Name: Pam Hoffman
Tell me about the person who died:
The expression "two’s company, three’s a crowd" has never really applied to my sisters and me. More like “two’s company, three’s a party.” Fast-paced words, comical hand gestures and facial expressions—our own unique brand of communication when together. We didn’t start out as three; for six years Katie and I were just two. (Katie was 22 months older.) Then came our “bonus baby”—Wendy. The dynamic of our trio is such that we have always rotated roles. No one person was ever consistently in charge or consistently left out.
The three of us were raised in a way that celebrated our individuality. We were privileged to grow up in an environment that not only permitted but encouraged us to find our own paths. While Katie would be in the “art room” working on her latest creative project or curled up on the couch lost in a book, I would be tearing around the garden on my bike or practicing my netball shots for hours in the backyard, while Wendy would be rehearsing her latest dance routine or Disney movie scores for a performance in our hall later that evening. Katie always used her talents to help Wendy and me as children—she would happily make an animal sculpture out of Wendy’s mashed potatoes (only then would Wendy eat it) and do my music theory homework for me (which took me hours and her mere minutes).
We weren’t perfect. We have had many challenging moments with one another. Fortunately, the older we got, the closer we became. We grew to celebrate our differences and have always found joy in our similarities. For Katie and me, absence really did make the heart grow fonder. The distance between us once she moved to the UK from South Africa became a bridge, and after tumultuous teenage years we developed a truly exceptional long distance relationship. The close and genuine relationship we as sisters have all had with one another as adults is a great comfort to Wendy and me since Katie's death.
Katie died from suicide on June 5th, 2014. Depression is a terrifying illness which steals the best and brightest from us. I know I did the best I could for my sister. I choose not to define her by the way she died, but by the way she lived. I choose to remember her for all her light and not her darkness. I choose to look for the beauty in my grief. I choose to honour her life as a custodian of her legacy.
What has your experience of grief been like since your loss?
Mourning the loss of my sister is an ongoing process. Some days the sadness feels overwhelmingly heavy; other days it's a gift to wake up feeling light and to appreciate the feeling of normality. Losing my sister felt like being in a time warp: things moved so slowly and yet incredibly fast. Thinking back, there are events and spans of time I can hardly recall at all. Running on adrenaline for months with a fierce desire to control the bureaucracy around her death, organize the events related to it, and look after the rest of my family, especially my younger sister, led to weight loss, anxiety and withdrawal from my usual social routine. This has improved with time (and a lot of therapy!) but what I can only describe as “loss panic” is still a far too easily accessible emotion. Grief doesn't leave me, it just becomes less suffocating. To seek “closure” for my sister’s death feels traitorous. It's not something I want to “get over,” it's something I want to hold and respect.
The timeline of grief is very difficult to describe, as are the accompanying experiences. In the beginning there's a huge wave of compassion and support, but a month later I felt like everyone had moved on and forgotten. Key dates such as her birthday and the day she died are now moments I crave ritual around, but can't yet find a satisfyingly concrete action for. Grief is always shifting, moving, changing. Ironically, grief comes out of death but feels fiercely alive.
If you had to describe your grief as a literal landscape, what would it look like and feel like?
Katie lived in the Highlands of Scotland for many years. I have visited the area many times and find great comfort in the barren, windswept, cold and rugged landscape. The beauty in apparent desolation is what really hooks me. It's knowing that there's beauty where others can't necessarily see it. Beauty in pain, beauty in death, beauty in grief. The paradox is very powerful to me and a really important touchstone; it helps save me from going down a rabbit hole of despair.
Tell me about an object that reminds you of the person who died, and why?
Rocks and boulders. Ideally large ones at the seaside (Cape Town is littered with them and we spent hours playing and picnicking on and around them as children and as adults). No two are alike and they look so different from every angle. They're always more than meets the eye, either from a distance or when examining their surfaces from up close. The boulders here literally shine when you look at them closely because of the quartz in them.
How have the people in your life supported you in your grief? What was helpful? What was frustrating?
An unexpected by-product of Katie's death was, for the first time, being able to say no to people. My world shrank to the bare essentials overnight and I didn't have my usual capacity for people. Some were very supportive and understanding of my needing space and time, others less so. This allowed me to do a long overdue sorting of people I really wanted in my life from those who were superfluous. Death by suicide also comes with a lot of stigma, with many people making incredibly judgemental and insensitive comments. I don't think these were meant to be cruel, I just think some people don't think before they blurt. I've become acutely aware of how difficult people find it to talk about death, and to let me talk about my sister. The best moments are from those who do remember to ask. It is the most thoughtful, compassionate and comforting act for someone to ask me to tell them about Katie. Not her death, but her life. For them to actually ask how I am, for them to listen, truly listen and just be there, without trying to make things better or fix what can't be fixed.
How did people who were grieving the same person respond to the death compared to you? What similarities and differences did you notice?
I tend to think of the groups of grievers for Katie as concentric circles. The inner circle housed my parents, myself, and my younger sister Wendy. My parents are divorced, but both are remarried, so they had their spouses for support. Wendy has a long-term partner and I have my husband, so we were all very fortunate. I experienced all of our partners as a forcefield around our inner family circle.
