On January 7th, 2016, my big sister, Lori Dempsey Robbins, passed away after an almost four year journey with ovarian cancer. Lori was 45 and the single mom of our 11 year old niece. She was my first friend and one of my greatest teachers.
Being with her through her illness and her death was one of the most challenging experiences of my life. There was so much sadness, pain, suffering, and fear involved. The whole thing was very hard to face – for her, for me, and for all of us around her. Trying to understand it all, make peace with what was happening, prepare for what was coming, and support her in a meaningful way was difficult, and, at times, seemed almost impossible. It was an intense reminder of the ultimate vulnerability of physical life and the inherent powerlessness of being human.
At the same time, there were many moments of beauty, joy, gratitude, healing, and love – throughout her illness (even when it got really bad towards the end), as she died, and after she passed. Lori and I experienced a transformation in our relationship over the past few years – we healed some old wounds and reconnected in a beautiful way, which was really meaningful to both of us.
She taught me and others a great deal as she faced cancer and death. And, the love, support, community connection, and appreciation that showed up around her through her illness, as she was dying, and after her passing were truly remarkable. She was loved and that love was expressed to her in many ways, and to all of us close to her, as she went through this painful process.
As my friend Glennon Doyle Melton says, life can be “brutiful,” (both brutal and beautiful at the same time). Lori’s cancer, her death, and my own journey of grief these past six months have been the epitome of “brutiful.” It is still surreal to me that she is gone. I sometimes feel tempted to ask my wife Michelle, as I did often in those first few days and weeks after she passed, “Did that really happen?”
Although I do feel Lori’s presence, have had a number of vivid dreams about her, and know it is possible for us to still connect and communicate in various ways, there have been so many times over the past six months when I’ve wanted to pick up the phone to call or to send her a text or email, only to remember I can no longer do that.
Lori’s death, along with the deaths of our dad back in 2001 and our mom in 2011, leaves me as the sole living member of my nuclear family – yet another aspect of this experience that is truly disorienting. I find myself feeling sad, scared, and lonely at times, as well as liberated, curious, and hopeful at other times. All in all, it feels weird – like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.
Through all of the twists and turns and the ups and downs of the past six months since Lori died and the past four plus years since she was diagnosed, I’ve learned a great deal (and am continuing to learn as I go). As my big sister, Lori was one of the most significant teachers in my life. Her teaching has continued, even through her death.
Here are some of the key things I’ve learned through this experience so far, which even with all of the pain and sadness, I’m grateful to have learned and to share:
1) Say I love you – One of my sister’s friends said to me, “Lori was the first friend I ever said ‘I love you’ to – because she said it to me. It used to drive me crazy and make me feel uncomfortable – we were in high school and friends just didn’t say that to each other. But, I finally caught on and it is one of the things I loved most about her.”
Lori always said “I love you,” which is something we learned from both of our parents, especially our dad. And, in the days and weeks after her passing, I was struck by the number of people who not only showed up with love and support for me and our family, but who actually said “I love you” to me – friends, family members, and even some business associates, colleagues, and clients. In some cases these were people who had never said this to me before, but in the face of my grief, loss, and sorrow, they did. It feels good to know we are loved and it is important that we let people know as often as we can, even if it feels scary, awkward, or uncomfortable to express it.
2) Be Proud of Who You Are and Where You’re From – My sister took pride in so many of the important roles and associations in her life. She was proud to be a woman, daughter, sister, and mother. She was proud to be from Oakland, CA and a graduate of Skyline High, Wesleyan University, and UC Berkeley. She was proud to have been born in 1970 and raised in the 70s and 80s. She was proud of her Irish Catholic and Ukrainian Jewish heritage. She was a proud sports fan of all of our teams here in the Bay Area, especially the Oakland A’s. She loved being connected to and associated with lots of different people and groups.
I used to make fun of her when we were younger for this – I didn’t totally understand or appreciate it. However, as I reflect back upon it, I realize that her commitment to people, relationships, and community manifested itself through her genuine pride and in her desire to enthusiastically claim connection to so many diverse groups, which was beautiful.
