This is not a manual. This is not a thank you list. This is catharsis.
This is what holding space really looks like before, during, and after the death of my sister.
I am unabashed to be completely honest, raw, and intimate, because I need to do this for myself, to get things out, to clear out my insides.
I started this piece of writing on my iPhone on May 12th and added to it daily, but could never finish because I’d get weepy and depressed and end up sleeping or eating my day away. My grief chronicles have been helping me cope these past 18 months, so here’s hoping I’ll feel better after this word vomit.
Some days I want to tell the world a lot of things, like how cmm and I have got it all figured out with our series of long and short term plans in life.
I’ll get the house and make the kids with fbil, she’d get the dogs and cats and live in our attic or basement, I’d fill the house with books, she’d fill the house with musical instruments, we’d make a home. I’d finish my degree, do well enough to clinch a job immediately, get married in July, move back to be with her after the wedding, rent an apartment, and support the both of us on my new job. We’d have the wedding in July because she’ll be able to schedule a break from chemo, rest up, and look chio for the wedding because she’s a vainpot. She’d finish up this round of chemo, then join me on the tail-end of my work trip to Fukuoka this June, and we’d fly to Tokyo to see W & J.
We Abidin Sisters, we’ve been through a shitload in life, but we’re also problem-solvers and big dreamers. We make do, make dreams, then make things happen. You know?
All this is very precious to me, and I will remember all of it in my heart every day. Memories are not what we remember but what we choose not to forget.
But for now, I want to recollect and document what holding space really looks like – my sister for me, me for my sister, others for me, me for others. The cycle is complex and the list long. And this is barely organised, for this is catharsis.
Holding space for my sister means I continue to treat her as a full adult. I do not baby talk to her. I do not talk down to her. I do not coddle her. In Abidin Sister speak, I do not speak to her as if she were a rabbit. It means our relationship is Business As Usual. It means that our interactions and exchanges are the same as they have always been, because I am her constant, because she craves normalcy, because she has already relinquished much independence and power.
Holding space for my sister means I protect her from all the white noise. It means that there are older grownups who are suddenly asserting their kinship, power, and displaced affect, but I tell them to take it elsewhere. It means that people speak about her, of her, around her, as if she were not in the room at all, but I tell them to take it elsewhere. It means some of these folks think her ailing body becomes public property, and attempt to adjust her pillows or soothe her aches or brush her hair without her permission such that it annoys her, but I tell them to take it elsewhere. It means that there are curious bystanders and gossip mongers among those who genuinely care, but I tell them to take it elsewhere. It means that when under stress and pressure, even those who genuinely care start to compete regarding the dissemination, authenticity, and pace of “the latest update”, but I tell them to take it elsewhere. It means that while everyone wants to feel helpful, some times I have to politely tell them they are not helping the situation at all.
Holding space for my sister means I rebuke her when absolutely necessary. It means that she may be irrationally upset with her closest and dearest people for unrelated issues, as displaced anger. And when this gets out of hand, it means I up my Abidin Sister authority to help her see, to teach her to cope, to nudge her to manage, even as I cannot empathise with her physical pain and emotional toil myself. It means that while we have our downtime and see through layers of performative grief, we are always honest, always genuine, always sincere, yet always prayerful, always hopeful, and always faithful. It means I have to reflect and amplify the principles and beliefs we share, to remind her when she is too tired to remember, to remember for her when she is too agonised to care.
Holding space for my sister means I acknowledge that I cannot meet all her needs. It means that I joyfully, peacefully, willingly take a backseat when other loved ones in my sister’s life can meet her specific needs better than I can. It means I do not get jealous, I do not see envy, I do not covet, and I do not feel dispensable when her affective network of loving friends and family are interwoven into her care. It means I learn to recognise and respect all the people inside her bubble, I rope in more of them from her various facets of life, and I protect and sustain this bubble as these good folk slip in and out of her day.
Holding space for my sister means to hold her gaze firmly when she tells me she is ready to die. I don’t respond to her. I don’t discourage her. I don’t encourage her. Deep inside I want to tell her a million things, but in this time my role is to be here for her and to listen, and inside myself, I pray. It means I just sit here and cradle her and steadily hold her gaze while she tells me she wants to die. It means I try very hard not to cry so as to maintain this atmosphere, so that she can have her catharsis without concern that she is burdening me. It means I just be fully present as her sounding board, without empathy eyes, without pitiful hmmms and ummms, without judgement, and without input. It means I become her receptacle in this exchange, to collect all her negative feelings and thoughts in words and gestures, and I take it all away from her, with me, until I next find the time to go somewhere to unload.
It means I learn to avoid the gaze of selected people in the room so as not to break down and cry myself silly, because I need to be fully present and alert and aware of my sister’s needs. It means I also learn to differentiate when she is merely throwing a tantrum out of pain, when she genuinely wants to go off her meds, and when she sincerely wants to affectdump and muse about mortality. It means I code switch and respond accordingly, some times with silence, some times with prayer, some times with words, some times with gestures, some times with one of the five hundred codes from our Abidin Sister language. It means I activate my discernment from our years of intimacy to listen, perceive, and understand what she needs.
