My Sister Died

Post Date: July 23rd, 2017


My sister died. She was two years older than me, the first of the seven siblings to die.

She gave her all against MDRO – multiple drug-resistant organisms – the so-called superbugs that are no longer susceptible to antibiotics. She had been in the ICU on a respirator, sedated, with a feeding tube sending nutrition into her stomach. She was making some progress, but then came Day 14.

Day 14 is the day under medical protocol when a respirator must be taken out. The two options at that point were to simply remove it and let her die over the next 2-14 days, or have a tracheostomy performed and hook up a ventilator to it.

The tracheostomy with ventilator would be permanent, and the only care facilities that admit a patient with a trach-vent are located in Madison and Milwaukee. My sister and her husband live in Green Bay.

As it was, Mary couldn’t walk by herself, couldn’t feed herself, couldn’t go to the bathroom by herself, and couldn’t breathe by herself. She also had early-onset dementia. Her husband’s lament if she had the tracheostomy: “What kind of a life is that?” Indeed. So he decided against the tracheostomy.

The doctor left the respirator in a couple more days so that two of her daughters could return from Disney World where they’d been on a joint family vacation with their daughters. A son came in from Madison, and the eldest from Detroit with her fiancé.

Mary’s husband entrusted me with calling our siblings to notify them of this dramatic change so we could come and say our goodbyes. Several of Mary’s close friends also came. It was a crowded room. It’s hard to say a meaningful goodbye in the presence of so many others.

But there came a time when the crew decided to go to lunch and I stayed behind. I did some Reiki energy work on her and was able to position her hands in a peaceful way instead of clenched to the sheets.

How much does someone who is sedated and has dementia understand? But perhaps her soul heard my words letting her know that our mother and dad would be there to greet her, as would a beloved aunt who had recently passed.

Three days after the respirator was withdrawn Mary died in the quiet before dawn with her husband at her bedside. I relayed the somber news to my siblings. I was melancholic throughout that day. The only thing that buoyed me were the supportive responses to my brief Facebook post about her death.

The next day I awoke from good dreams and felt really good, believing firmly that Mary is at peace (“the peace which surpasses all understanding”), and that she no longer has dementia so I can talk to her and she’ll understand.

The following night I had a nightmare about others dying and was sad again. My daughter texted to ask how I was doing, and I explained. She wisely replied, “Grief really is swings and round-abouts.”

Mary had an old-fashioned funeral with her body displayed in the casket, an evening visitation and wake at the funeral home, and a visitation and Mass at the church of our youth the next morning. This was followed by a brief service at the mausoleum where she wanted to be buried (“somewhere warm where music can be played”).

The hardest part for me was seeing the closed casket covered by white linen wheeled down the center aisle before the Mass started. I thought, “Oh my God; Mary’s in there!”

I don’t regularly see my siblings so the funeral and the lunch that followed were salutary opportunities to catch up and see where we are on our journeys. The youngest is 56 and the oldest 73, each of us carrying out our genetic legacy in our own individual ways. It is good to be reminded of what unites us before we go back to our separate lives. Lives now changed because a piece of each of us is in that casket.