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First Person: When someone is missing
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First Person: When someone is missing

A young JoAnn in 1953 with big sister Alice at Grossinger’s resort hotel in the Catskills.
A young JoAnn in 1953 with big sister Alice at Grossinger’s resort hotel in the Catskills.

Wow, I thought, when I got the e-mail. My annoying cousin, the one my sister and I teased at every family event, invited me to help celebrate his child’s college graduation. I reached for the phone, eager to hear my sister’s reaction. Then I remembered.

The sister I love dearly, whom I tortured as only a younger sibling can, the repository of shared childhood experiences, no longer knows me.

The aging process was not kind to our mother. She’d suffered a few transient ischemic attacks (often referred to as mini strokes in medical parlance) and lost her once-vaunted mental acuity and was left with a loose grip on relationships and time. An aide helped with daily tasks. 

The day before the brit milah of her first great-grandchild, my sister’s first grandson, my mother and I went over exactly when I would pick her up, where we were going, and why. But when I arrived the next morning, she refused to get out of bed. I forced myself to go to the celebration without her. As our newest family member was named for our recently deceased dad, my sister and I held on to each other and sobbed, because our mother was no longer our mother, and we missed her.

And now my sister’s connection to reality is broken. In a sad irony, she has no idea her grandson’s first child — my sister’s first great-grandchild — was born this spring. She was not present when he was named.

It is never easy to lose a loved one, and losing one just before milestone events can be devastating. Reunions, birthdays, graduations, weddings — all are moments when their absences are most sorely felt.

The Psalmists ask God to teach us to number our days so that we may attain a heart of wisdom. How are we supposed to number our days when what we are counting are the minutes and hours since a loved one was gone? How can we gain a heart of wisdom when our hearts are broken because we miss sharing moments with them?

Although shiva technically refers to the seven days of intense mourning following the death of a loved one, it is also symbolic of the stages of grief after such a loss. But how does one mourn a person who, though alive, is no longer? What ritual helps the spouse, child, or sibling of those who have descended into dementia, or are not themselves anymore? And can we just hide beneath the covers when the world seems to be bursting with new life, when everyone else seems to have a simcha to share?

Maybe we should. Maybe we need to give ourselves permission to mourn what and whom we miss. Maybe we need to step back a bit, to reassess, to readjust, to reset. And if possible, to resurrect the histories we shared, focusing more on the joys than the oys. 

Naomi Shemer’s classic song, “Al Kol Eleh,” came out just before my dad died. Her message, to accept the bitter with the sweet, resonated with me then. But it took on more meaning as my mother, and then my sister, descended into dementia.

I watch my brother-in-law caress my sister’s hand, although he knows she does not know him as her husband. I understand watching them together that love outlasts all else. So, I am trying to learn to number my days with moments of love, to balance the bitter with the sweet.

When I toast “l’chaim” at my cousin’s simcha, my sister will be in my heart.

JoAnn Abraham has held executive marketing and communications positions in Jewish federations and is on the board of Chhange: The Center for Holocaust, Human Rights, and Genocide Education.

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