The missing year

365 days of life with Vanessa missing from it, and 365 days of us missing her.

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My dear Vanessa! As I write this on a Sunday night, tomorrow February 23rd will mark one year since you died. That’s 365 days of life with you missing from it, and 365 days of us missing you.

All the grief books (and I sure do read a LOT of them) mention how hard the first year is, for many reasons, but a big one is because it sees a year’s worth of “firsts without” – the first family picture without you in it, the first birthday where you don’t get any older, the first holiday season without you around, etc. These were all present, but there were so many other firsts in this year, too:

The first time I touched a body-uninhabited.

Yours, of course, right after it changed from heart-beating to heart-stopped, with my hand resting on your calf. I had wondered how I’d feel about seeing you that way, but you were beautiful and still and at peace, finally. Later, I twirled your hair the way you always did, and my tears dripped on your face, and I imagined they seeped into your growing-colder skin to stay with your body wherever it was heading next, so your bones weren’t lonely and your huge love was known.

The first time I had to pull over the car because my crying was at decibels and shakings unsafe for driving.

I finally pulled it together enough to head home, and when I got some weird looks from other cars at the stoplight, I wished I had a sign to hold up that just said “Be kind – Be love.” Because I didn’t need to tell them why I’m sad, or who I’m sad about, or even that I’m sad, because we’re all sad, really… but I did wish to tell them to remember that – that we’re all sad – and choose to be kind and be love, in response.

The first time someone stopped me (while I tried to slink invisibly through the grocery) and said “I heard about your sister, I am so sorry!”

I said, “Thank you, it’s been a rough few months” and they then said “How long has she been in remission now?” and my eyes imploded as I realized they must have just heard you “had cancer” or something. And then I had to say “Actually, she had a stage 4 recurrence of the breast cancer, it spread through her entire body and she died 2 months ago.”

What I hadn’t expected, Vaness, was how often people would expect us to comfort them, to hug their shock, and to look ok enough, ourselves, that they can be ok too. It’s a strange burden to be asked to be strong for others in their grief of you, too, when we’re sometimes flailing for support, ourselves.

The first time one of your phone messages that we had saved to the computer popped up in the randomly generated song playlist.

You rang out through the speaker in my living room, “Hi Jess, It’s Vaness, just calling to see how your day went, I love you!”  I stopped dead in my tracks at your voice, oh my god YOUR VOICE, in my living room again, right between the Train song that Jason and I danced to at our wedding, and Blink-182 singing about their age again. Your voice in that song placement just rubbed it in that I keep getting my husband and birthdays, and you don’t.

The first time Christina and I talked about some childhood story, with different recollections, and I couldn’t ask you what you remembered too .

You were the biggest keeper of my childhood memories. Without you to ever talk with again, entire years of my history have gone foggy… or downright vanished.

I could go on, but you get the gist. Grieving you, missing you, has hit me hard, day in and day out, in ways I didn’t expect. Although don’t get me wrong, the expected “firsts” were agonizing in their own way, too.

But also, I am so proud to sit here, just about a year out, knowing that WE DID IT. Part of our will to do so came from knowing and remembering how worried you were about that, and us.

You were SO missed this last year, love. This is true, too: you were with us, all year, also. I want to walk through the past year with you, through the seasons of this first year of grieving. (If anyone reading along wants to see bigger any particular picture that follows, just click on it to enlarge!)

You died on February 23, a year ago. It was a Sunday. In the days and week that followed, we planned your memorial service as a celebration of your amazing life. It ended up being wonderfully attended and you were touchingly honored by so many whose lives you had touched.

Yet, I felt you most that week when Billy and Christina and I hammered out the finer final details for your obituary in a booth at Applebees (imagine overhearing that conversation from the next booth over!), when Mom and Christina and I went through all the old photo albums to pull out your baby pictures (where we confirmed you were ridiculously adorable and we were just awkward and nerdy), and when Christina and I tried to choose fonts you would like and photos you would approve of for the different printed elements.


We made the Adventure Jar for Billy from the entries people created for him at your service. I was touched when that sweet oldest nephew of yours, Max, soon thereafter made his own “jar” at home, for himself. This particular entry in Max’s adventure jar said “Flower Place” –  that park that you’ve been to with him too. It is his favorite place in the world, and he told me he would go there whenever he missed you too much, because it makes him feel happy again.


