Name: Rebecca Merchant
Tell me about the person who died:
My sister Alicia was one of the smartest people I know. But she could be a bit of a jerk sometimes. It’s a difficult concept to explain if you don’t know her. I keep thinking that the only way I can explain it is that she was a jerk in the way your pets are jerks. They do things that annoy you, things that aren’t cool, but you can’t help but love them anyway. She was unapologetically honest and outspoken, and she almost never admitted she was wrong.
When Alicia was 19 and I was 13, she moved to Montreal to go to school. Although we wrote and spoke to each other during her six years there, she had her life and I had mine, and we lost touch a little. When I turned 19, she asked me to move to Toronto with her and I had the pleasure of getting to know her all over again. Our family isn't big on being super close and open, but Alicia and I quickly grew out of that. We didn’t need to share every little detail of our lives with each other, but we were without a doubt the most important part of each others’ lives. We even joked that we had sister “Spidey sense.”
Alicia was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 23, and she was 34 when she died from the recurrence. She learned the cancer had recurred a few months after her 30th birthday, and lived through treatment for the last 4 years of her life, switching from one trial to another hoping something would work. But I don’t like saying that she fought a battle. People don’t fight illness, they live with it, and it becomes a part of them–she was a writer, and language meant a lot to her.
She had a huge heart, and when she was on your side, she would do anything for you. Even at her sickest, she made time to know what was happening in her friends’ lives. She was not afraid to reach out to other young cancer patients; in fact she was quite active in a lot of communities, not only involving cancer. People often remarked that they were unaware she was sick because of how full of life and love she was. But she also wasn’t afraid to call people out on their bullshit.
In September of 2014, we were told she’d have 6 months left, but she died within 2 and a half. Her time in hospice was the first time my parents had been in the same room since their divorce. Alicia and I had talked about this possibility, and we would often think about the logistics and tried to imagine what it would be like. Thankfully, we had nothing to worry about.
Tell me about an object that reminds you of the person who died and why?
Every day I see something that reminds me of my sister and I get that deep ache you only experience after a loss. But there is one thing that stands out the most–a fork. Any fork.
Our first dinner out together after I moved back to Toronto, we ended up at a restaurant in Kensington Market. We were both new to the city and had just wandered around until we found something open. We decided to share a Caesar salad and order separate mains. The salad arrived and was placed in the middle of the table. I held my fork up in an attempt to offer it to her so she could use both forks to serve herself, but I couldn't formulate words to explain what I was trying to do. Alicia looked at me holding my fork awkwardly in the air, and clinked forks with me in a cheers. We both burst into laughter at the ridiculousness of it, and for the next 9 years, we would yell “Sister Power!” or “Fork Power!” and mock-clink our forks all the time. We could never tell the story without falling into fits of laughter.
What was your experience of grief like after your loss?
Even though Alicia knew she would likely die young, she was never very organized. After the obligatory heavy drinking with my friends in the wake of her death, I threw myself into trying to organize what was left of my sister's life. There were many moments of frustration and anger, usually directed at some poor soul trying to help me. I had to go back to work shortly after she passed, where I would try to hold back tears while dealing with the mundane details of my job. Ultimately, I kept my friends close. I talk about Alicia all the time, trying to keep her memory alive, because sometimes it feels like she was never here and that feeling is the worst. It's been a year, and not much has changed. I still see things I want to buy her and stories I want to share, and I send her direct messages on Twitter. I miss her dearly.
If you had to describe your grief as a literal landscape you've been passing through, what would it look like and feel like at different points in your journey?
Dark, suffocating, tumultuous, but also light and freeing. I realize now I had been grieving this loss before Alicia even died.
Did anything surprise you about your experience with grief?
The relief I felt. I don't think I realized how hard the last four years with my sister were on me, because I had been so focused on her. She was in so much pain, and although she hid it well, I always knew. So I was relieved that she no longer had to have the horrible side effects of her chemo drugs. That I wouldn’t need to be super concerned if an unknown number called my phone and left a voicemail. That I wouldn’t get calls anymore saying Alicia was in the hospital again for X, Y or Z reason. I never fully grasped until she was gone how much I was putting her first. And I wouldn’t change it for the world.
I was also surprised by all the new friends I made. Alicia knew a lot of people, and many of them became de facto friends and provided me with a lot of support.
How did people support you in your grief? What was helpful? What was frustrating?
My friends surrounded me with love. They comforted me, drank with me, helped me clean out Alicia's things, cleaned my house, made me food, and kept me busy. Despite all the support, I still felt like I needed to do things for other people, rather than things I wanted for myself. It was frustrating that it was so hard to communicate my needs and have them be heard. Like going home for Christmas that year–it was important for them to have me near, but it wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to surround myself with my friends. In the end, I went home, and although it wasn’t all bad, it was super tough, probably harder than staying in Toronto.
How did people who were grieving the same person respond to the death compared to you? What similarities and differences did you notice?
There were so many people—I think every possible reaction was experienced by someone. There was a lot of anger. I didn't experience anger, just profound sadness. Lots of shock, lots of drinking, but also a lot of support from and for everyone.
I have found that people often only want to remember the good in people, and don’t want to talk about the faults that make the person human. Thankfully, I have a couple friends who are more than happy to swap stories of Alicia not being on her best behaviour.
How did your private grieving relate to your public mourning?
I felt like I had to be so strong in public that I never fully let myself grieve in private the way I needed to. Due to Alicia's prominence in the Toronto storytelling scene, I felt like I always had to keep it together, despite knowing that people wouldn’t care if I just lost it. Even private moments would be interrupted with the need to be public ready at a moment's notice.
Was there anything about your cultural or religious background that affected the grieving process for you?
We grew up Baha'is, and although Alicia and I stopped practicing, there were several aspects that felt calming, familiar and grounding in a time of turmoil. My mom and our family friend, Vikki, were involved in some aspects of a Baha'i burial (namely the prayers) and when I went back to Kelowna for Christmas, the Baha'i community there wanted to have a little ceremony for Alicia. Being with people I’ve known my whole life and falling back into familiar patterns was extremely calming.
How did your loss and your grief change you?:
It's made me realize that I need a career change. I'm thinking that I might make a good death doula, which is ironic, because I initially moved to Toronto to become a midwife, which didn’t happen. It really showed me that I am a caregiver deep down, and that is my true calling.
Rebecca Merchant moved to Toronto from the Okanagan Valley in BC shortly after graduating high school. She is currently working in research, but hopes to one day pursue Death Midwifery. You can read her sister Alicia's story at bombinmybelly.typepad.com and alittlebitworse.wordpress.com
This post is part of Grief Landscapes, an evolving art project documenting the unique terrain of people’s grief. Participants share an experience with bereavement, and I then photograph an object that evokes the person who died, transforming it into an abstract landscape inspired by the story. I’m looking for many more submissions and for a range of experiences, so please share widely! Learn more about the project and submit your story. - Mindy Stricke