It means that sometimes the older grownups watch our exchange and assume that I am doing nothing for my sister, that my silence is encouraging her, discouraging her, disparaging her, yet I do not falter. It means that they raise their voices and yell at me in her presence, yet I do not falter. It means they involuntarily commit rude gestures at us, yet I do not falter. It means that they hear me hollering “see you later, mei!” as I leave her ward for a short dinner break, and literally speak behind my back to ask “how can she still be so happy when her sister is sick?”, yet I do not falter. It means that they pressure me to convince my sister to make hasty medical decisions, yet I do not falter, but I stand my ground from having committed to be her spokesperson, and insist on preserving my sisterly space as one of love and joy and support, not pressure. It means that they rage at me in the corridor of the hospital, and repeatedly deride me: “don’t you have a PhD? aren’t you very educated? aren’t you very smart? can’t you understand?”, yet I do not falter. It means that in their anger, they literally tiptoe over me to holler “this is your responsibility. if she dies, it is your fault. because you didn’t love her enough”, yet I do not falter.
It means I quickly convince myself that they simply do not understand the language my sister and I share, and the work I am doing for her. It means that I do not speak back or retaliate, but allow them to air all their miscalculated grievances and assaults because they do not understand, and probably because this is how they are attempting to display care and concern when they are at their wits’ end. It means that my commitment to my sister to act as her spokesperson and disseminate her wishes and decisions as a full adult takes precedence over all these immediate pressures. It means I also become their receptacle in this exchange, to collect all their negative feelings and thoughts in words and gestures, and I take it all away from them, with me, until I next find the time to go somewhere to unload.
My sister held space for me by allowing me to be the last person to cradle her, to soothe her, to laugh with her, in the final hours of her consciousness. My sister held space for me when I was the last person to hold her hand, to pray for her, to hug her body, before they took her away. My sister held space for me when I was the last person to leave her casket, to kiss her forehead, to weep for her, before they cremated her body. My sister held space for me when I started packing up her room, and found presents and notes and letters sneakily stashed away for me.
It has been my greatest privilege to love my sister, and my greatest honour to have been her sister. Thank you for loving me. I love to you.
So many people have loved us and cared for us in this time. There are a handful of quirky ones that I will always be fond of.
I share these ones about clothes because my sister would be judging me for my fashion choices and my attachment to the things we share:
My partner held space for me when he didn’t understand why I needed to sit in my sister’s closet and hug all her clothes while weeping myself crazy, but he sat with me.
My MIL-to-be held space for me when she ironed my sister’s clothes for me to wear to the memorial service; nothing fit, nothing looked formal, and there were certainly more pressing things in tow, but she did it for me.
My SIL-to-be held space for me when she rushed to Muji to get a pair of pants exchanged for me; I had bought it for my sister, and needed a smaller size because I wanted to wear it for the memorial service. It must have sounded gruesomely sentimental and selfish, but she did it for me.
My FIL-to-be held space for me when he brought my yellow shoes to church; my sister and I had planned to wear yellow shoes at my wedding, and I wanted to wear them for the memorial service. It must have sounded vain and inappropriate, but he did it for me.
I share these ones about my sister’s friends because she would be highfive-ing everyone for being super chillax pals:
My sister’s friends held space for me when the hamster network (because one of my hundred nicknames for my sister is hamsterface) subtweeted her memorial service on our private chat, making aesthetic judgement calls on floral colour palettes, secretly grief policing the extremely sombre mood of the service, questioning the choice of makeup on her face, because #cmmisjudgingyou.
My sister’s friends held space for me when they went up to her casket after most people had left, to do their thing. Some spoke to her. Some read her poems. Some played her songs. Some told jokes and laughed with her. My favourite two bunnies even sang and danced with her, just like old times.
My sister’s friends held space for me when her favourite bunch from cogy had their final sleepovers with her in the sanctuary, when they escorted her casket from the church to the memorial hall, when they were the last to leave her casket, when they were right in the front to witness her cremation, when they resumed their selfie rituals, when they quickly pulled together a mad dimsum feast, as if she were still here.
I consider all my sister’s friends mini-horcruxes because each of them give off a bit of her vibe when we interact. That’s her gesture. That’s her saying. That’s her thing. That’s her spirit. This is all some kind of beautiful.
Every day I feel like a lameass ex-boy/girlfriend of sorts reliving our favourite haunts and things, and every thing reminds me of my sister and of us as a unit. Some times it brings me great comfort and joy, some times it paralyses me with grief. My person reckons that in time to come, all my sad memories associated with these totems will become happy, celebratory capsules. I can’t wait for this to happen.
Every day I feel like dying inside, but every day I feel less and less like I’m dying inside. Also, my kickass friends love me and gift me ridiculous things like Hello Kitty socks even though I am a grownass 28-year-old.
Every day I tell myself “slowly, but surely”.