in a more thoughtful way. I had mentally consigned Libby to the sick basket and let her illness define her. It was unwitting.
Still, it’s never too late.
When you pay attention you become more thankful. Thankfulness is a positive side effect I hadn’t anticipated, I was aiming at not missing out.
And here’s the kicker: when you’re thankful you pay more attention. Soon you’re noticing tiny, little, incredible things that are the stuff of life, how funny your kids are, how their hair is all different, the way they laugh. Yes, I’d seen all this before but I wasn’t grateful, I was just there. You remember more than who burnt you and what it feels like to be mad. You let old hurts go and you are here for today. You become mindful.
I’m in a cycle. It’s not a vicious one but it is feeding on itself. It has taken months because me and mindfulness are a work in progress. I have days when it’s harder – a day with a migraine, a couple of days without a bike ride, a little boy with a big problem – on those days bad introspection takes a chunk out my appreciation. But largely, I am paying attention and thankfulness, thankfully, is coming to get me.