“The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe.” —Joanna Rogers Macy
By Cat Saunders
Which is worse: to lose a loved one to death, or to have someone you love disappear? I’ve thought a lot about that question since my sister left the family in 1978, when I was 24. For me, her departure made a wound that can never quite heal; it will always bleed a little. It’s as if my sister is missing in action. Except she disappeared on purpose and she doesn’t want to be found.
It’s not that I blame her for leaving. If she hadn’t left first, I might have done so myself. As it was, I didn’t have the heart to “bereave” my parents of both their daughters. It wasn’t easy to stay, but ultimately, it was the right choice for me. Ironically, my sister’s departure greatly influenced my decision to stay.
For years, I wanted to write about how much my sister helped me by dying to the family. But I was afraid to break the family rule: “Don’t talk about the family outside the family.” I was also afraid that I could never adequately express, in writing, the power of my sister’s legacy. Nor could I do justice to the depth of love that I felt for her.
If you’ve ever lost someone “prematurely,” you can probably understand the endless contortions, and the magical thinking, of a brain trying to make sense of too much pain. In the end, my hopes and fears gave way to something more important: my own life. I can write about my sister now because I can finally do it for me, not for her.
Death Comes in the Mourning
My first experience with death came not when someone died, but when my sister first left home. It was 1962, and I was eight. My 18-year-old sister was leaving for college out of state. The night before she left, she came into my bedroom to say goodbye. I still remember how inconsolably I wept.
That loss was amplified 16 years later, in 1978, when my sister left in a much bigger way. At that point, she’d already been living out of the country for years, in Vancouver, B.C. Despite the physical distance, however, we had always stayed in touch the way writers do, with long letters. My sister had the most extraordinary handwriting of anyone I’ve ever known. It was as if every letter was sculpted.
My sister was, in fact, a sculptor. I still remember the show she did at Henry Gallery at the University of Washington. The show was part of her work to complete her Master of Fine Arts degree in sculpture. I remember how much I loved every sculpture, drawing, painting, and carving that came out of her.
My sister was not only my first teacher as a writer, but also my first teacher as an artist. I can still feel the influence of her spirit in my work. I’d give anything to see how her art has evolved since she left the family.
I may never get that chance. Sometime in 1978, I met my folks for brunch at a restaurant in Seattle. We were chatting about various things when I asked if they’d heard from Adrianne (the name she used at the time). There was dead silence, then a question: “Do you really want to know?” Of course I did.
They pulled out a letter and read it aloud. I don’t recall much of the letter, except the punch line: My sister wanted to sever all contact with the family. I was stunned, not only because she was leaving, but because she said nothing to me personally. At least, not in English.
A Message in the Hieroglyphs
The last thing I remember receiving from my sister was a self-portrait she gave me a few years before her official exit letter. The drawing, which was dated 28 January 1974, showed her walking out from a gray background covered in hieroglyphs. The drawing piqued my curiosity, because I knew she’d studied Egyptian hieroglyphs. “What does it mean?” I asked.
With the ferocity of a hawk, she fixed her gaze on me and said, “You figure it out!” I was silenced. I don’t remember any interactions with her after that.
Many years later, in graduate school at Antioch University in Seattle, I did try to figure it out. First, I took it to an Egyptologist at the University of Washington. The Egyptologist was immediately struck by Adrianne’s clothing and facial features. Apparently, she looked Egyptian. The expert also said that my sister had combined personal and classical use of the glyphs. Therefore the meaning couldn’t be accurately discerned without the artist’s input.
Despite this discouraging news, the Egyptologist gave me several good leads for research. One major discovery was the fact that paintings or drawings for Egyptian tombs often depicted the deceased person walking out from a gray background covered with hieroglyphs, just like my sister’s drawing.
To me, this indicated that my sister knew she was going to “die” to the family. If so, then she was trying to tell me about this long before she notified the rest of the family. Unfortunately, I didn’t understand her hieroglyphic message until 1984, many years after she’d left.
