When a child is born, we celebrate together. We are filled with joy over this miracle. A baby is a sign of hope, faith, and new beginnings. We continue to celebrate this joy with each birthday.
When someone dies, we initially mourn together. Death reminds us of our vulnerabilities, doubts, and regrets. But, after a certain amount of time there seems to be a stigma attached to commemorating the anniversary of someone’s death. The bereaved are often asked why they would want to relive the sadness every year.
It’s not about reliving pain. Ignoring the anniversary of someone’s passing makes their life as incomplete as not remembering their birthday. Just as we cannot look at the birth of a child and deny the desire to celebrate, we should not deny the need to memorialize the end of one’s life, especially when that loss has altered our lives so profoundly.
Balancing these emotions is something I face every summer. I am always overwhelmed by the mutual feelings of mourning and celebration. As the heat of the season creeps in, time seems to stand still. I am taken back to a time when my world was turned upside down on July 1st, 1993. My sister was murdered, just three days before her 20th birthday on July 4th. At times the grief can be haunting. Even without thinking about the details of her untimely, tragic death, claustrophobic feelings surround me.
Learning to live my life without Stephanie continues to be a journey; it is not an annual evaluation. I will never stop missing her. Stephanie’s absence becomes more profound with every joyful milestone throughout the year. I also miss her in small, every day moments. For instance, my daughters have such a sweet and close relationship. Sometimes when I hear their laughter together, I find myself wanting to call Stephanie to tell her how much their relationship reminds me of our childhood.
Being an only child will always be unnatural to me. I was born into a family with an older sibling. Stephanie was there for me during the first 17 years of my life. Siblings are our first friends. We build hopes, dreams, and a relationship that cannot be filled by another human being. When a sibling dies, our future is tainted with sorrow knowing our sister, or brother should be there by our side. The void is always there. The greatest struggle is in allowing ourselves to experience joy again.
I remember not wanting to acknowledge my 18th birthday. It was my first celebration without Stephanie. I felt guilty celebrating knowing her life ended so early. It took me nearly a decade of hiding behind the shadows of guilt, depression, and self-destruction until I finally heard Stephanie’s voice in my heart. While quieting my mind, I believe she once reached me with the following words. I’ve been trying to live this way ever since.
I know you are forever heartbroken, but please live your life as if I am celebrating with you. Spend as much time as you can loving those close to you every day. It’s okay to be sad, but remember to get up and get out. Enjoy life. Live. Love. Smile.
Stephanie and I never had the chance to say goodbye. We had plans to see each other again. Sadly, those plans will not be in this lifetime. Until we meet again, I strive to embrace every moment with gratitude for the life I have been given. I live more purposefully for the life that was stolen from her. The only way to combat the violence that ended Stephanie’s life is to put love into everything, from my own self-care, to surrounding myself with friends and family, and sharing peace with strangers.
It’s not about acknowledging dates on a grave – it’s about honoring everything we learned from that person’s life in between their birth and death. It’s challenging to embrace new experiences, while grieving for something that can never change. However, our loved ones would want us to embrace the present and live as joyfully as possible. This is how we pay tribute to their memory.