She's Not the Elephant in the Room


Growth Myndset is happy to present this featured post in our Guest Writer's Series.  Guest writers are diverse in their background and issues of focus, and the content below is neither edited nor altered by Growth Myndset in any way without the consent of the author. The views expressed elsewhere on our website do not represent the views of our guest writers.

On October 12th, 2016, my 16-year-old sister, Nicole, passed away suddenly. I will never forget the evening my father phoned to tell me she was missing nor the following night when my mother phoned to tell me she was "no longer with us". I have never understood a darkness so great nor an emptiness so deep. It is still something I struggle with every day and something I will continue to struggle with into the uncertain future.

I was lucky to be where I was in my life when this happened. I was confident in myself, my academics, and my relationships and the stability I had from them helped catch me. My family has an unbreakable bond and the love I received from them helped me through. My parents’ friends are loyal and selfless and provided emotional support to not only my parents, but to me and my 10-year-old sister. My friends are compassionate and having known and loved my late sister, they checked in on me and tried their best to help. For the week and a half when I remained at home, I felt support face to face, from phone messages, and through letters.

I was very fortunate to have so much support in that time. But as every book or article on grieving will tell you, it is not the day, week, nor even month after that is the hardest.  It is the future that is to come.

I love studying so I decided to return to school, Queen’s University, and finish the first semester of my second year.  As much as I wanted school to distract me, my mind was in too much of a mess to understand what I would be getting myself into.  I was taking myself away from the home where I could cry freely, the people who could watch over me, and a community of adults much more mature than me or my friends.  I was entering university again, into a community of students who wanted to party and study, and a world where I would have to begin to pretend. 

To come back with a piece of myself missing and a new label attached to my name, I felt as if I was returning to Queen’s as a different person.  I was no longer ‘Kylie Houston’, and I could tell by the looks on everyone’s face and in the embraces I received that I was that girl whose sister died.  But the worst part of it all?  No one talked to me about it.  They treated me differently but never asked me how I was or if I needed to talk about it.  While I understand people wanted to avoid upsetting me, it was hard to be treated differently without anyone willing to talk about why.  For a while, I wondered if people even knew. 

They made my sister the elephant in the room.  They made me aware of my situation in their pity without allowing me to discuss what hell I had been through.  It felt like no one wanted to hear me out because they were too focused on their parties and studies.  I was not sure how to manage my sorrow and felt like everyone was pushing my grief deeper inside me. 

This isn’t to say that I was helpless, however, as there were a few people who got it very right and gave me great peace, safety, and comfort.

On Halloween weekend, two weeks after returning to school, I decided to have my first night out.  It was a difficult decision, and one I wasn’t sure if I was ready for, but I needed to return to myself and be with my friends again.  On our way to the party, one of the boys I met in first year approached me.  I knew him as an acquaintance and, while I did not know him well, I admired him as a kind and good person.  He told me with tears in his eyes that he was sorry for everything that had happened.  He said he couldn’t imagine my pain and that he was sorry he said this before we were going out, but that he had to let me know that he was supporting me in any way he could.  While he thought he was upsetting me, he gave me a gift.  He didn’t let Nicole become the elephant in the room.  He acknowledged her while validating and supporting me.  He gave me great safety that night because I knew that if something went wrong, I could reach out to him.

As time moved on, I felt myself slowly returning to the person I used to be.  Before October, I was the friend who everyone came to with their problems because I liked to listen and give advice.  People had stopped asking for help though because they thought I had enough to worry about.  This stunted my healing because I wasn’t allowed to do what I used to do.  That wasn’t until a close friend invited me for coffee, like we used to do throughout first year.  She used the time to talk about anything I wanted, but also opened up about a struggle she was facing.  She asked for my opinion and didn’t worry about explaining or justifying herself, she just wanted my advice.  She wanted to talk to me like we had always talked to one another.  She gave me the gift of acknowledging my tragedy, but also allowed me to be myself.  My coffees and chats with her helped me nourish my need to help others.  She helped give me an outlet to become myself again. 

In the winter semester, I faced the challenge of meeting new people who knew nothing of my past.  These were new situations where I had to decide who to tell about my sister, when to tell them, and how.  It is a sensitive and awkward situation because questions such as, “How many siblings do you have?” and, “How old are they?” naturally come up in conversation.  While you might be able to lie to the woman you’ve started chatting with in a grocery checkout line, it’s harder to lie to classmates you’ve become acquainted with in a lecture.  Will they treat you differently when they find out?  You think, “If the friends who knew you before your sister passed away treated you differently, these new friends will definitely treat you differently”.  It became hard to open up to people and while not saying anything felt like lying, telling them never felt like an option.  In my first experience of telling new friends about my sister, however, I was fortunately received very positively.

I joined a performance group on campus and had been working through long practices and intense rehearsals with an amazing group of people.  In one of our final rehearsals in March, I thought I should tell them how much they all meant to me and why, because of my sister’s death, I felt so blessed to have met them all.  When I told them, I was met with nothing but love and acceptance.  Every cast and crew member showered me with support and some even reached out afterward to reiterate that they were all there for me.  No one treated me differently from the Kylie they had met in January, they all returned to treating me as the fun-loving person I tried so hard to project myself as. Even when I had a rough night at a show, I felt no shame in telling them.  They showed me nothing but respect.  They knew my sister’s passing was a part of me, but did not allow it to define me. 

Through my whole experience coming back to school, I was scared and unsure of myself and the decisions I had to make.  Do I tell my professors?  How do I talk to my friends about this?  I realized however, there isn’t a guidebook for this.  Grief is a deeply personal experience and everyone’s path through it is different.  The important thing in it all is to realize that your friends don’t have a guidebook either.  They want to help, but they don’t want to hurt you.  You have to communicate what you need and express how your grief is affecting you.  I learned to ask my boyfriend to come over just so I could cry with someone or ask my housemate to sleep in her room on nights I didn’t want to sleep alone.  In grief, you are not alone.  You do not have to hold onto your grief so tightly. 

For people with a friend going through grief, understand that your friend doesn’t understand anything either.  Show that you acknowledge them and care, but know that they won’t be able to show appreciation until they have sorted out all these newly developed emotions.  Just check in on them often, even if they don’t respond, and know that they need to know you’re there.  In grief, you need love.  Love your friend no matter the barriers they put up, and love them even more when the barriers come down.  Show your friend the past that they’ve lost will always be remembered, but that they have a bright future to look forward to.