On my personal blog, I’ve written about the recent death of my sister. These were personal musings that didn’t fit the psychological thrust of PsychCentral. But of course everything that happens can teach us about life and help us grow, so there is something in my recent experience that does belong here. My sister’s passing deeply affects me, and there has been transformation even in this first week after the dreaded phone call. The theme that keeps hitting home is the difference between a person’s potential for grace and her ability to display it consistently.
Like me, my sister lived through a traumatic upbringing. Our parents divorced acrimoniously, our mother became severely depressed and soon killed herself, and we were then put in the care of our father’s new wife, who hated us and treated us with awful cruelty.
The home never felt safe, disrupted as it was by alcoholism and sexual chaos. My sister was six years older than me, so she was hurt more by the divorce and less by our stepmother. By the time she turned sixteen, she was already in trouble. She spent six weeks in a psychiatric hospital after LSD use left her in a persistent psychotic state. She was attracted to cruel and violent men who involved her in illegal and dangerous activities. She went on to suffer severe alcoholism herself, and she died from complications of liver failure.
Despite all her difficulties, however, Janice was a special and delightful soul. At her best, she maintained a cheerful and optimistic outlook in the face of dreadful circumstances. She laughed easily and possessed a youthful exuberance that was charming to behold. As I’ve looked through my old photographs, collecting pictures for the memorial, I see a lovely and remarkable woman.
She did not succeed materially in life. Emotionally, she had trouble connecting with people and maintained few friendships. She lived in isolated poverty during much of her adulthood.
On the other hand, despite problems with instability and rage, she found a partner who loved her for the last eighteen years of her life and accepted her unconditionally. That alone should have taught me that my picture of my sister as a damaged being was incomplete. There was something deep and radiant in her that never quit shining, even though it was sometimes hard to detect.
Now that she is gone, I am painfully aware how often my treatment of her was too harsh and critical. My remorse is not eased by knowing I was motivated by worry and concern. Only in the final few months of her life did it dawn on me that she deserved total acceptance and love, and that nothing else would help her. At least during these recent times I treated her tenderly and overlooked her destructive behaviors.
Looking beyond her dysfunction, feeling the impact of her death, and reviewing of her life in photographs has reminded me of an important truth: my sister displayed a beautiful spirit. It shone like the sun, but was often obscured by thick cloud cover. Her soul retreated behind that darkness, yet there were always moments when she broke through and warmed you with joy. And which is more eternal, more significant: the life-giving star or the passing storms? Jan’s radiant nature was her true being, and everything else was layered on by fate and hard living.
And so it is with each of us. Somewhere inside is an infinitely loving and enchanting person, someone entranced by life and eager to experience its glories. The fact that we so often fall short of manifesting that grace is a sign of many problems in our culture and families. But it is not a sign of original sin or evil. It is simply confusion, and it is both superficial and escapable.
Will we as individuals stabilize into our best nature in this generation? Some of us might, many of us may not. But humanity will continue and we can hope that as our species matures, we will become better at burning through the clouds.
The immediate point, however, is that every person embodies this essential sainthood. It is not as deeply buried as we often suspect. Look past the defensiveness, posturing, and fear, and you will see something Godlike shining at you from deep within the eyes of every being you encounter. This is what my sister has taught me. I only wish the lesson had hit home sooner.
(Click on photo for source and information.)