In the background of the drawing are five cartouches, which are enclosed oblong areas with hieroglyphs inside. Cartouches often depict someone’s name. These cartouches seemed to correspond to the five members of my family: my parents, my sister, my brother, and me. As I studied the symbols in the cartouches, I was amazed by my sister’s ability to see and represent the essence of each person.
For humor, she had drawn a little Christmas ornament at the bottom of the hieroglyphs. In the midst of the seriousness, her trickster always found a way in. How I loved her humor! Despite the fact that my sister could be quite stern, I remember her laughter most of all. It was deep and throaty, straight from the gut, no holds barred. I would recognize that laugh anywhere.
The Pool of Grief
Like a steady drumbeat, my sister’s legacy was always there in the background, keeping rhythm with my life. One of the most powerful gifts of her absence was its continual instruction in grief. Over time, my efforts to heal the pain gave way to a desire to simply be with it. I began to see that certain wounds are not given so that I may fix them, but so that I may love them.
Gradually, I realized that there was nothing I needed to do when my grief overcame me except weep and acknowledge the loss. I could hold the pain tenderly in my awareness, like an infant in my arms. Needless to say, this change in my intention changed the quality of my grief.
Because of losing my sister in this way, I learned about the “Pool of Grief,” which is what I call the reservoir of my most profound losses. When something pierces me to the core, I can access any or all of these losses in the Pool of Grief.
Once the floodgates are open, I can also work with the collective pool of grief. My pain is your pain is everybody’s pain. In other words, grief is precious to me because it is the source of my compassion.
The Cornerstone of Love Is Respect
Many years ago, when I told a woman friend about my sister’s leaving, she said, “If that had happened in my family, we would have tracked her down, beat on the door, and demanded that she let us in!” I was shocked because my family was so different. I couldn’t understand how anyone could think that they have a right to anyone else.
For me, the cornerstone of love is respect, one definition of which is “to refrain from interfering with” (Webster’s). I can want whatever I want in regard to my sister, but whatever she gives — or doesn’t give — is entirely up to her. She owes me nothing. In fact, she has already given me so much that I can never repay her.
Given that I can’t repay her, I’d at least like to thank her. Since she’s not available for that, I’d like to close by offering some personal THANK YOU’s, as if she was here, listening.
THANK YOU for being my only sister, because you’ve been my ally throughout life, both before and after you left.
THANK YOU for being my older sister, and thanks for putting up with me when I was obnoxious, as I surely must have been, as a little sister who adored you.
THANK YOU for being my big sister, not just in age, but in height, for you taught me to celebrate being tall.
THANK YOU for being my first writing teacher, my first teacher in the visual arts, and my first teacher in the art of living with passion.
THANK YOU for sharing your love of music and dance, and for being a true Bohemian long before I knew what that word meant.
THANK YOU for encouraging my wildness, and for modeling full-bodied womanhood.
THANK YOU for being the only one in our family who didn’t criticize, ridicule, or disown me when I changed my name for the first time—to Cat Dancing.
THANK YOU for teaching me to be myself by being yourself.
THANK YOU for your extraordinary sensitivity, and for writing to me about being woken from sleep by the sound of falling snow.
THANK YOU for your tenderness, your toughness, your brilliance, your gentleness, your wisdom, your outrageousness, your courage, your intensity, your contradictions, your humor, your unquenchable sense of wonder, and your great hugs.
THANK YOU for teaching me, by leaving, that survival of the soul is more important than anything, including family.
THANK YOU for all the times I cried my heart out, missing you, because every time I wept, my compassion deepened.
THANK YOU for taking care of yourself, even though it meant leaving me, because taking care of yourself is the best gift you could ever give me.
Go well, dear sister. I love you. I forgive you. Please forgive me. Thank you.
This article is from a series on death originally published by The New Times (1998-99) and updated in September 2017.
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).