DEATH:ONE MOTHER'S STORY
by Christine Ratliff
I lay in
my bed, warm and anxious to sleep. A balmy summer breeze lifted the
curtains beside me, dancing with them like a gentle ghost. Staring
out the window at the millions of twinkling stars, I felt small and
In a few short weeks, my junior high days would be over. I was ambivalent
about it coming to an end and it frightened me, the way I had no choice
in the matter.
Tomorrow night was the freshman prom - my first formal dance. I glanced
over at my gown; its antique ivory lace and seashell pink sash shimmered
in the moonlight.
How I longed for my sister to come home. A girl needed her big sister
on nights like this. I missed the talks we'd once shared, night after
night, beside each other in our twin beds.
In just one more week, she'd be a high school graduate. She'd been
out, night after night with carloads of her friends, celebrating their
In two months, she'd head off to college in another state and I'd
be alone in our room for the first time ever. Tears slid down my cheeks,
dampening my pillow. I wasn't ready for things to change.
the phone rang downstairs, interrupting my thoughts. It was nearly
11 p.m. - too late for the phone to be ringing on a school night.
I ran downstairs to see who it was and found my mother, sobbing on
the couch. She looked so small and vulnerable suddenly, ringing her
hands, her words choked with tears.
There's been an accident," she managed, in a voice I did not
been in an accident." I hugged my mother, willing her to calm
down. She was beginning to frighten me.
I said with certainty, "I'm sure she's fine. She probably just
broke her leg or something." My sister, with her flowing, chestnut
hair, her lingering scent of perfume that hung in the air of our home
long after she'd gone out for the night, was so enchanted with life,
so hungry for all it had to offer, that she seemed invincible to me.
That night though, while she and her friends rushed home, speeding
to make curfew, they crashed head-on into a telephone pole, the force
of the impact splitting both car and pole in two.
Jenni was dead. My parents and I could not have been any less prepared.
Grief is a unique process for everyone. After Jenni's funeral, our
house swarmed with people bearing more food than any family could
possible eat in a year. It looked like a party but the feelings were
all wrong. I escaped to a deserted playground with a stolen pack of
Kools in my pocket. I longed to punish myself. I sat in the swing
and cried, choking on cigarette smoke, expecting my horrible feelings
to swallow me up, leaving me dead like my sister.
to establish some kind of control in the midst of this uncontrollable
situation, I made two decisions that day. The first was that I would
not eat. I would refuse to nourish my body and allow myself to live
while my sister lay buried beneath the ground. The second was that
I was a really bad person. Why else would God allow this to happen?
Somehow, with these two thoughts clear in my mind, I felt better,
unable to cope with her grief, began drinking gin in the morning instead
of coffee. My father, a tough, ex-Marine, the epitome of strength,
would attempt to tell jokes, to maintain his same old sense of humor,
but tears slid, unacknowledged, down his gaunt cheeks.
We never shared our feelings. Each of us, instead, sought out various
unsuccessful methods of appearing strong, of holding up well. We did
not see that our reactions were only compounding our misery.
Jenni has been dead for 25 years.
For too long, I traveled a path littered with every possible form
of self-destruction. Then, in my early 20's, I discovered that I was
pregnant. It took having another heartbeat inside me to even begin
to consider the possibility of a life for myself, a future. In loving
and caring for my daughter I have learned to love and care for myself.
And in watching my daughter grow and experiencing her innocence, I
have learned also to forgive myself. I was a child. There were so
many things I did not understand.
I wonder how different my life would have been, had I allowed myself
to grieve? How big a difference would it have made if I know all of
my "crazy" feelings were, in fact, quite typical? What if
I'd joined a support group of other teens dealing with similar losses?
What if I hadn't tried so hard to be strong?
If we can
work together to educate parents, teachers and other caring adults
about the process of grieving, the warning signs and possibly catastrophic
results of unexpressed grief, perhaps another teenager will handle
their loss in a healthier way that I did.
"Although the world is full of suffering," Heller Keller
wrote, "It is full also of the overcoming of it."