We did implode in our own unique ways at different stages. My mother was stoic, but completely broken. My father, who hadn't known how severe Katie's depression had become, was shocked and traumatized, spilling over emotionally in what I considered inappropriate ways. My younger sister Wendy and I seemed mostly on the same page; however, to this day she hasn't wanted to know the details of how Katie died. This isn't a secret, but just a place she doesn't want to go. Wendy and I felt responsible for managing our parents, and I felt responsible for looking after Wendy.
Our cousins, aunts and uncles were the next ring of the circle. I think they just maintained a holding pattern in typical WASP fashion because they had no idea what to do. Katie's friends were wonderful. To this day I feel that through Katie's death I gained more sisters. Even though they were grieving themselves they never asked anything of us, they just helped and supported and did whatever was needed. They were the “me” I felt like I couldn't be to anyone other than Wendy at that point, and for that I am forever grateful to them.
Then the outer ring were people whom I didn't even know. Friends and colleagues of Katie's who sent messages of support, cards, flowers, and memories of what she had meant to them. I often feel people can't really appreciate how comforting these small acts of kindness are.
Overall, we all initially felt shock and despair, but then moved in very different ways of processing what had happened to us as a family, us as sisters, us as individuals. These have been fragile paths. I'm always aware of not wanting to upset anyone in my family; I don't want to say the wrong thing or start an emotional snowball. At the same time I feel this has left us all in quite isolated spaces of grief. I'm now in a place where I really want to talk about her, to share memories and focus more on her life than on her death. This is still delicate territory though.
Has anything surprised you about your experience with grief?
I'm surprised by how strongly my survival instinct kicked in at first. While everyone else fell apart I was the most organized, efficient, proactive member of the family. I've found it fascinating to be able to look back and reflect on my own behaviour, how all of my usual personality traits intensified, both the good and the bad. I probably ran on adrenaline for the first year or so after Katie's death and had to work hard at coming down from that, feeling okay about feeling okay—that this wasn't a betrayal—and managing the shockwaves of grief that sometimes still come out of the most unexpected places. When I do have the chance to share with others who have experienced loss I have found it a privilege to be able to talk, listen, cry, or just be present. Grief can be a gift if you choose to embrace it rather than bracing against it.
How has your private grieving related to your public mourning?
Public mourning has been a challenge for me. My vocation involves looking after others, so I find it very hard to allow others to look after me. I feel I need to be reliable and consistent, and tell myself that there is no space to fall apart at work. In a way my work has always been a safe place of competence. A place where I enjoy being seen as someone who does a good job, helps others, and doesn't even have a bad day. It's a mask, as everyone has bad days, but I wouldn't let anyone see this in public. Privately I let loose a bit more, and I've had to work very hard on not feeling compelled or obliged to be there for everyone else in my family. I do worry about being a burden to my husband: at what point will he run out of patience with having a wife who spontaneously combusts into a flood of tears for no apparent reason? I sometimes wish I could have a meter on my forehead, ranging from good to very fragile, so I wouldn't always feel the need to explain myself. Someone could just look at the meter and know where I'm at and give me a hug.
Was there anything about your cultural or religious background that affected the grieving process for you?
In the wake of Katie's death I have wished, many times, that I was a religious person. Religion gives you ritual, and ritual around grief is something I feel I'm still grasping at straws for. However, when it comes to belief in the afterlife, this doesn't bother me at all. Katie is free; she no longer has to feel a pain which had become unbearable to her. I know she's fine wherever she is. It's being left behind that's the hard part. If I keep perspective, if I breathe, if I don't dwell in the past and if I fight the urge to try to control the future, the present is manageable in most moments, and for that I'm grateful. The present is all any of us have.
Were there any personal or public rituals or structures that helped you in your grief?
I love photography and developed a personal ritual after Katie's death. Taking pictures is a creative outlet I find satisfying and rewarding. Whenever I feel an overwhelming sadness I look around and try to find something beautiful to photograph, to remind me that there's still beauty, even in grief. “Beauty in grief” has become a mantra of sorts for me, a silver lining, a reminder of Katie, of a beautiful life and of so much still to live for.
How has your loss and your experience of grief changed you?
I think I'm more empathic toward other people's grief now than I would have been in the past, and I feel far more equipped to be helpful. To not shy away from the pain or the tears, to be there in the long term, not just during the initial shock, to not offer advice or try to make things better, but just to listen and support. I also feel I'm more selfish with my emotional resources. While I'll pour love into relationships that are reciprocal, I find it challenging to be in places and spaces which I don't feel are engaging or nurturing. Less is more, and my life is a lot simpler than it used to be.
Pam Hoffman is a Clinical Social Worker living with her husband and house rabbit in Cape Town, South Africa. She enjoys buying more books than she has time to read, loves caring for her indoor jungle which is taking over the apartment, has a penchant for things being organized neatly and is partial to tea and cookies on a daily basis.