Saying good-bye

 

This past week I said a final good-bye to my sister, Leanne. She died in May, and after months of waiting for the coronavirus to abate enough for family and friends to get together for a memorial service, it was ultimately decided that it was time. Anyone willing to go was welcome and there were no hard feelings toward those who could not be there. My family and I decided that we needed the closure so we made the 20 hour drive to rural Minnesota.

In preparation for and throughout my time there, I found myself constantly reflecting on my sister and her life. I regret that I did not take more time to talk with her in her final months, yet I am aware that my fear of her reactions prevented me from doing so. Leanne was frequently angry and often lashed out, sometimes indiscriminately. Hers was a very personal anger. At times Leanne seemed to feel that she was being persecuted, conversely she believed that everything bad that happened in her life was connected to something she had or had not done. This sometimes made communicating with her a bit tricky, but it was how she adapted to our volatile upbringing.

My dad was often a scary and violent man. My mom was unable to stand up to him and protect herself or her children. In short, we had severely dysfunctional relationships in our family. As my older sister, Leanne alternated between hating me, getting me into trouble, and saving me from my dad’s wrath. I wasn’t always sure when or if to trust her — but I knew as long as she was around I could count on her to either run interference with or help me escape from my dad. After Leanne moved to central Minnesota upon graduating from high school , I found another means of escape — I got pregnant and ultimately moved out on my own. I still had to deal with my dad’s craziness, but at least I didn’t have to live with it. As soon as I could, I left Minnesota permanently and never looked back. My sister, on the other hand, had settled in central Minnesota and was raising her family.

My two brothers had left years earlier so when I moved away it was just Leanne and Dad left in Minnesota. It’s a big state but it’s amazing how small it can feel when you have never felt safe. I didn’t stop to consider this nor how my leaving impacted Leanne until about ten years ago, when she told me how terrified she was of my dad. I was just starting as a trauma therapist at that time and my response was to assure Leanne that it was “her fear” of my dad, not any actual danger, that was causing her terror. She accused me of using psychobabble on her. She was right. My dad was and always had been a real threat.

I didn’t realize it until then but Leanne thought it was her responsibility to “take care of dad.” It was not until I told her her that no one expected her to take care of him that she seemed to feel relieved of that particular burden. Dad was, after all, capable of terrorizing Leanne and her family on a regular basis so he certainly could take care of himself. I guess Leanne had been seeking permission to stop protecting everyone else and start protecting herself from dad, because she filed for a restraining order shortly thereafter.

After her cancer diagnosis, Leanne apologized to me, as if it were her fault that she got cancer. That haunts me, and I wish I had taken the time to help her understand it wasn’t so. I wish I had taken the time to help her understand that so many of the things she blamed herself for were not her fault nor her responsibility.

More recently, Leanne confided in me that she never thought she meant very much to anyone, or that anyone really cared about her. I assured her that she was wrong — that she was loved and cared for deeply by family and friends. I don’t know if she believed me, but this time I know for a fact that I was right.

 

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