Reflections from the Fire: Grieving from Adolescence into Adulthood

By Karen Haffey

“And then I step, in and over and through…I would walk across the fire for you.”

This line is from a poem I wrote recently and the “you” is me. What comes out of these words is the profound awareness that I would walk across fire for myself and that I have a fire for life burning brightly inside me.

So what does this have to do with death and dying and grieving losses? Well, for me, it has everything to do with this journey. While it’s not a journey I would consciously choose and, given the choice now, would still request the precious lives of my sister and brother returned to this earth, it is a journey that has taught me so much about living…about loving the fire within, be that rage or joy, tears or laughter.

Laura and Greg both had a blood disorder called Aplastic Anemia. Neither of them was born with it and they were not sick at the same time. My sister became sick when she was five and died nine months later, at the age of six, before my brother ever showed signs of the illness. Several months after her death, he became sick. He lived for two and a half more years and died shortly before his fourteenth birthday. No explanation was ever found as to where the disease came from and why it struck both of them.

I was twelve when Laura died and fifteen when Greg died. This left me the only living child of my parents. There are many times I have stood among friends and loved ones feeling so completely alone and isolated, like my siblings got the better end of the stick. They got to leave. I had to stay behind to live through the muck and mud and messiness of it all.

Without being aware of it, I retreated to far away places inside myself for a long time. On the outside I continued to lead a relatively “normal” life, completing highschool and university, starting a career, getting married, having supportive friendships, and more. But when I got sick myself, at the age of twenty-six, I began to realize how deeply I still hurt and how much was buried in my body.

It was around this time that I became more conscious of the voice inside that keeps calling me to live. And despite the challenges that lay ahead, I invited this voice to propel me forward…into the fire. I began to travel back from those far away places inside myself where I had retreated. I began to make lifestyle choices – from what I ate to how I spent my time to who I spent my time with – that supported my (sometimes reluctant) choice to live.

Now, six years later, I’m healthy and alive! I can look in the mirror and see sparks of my own fire and my vibrancy for life that grows with each passing day. I have cried and ached and asked “why me?” and felt tremendous loneliness and hurt beyond where I imagined hurt could take me. And…I experience grace; grace is the place I return to again and again, when the tears of old and new wounds surface. I have grieved, and I grieve, and still grace finds me and takes my hand and reminds me of the fire that burns brightly inside.

I couldn’t have spoken of this fire when I was twelve or fifteen. I didn’t know I had it. But it was there, quietly helping me to survive, quietly supporting me through the next minute…hour…day …week…year. A low flame, keeping the wood burning just enough that my fire didn’t go out, building a bed of intense and enduring coals that would be fuel for me when I was ready.

This is what death and dying and grieving losses teaches me: that in walking through their fire, I can know myself. While I wish I could have chosen less painful ways to come to know myself, for me it began through the incredible emptiness that death can leave. Today, I see that my fire never completely went out, even when I felt in utter darkness.

 

The twentieth anniversary of my sister’s death passed recently. That day opened wounds I wanted to believe I had fully tended. Honestly, though, I’m not sure I will ever fully tend those wounds because loving someone so deeply opens me up. And isn’t that what living is about…bursting open to the fullness of one’s flames, tending the fire of life, and trusting that it will tend to me when I need to retreat?

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