When Your Sister Dies, Anything Can Be A Trigger

by Julissa Catalan

I find myself feeling guilty for not being sad enough — the way my two other sisters get — on days like my dead sister's birthday, holidays, or even the anniversary of her death. It's as if a switch is supposed to turn on these particular days and you're meant to experience some influx of memories and emotions. For me, it is quite the opposite. I get flooded with random remembrances on any given day, and that is when I miss her the most. I am far more likely to become hysterical on a drive to the market on any old Tuesday than on Christmas, simply because I miss her all the time.

With a big family like ours, holidays and birthdays — the days that are supposed to make me feel saddest — are actually a bit distracting. Of course, I am sad she isn’t there, and my instinct is still to reserve the seat next to hers at every family meal. But, like her wake and funeral, holidays are also a distraction. It's once there are no more events to attend, when people stop dropping off trays of food and checking in on you — that is when the reality actually sets in. That’s when the unexpected moments hit you.

Emma died on June 25, one year after the King of Pop. His music played on every radio station the day she passed. I remember driving to my mother’s house, where hospice had set Emma up, and having an eerie feeling in my gut, knowing that his music was somehow a sign. I felt that she too would die on that date, and I was right. These days, I do not turn on the radio, and I try to stay away from any businesses that play music. I make sure my iPod isn’t set to shuffle, because I do still have a couple of MJ albums on there. I live in fear of being triggered.

Like when I am in my car, annoyed by traffic, only to realize that it isn’t roadwork that is holding me up, but a funeral procession; having to sit there and watch a long row of cars slowly follow one another from the funeral home to the church with a bright orange sign on each dashboard that reads "FUNERAL."

I purposely stay away from sister-related movies. I must be the only person on the planet who has not and will not see Frozen. I couldn’t understand why our sister Mirna chose to watch My Sister’s Keeper on a flight to Austin, Texas. All I could think as I sat next to her was: Why set yourself up? Mirna cried for most of the flight while I calmly ate my peanuts.

It was as if on that drive to her house I had forgotten she died — I didn't realize it until I parked my car in what used to be her driveway.

Still, I get caught off-guard. I remember the feeling I had when I saw Adam Sandler’s Happy People. The title misled me to believe that this film would be, well, happy. No — it was about a comedian dying of cancer. A regular night at the movies with friends quickly turned into me uncontrollably crying as I watched Sandler with his face in a toilet bowl as he acted out the effects of chemotherapy.

It happened to me again when I went to see The Best Man Holiday at the movie theater. I went alone, as I like to do from time to time. Like the original film, the movie trailer led me to believe that this was going to be about a scandalous group of friends reuniting, this time for the holidays. What the preview left out is that one of the friends had terminal cancer and was hosting her friends at her home over Christmas because she knew it would be the last time they would see each other. I was bawling my eyes out as I sat by myself.

Then there are the moments that seem to come out of nowhere. Months after my sister Emma died of colon cancer, I drove to her house hoping to have some girl talk, just like we always did. With her house key still on my keychain, I expected to show up unannounced and let myself in. I wanted to walk through her front door, say hello to her kids, head straight to her room. I wanted to bust in and throw myself next to her on the bed, with a defeated fix-my-life-for-me expression on my face. It was as if on that drive to her house I had forgotten she died — I didn't realize it until I parked my car in what used to be her driveway. She didn’t live there anymore; she didn't live anywhere anymore. I didn't know what to do without her telling me what to do.

Every day I feel like my family is incomplete, and I don’t need a special occasion to remind me of that. I can remember it whenever I look around expecting to see my sister, or when I have the instinct to pick up the phone and call her, only to remember she's gone.

Images: Julissa Catalan