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Grieving (and Getting to Know) My Sister

The scent hit me before I saw it. Sweet, suffusing, almost overpowering. I turned around, and there it was: a lush, magnificent, profusely blooming lilac. I had to stop and smell it. I was instantly transported to the backyard of my first house, the one we left when I was seven. Hanging over, and growing around the split-rail fence was a gigantic (at least to me) lilac. My big sister, Jill and I often held elaborate tea parties at the picnic table next to it, replete with miniature teacups and saucers and numerous baby dolls. At smelling, and seeing, this lilac, I was filled with sweetness and immense sadness; Jill died a few months ago at age 61.

As I try to get used to the world without Jill, I marvel at the random childhood memories that arise unbidden, and am pained each time I reach for the phone to report a tidbit of news, or to process the latest family mishagas.

Jill is present, and absent, in every moment. I am bereft, discombobulated, like an electron floating around without a nucleus to orbit.

Jill was my first friend. I was her mentee (the first of what would become a legion — professional colleagues, volunteers she supervised, young adults she took under her wing). When we were little, Jill was ever so happy to play with me (somehow she was always Queen of the hill). She was thrilled to share what she was learning in school. She taught me to read when I was four.

And Jill was always there with sage (if occasionally bossy) advice. When I was graduating rabbinical school, I had the choice of a post as assistant rabbi at a prominent Temple or becoming the first chaplain for the 1,100 residents of a Jewish retirement community. I furiously made pro/con lists, but I still didn’t know what to do. My professors urged me to take the plum congregational job, even though I had entered seminary with the dream of serving elders. Jill had another perspective. “There are lots of rabbis who want to serve a huge congregation,” she said. “There are not many who want to serve a community of elders, and you do.” Jill was right, and her guidance helped me to follow my heart, and my calling. Without her, I might not have had the strength to make that decision.

Image by Dayle A. Friedman

With everything that Jill and I shared, I was sad that she didn’t seem to see or appreciate some aspects of my life. She was protective of me; she tried hard to prevent me from making some fairly destructive relationship choices. Though I didn’t heed that particular advice, Jill was there to lift me up when things fell apart. When I finally found my bashert, Jill found it difficult to let go of her fierce protectiveness. I wish she had gotten to know my beloved and my kids better. I wish she had understood what my friends and community mean to me.

After Jill died, I learned how much of her life I hadn’t seen or acknowledged. I knew she was talented, and generous, but I was not prepared for the sight of 800 people at her funeral. I cherished Jill, and I certainly was aware that she was loved by dear friends but I had no idea how big her circle was. I admired her prodigious creativity and productivity, yet I did not realize how many professionals’ lives were transformed by her work with them.

During the three and a half years that Jill was living with bone marrow cancer, she taught me her last lesson: how to face illness and death with dignity and courage. She pursued treatment to palliate the ravages of her disease, but never fooled herself into hoping that she could survive an incurable ailment. She worked and traveled with gusto, even when it took every ounce of strength she had. More than once she had to let go of long-held plans when her ambitions outstripped her physical capacities. Jill did not dwell in regret. She said, over and over, “it is what it is.” She focused on gratitude rather than on disillusionment. She reconnected to old friends and deepened her connections with newer ones. Jill said her illness was not a death sentence, but a life sentence. She boldly faced a devastating reality and heroically squeezed unimaginable goodness out of the last years of her life.

The day after my recent encounter with the lilacs, Peter, Jill’s husband, told me a story. One day last spring, he surprised Jill with an outing to a mystery destination. When they arrived at an enormous grove of lilacs he had discovered, Jill was delighted. He explained, “Jill loved lilacs.” The smile on her face in the pictures Peter took that day show sheer bliss. I never knew that Jill loved lilacs. I’ll bet they reminded her of our first house, too.

I am learning how much my sister and I shared that wasn’t in my conscious awareness. I am discovering, as well, that parts of both of our lives were opaque to one other.

Jill and I were friends, intimates, boosters and strangers. “Sisters, sisters, there were never such devoted sisters,” we used to sing. Her death broke my heart.

The lilacs give me hope that our connection will continue to deepen as I uncover more of what we shared, and as I apprehend and accept the pieces that remained separate.

Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman’s latest book is

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