3) Don’t Waste Time Judging and Criticizing Yourself – As much pride as Lori took in where she was from and various groups she was directly or indirectly connected to, she didn’t always take pride in herself personally. Like most of us, she struggled to feel good about herself and to believe in her inherent value. As I was looking through lots of old photos from different phases of her life, I saw pictures of this beautiful, passionate, engaged girl, teen, young woman, and woman. In addition to the joy and sadness I felt looking at these photos, it also struck me that Lori, like me and so many of us, wasted a lot of her precious time and energy over her almost 46 years on the planet criticizing and judging herself. Whether it was her body and appearance, her relationship status, or her results in school, activities, or her career, she often felt like she wasn’t quite measuring up or wasn’t where she wanted to be.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Although I do realize it’s normal for us to criticize ourselves at times or to think we’re not good enough, the truth is that at some point whether we’re 10, 25, 45, 70, 105, or somewhere in between, we’re each going to die (although we tend to live somewhat in denial of this important fact). When we’re gone, someone will be looking back at photos and memories of us – do we want them thinking or saying, “Wow, I wonder why they thought they weren’t good enough?” Or, would we rather them think or say, “Wow, they really lived their lives to the fullest…how cool that they were able to appreciate themselves and their lives the way they did.” We have a choice about this – we don’t have to criticize and judge ourselves so harshly. It really doesn’t serve us in any way to do this.
4) People Are More Important Than Things – As I stood up to speak at Lori’s memorial service, I was struck by so many different thoughts, feelings, memories, and insights. There were people there from throughout her entire life – elementary school, junior high, high school, college, grad school, various jobs, companies, and communities, and more. Even with all of the twists and turns of my sister’s life, she always placed a priority on relationships. She taught me so many things about being a good friend, about how to communicate, about connecting people with each other, and about caring about people. Lori was a connector and she was loyal – she always remembered people and cared deeply about them.
As we all gathered in that church in Oakland in late January to celebrate her life, and people who could not join us in person sat in front of their computers to watch the livestream of the service, the things we talked about, remembered, and shared about my sister had mostly to do with the kind of person she was and the relationship we had with her. It wasn’t about accomplishments, awards, or things…it was about her, who she was (not what she did). All too often we get caught up in the “things” of life. And while there are some things in life that are truly important, in the end we are always reminded in a profound way that people are much more important than things.
5) Embrace the Mystical and Spiritual Nature of Life – One of the most interesting and challenging aspects of physical death is the mystery of it all. Why do some people die young while others live a long time? What really happens when we die? Where do we go? Do we come back? These and other questions like this have been pondered for generations and are at the heart of many of the world’s religious and spiritual teachings. While there are many thoughts, ideas, descriptions, and, of course, disagreements to the answers to these important questions, there aren’t definitive explanations or empirical proof.
Making peace with these questions, to whatever degree we’re able to make peace with them, takes faith and a willingness to embrace the unknown. And while our spiritual or religious beliefs play a major role in our perspective about this, one of the things I’ve experienced first-hand with the deaths of my dad, my mom, and now my sister (as well as a few other significant people in my life in recent years), is the inherent mystical and spiritual nature of death (and of life). When we are close to someone as they die and/or we lose someone close to us, these questions about life and death are no longer theoretical, they are real and personal. And, when we go through this experience, we come face to face with the mystery of it all. Confronted with a lack of concrete proof or understanding, we have to tap into the mystical and spiritual realms, even if we don’t often do that or don’t know exactly what we believe in that regard.
Similar to the phenomenon of people saying “I love you” to me in the days and weeks after Lori passed, I was also struck by the number of people talking to me in mystical or spiritual terms – letting me know they were praying for me, saying that Lori was safe in the hands of God, excited that Lori was reunited with my parents and others in heaven, talking to me about dreams of her and conversations on the other side, seeing rainbows, birds, butterflies, and other signs and knowing that was Lori sending a message, and more. It seems that in the face of death, we feel a little safer and more comfortable thinking about, looking for, talking about, and sharing our insights, beliefs, questions, and ideas about the mystical and spiritual nature of life. I love and appreciate this…and, I wonder why it often takes death for us to look for, talk about, or think about things in this way. Life is mystical and spiritual all the time, not just when someone dies…but it’s easy for us to forget this and/or feel uncomfortable thinking or talking about it in this way, for fear of being judged or separated from others based on our beliefs or questions.
I’m still deeply engaged in my journey of growth, discovery, and healing. Lori’s death has had a profound impact on me. I don’t totally understand it and probably never will. I feel sad, confused, and disoriented as I continue to make my way through this process. And, I feel grateful, joyful, and honored to have known my sister, learned from her, and for all of the gifts, blessings, and growth embedded in this experience, even as painful as it has been. I also feel wonderfully and beautifully supported by some extraordinary people in my life as I navigate this process.
Life is a mystery in so many ways. None of us knows how long we’ll be here or what’s going to happen next. We each have a choice about how we choose to live in this moment. Instead of waiting for it all to work out, make sense, feel good, look right, or be the “perfect” way we think it should be – what if we made a commitment to ourselves right here, right now to fully embrace the gift of life, exactly as it is? It’s a simple concept…but a radical act!
How can you embrace the gift of your life right now? What support do you need to let go of what holds you back from doing this fully? Feel free to share your thoughts, insights, or any questions you have below in the comments.