An Answer in Grief
In almost four years of writing my blog, I’ve never had this happen. On Tuesday, guest writer Rachel Wilhelm posted a dark, but lovely, tribute to her sister, Errin, who died in 2010 after a long battle with mental illness. I thought that was it.
The next day, Rachel casually shot me an email with the rest of the story of what happened after her sister died. It was beautifully written, and I couldn’t believe she hadn’t told me about it when she submitted “The Other Victims of Mental Illness.” With a little work, we were able to get the piece together as a Friday follow-up. Please take a moment to read it. It’s a powerful, touching conclusion.
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After receiving a returned letter from my sister’s address that said “Deceased,” I wanted to believe there had been a mistake. She had been unstable for years, due to an ongoing struggle with mental illness, but she was 33. This couldn’t be the end – not so early, not without me being there with her.
I called the coroner’s office in the county where she lived, and a woman answered. I told her my sister’s name.
Her voice cracked. “Oh, um, I’m so sorry honey. I – I – hate to tell you this over the phone, but she’s here with us. The coroner just finished an autopsy on her today.”
I started weeping.
“We tried to find you,” she said. “We saw the name Rachel in some documents, but we had no current address. I can’t believe you found us. Oh, I’m so glad she has someone. We were at our wit’s end trying to find someone who would claim her.”
Errin had been dead for two weeks before they found her lying on a mattress on the grimy floor of an apartment with no furniture – only boxes. The autopsy report came back normal – nothing drug related, no overdose.
The only thing suspicious was that she was 5′ 9″ and weighed 108 pounds when they brought her in. She was emaciated. I told the coroner that she struggled with anorexia, and that solved any mystery surrounding the cause: she starved to death.
When her apartment manager delivered a box of Errin’s personal effects to me, it was not comforting.
There were diaries, documents, letters, bills, pictures, and her CDs. And then there was her purse with her lipstick and laundromat money, which disturbed me. I couldn’t comprehend how these items, so personal, were with me – yet she wasn’t.
She had art pads filled with her ink art – lovely drawings with geometric order in brilliant and beautiful colors. It was a strange testimony to order in the world of an otherwise disordered person who was always struggling with her identity, Christianity, and acceptance.
Most troubling were her large art pages with quoted Scriptures about not being condemned and having victory over sin. I learned that they covered the wall over her bed – the bed she was in when she starved to death.
When Errin and I were girls, we used to talk about how we were going to have families at the same time – beautiful children, handsome husbands, full lives.
I think it broke her heart to see that I was living this dream, and she was left with this horrible trap of mental illness, always spiraling down steadily. Not that she resented me – she didn’t – it just seemed unfair that she had somehow missed the train and stayed 16 while I grew up and took care of her. And now I couldn’t even do that.
All I could do was pilfer through the very little she left behind, searching for some meaning to all of it. It did nothing but reduce me to tears as I thought of how sad her life was with no one to show her love like she wanted – not even the God she believed in. He was unpredictable, angry, sometimes loving, but vengeful – the one who made her life unfair; the one who made her miss the train, the one who let all these things happen to her.
I had spent so many years trying to convince her otherwise, and now that battle was over. I didn’t know what to do with her or myself.
One day, I laid on my bed and bawled so hard that my eyes were sore, and when I closed them, I saw her as if I were dreaming. She was wearing a large gardening hat and kneeling in a vegetable garden. Although she was looking in my direction, she didn’t notice me at all. Then suddenly, she looked upward and I felt a strong, full presence behind me.
I did not look to see who or what it was. I just saw Errin’s face. She was breathtaking, radiant – finally, the beautiful woman who had always been hidden behind all those layers of mental illness. I had never seen her so satisfied before, so full. But that look in her eyes was unmistakable – her dream had finally come true: she was looking into the face of her one true Husband and the Lover of her soul.