And that Live Sincerely shirt I first made for Myles, now fits Leo V, who reminds me so much of you as a little one, with his/your dark hair and long lashes.


You continue to come up all the time in conversation with the kids, and they all three remember, love and miss you greatly. Leo refers to you, and Christina, as “Chrinessa”. Myles sleeps every night with the stuffed fleece turtle you made him, and he “lets” me hug it when I tuck him in because “I know you miss Vanessa, Mom, and Pinecone {the turtle} is filled with Vanessa’s love!”… I take him up on that offer every night.

Who drew this next lovely picture, with bunk bed, crib, drawers, some poles to hold up the second floor…? He wrote his “nam”(e) in the top left: “Max loves Vanessa”. I’m pretty sure my heart exploded the day he showed me this.


Come Easter, I missed you not being the Easter Bunny with me, remembering years past when we got baskets ready together, me happy to share the mom duties since cancer took away your chance to be the mom yourself.

But, when Jason pulled the baskets out of the attic, there you were again, with the tags you had made for the baskets a few year back still there, the kids’ names written in your handwriting. It wasn’t the same as you, of course, but it was lovely still.


I went to a gala at our highschool, and your voice was in my head as I got ready. I shared this pic when I got back home that night, with the caption: “Oh, Vanessa. You were so with me today. My pin was over my heart, and you were in it. You were also in my ear, saying “yes! DO wear the funky headband hat thingy tonight!”, so I did. You were right; it looked fab and I could pull it off after all. I miss you SO FLIPPING MUCH.”


We managed to make happen our Blust Family Memorial Day-Weekend Camping Trip just a few months after you died, even while missing you so much I think we were mostly numb. We wrote you there with us in chalk. Billy brought the “Live Sincerely” flag that flies at your house, now just his house, and we flew it in the campground from the old-school Christmas lights that you loved so much. We took a boat out onto the lake and Christina and I took a “sisters” picture there – but when I see it now, it just breaks my heart, looking so wrong without you.


Mom brought along pink peonies from her garden, and they were on the picnic table for every meal we all shared together. When we first got there, they were buds, and as the days passed they unfurled their thousands of tightly packed petals in a fitting tribute to you.


Dad shot off rockets that weekend, of course, and it was nice to see him smile. And then we sent pink and purple balloons up in the sky too, but unlike the rockets, these we didn’t run after to catch, instead watching them float away and wondering if they could make it to you.


Our annual camping family picture, the first without you in it, we took in front of this huge “V” shaped dual-trunk tree, which we noticed halfway through the weekend was right next to our cabin. (It gave Mom chills.) We even mustered up enough courage to do our traditional goofy-poses picture, although this time holding pink peonies and the flag of your tattoo.


My front yard garden, that I now call “the Vanessa garden” (the one that you helped me dig into existence from a boring grass island, and we then picked and planted all those pink and purple perennials a good 5 years ago now,  with that color choice being one I baffled myself in picking then, but which now makes total sense) bloomed the brightest and best its ever grown, last spring/summer/fall. I saw you there in the vibrant flowers and the butterflies that traveled from miles to visit.


At the park one day I was touched by found art, a message left on a picnic table by a stranger, that I found both a comforting sentiment as I missed you so, and a gentle reminder of my own mortality, as well:


At our highschool, your graduating class planted a tree and had made a beautiful peony plaque to place in the front garden, in your honor. Billy & his family came, along with many of your classmates, as we all remembered you, as well as Justin from your class. How could, not one, but two members of your class of 2000 have died already?


In the fall I finally could make myself go to IKEA for the first time since your death, taking the kids with me for the support & strength their goofy presence provides. We had our usual cheap-yet-delicious breakfast there, in your memory. I will never not associate that store with you, with it holding so many fun memories of sister trips taken and design purchases planned and made, together.


On October 15, your birthday, Christina and I knew we had to mark the occasion in a positive way or we’d drown in sadness. We came up with a day of REALS, and the kids and I spent the entire day doing Random Epic Acts of Living Sincerely. We: paid for coffee behind us in drive through, took bagels to a local hard-working business office, left beautiful mums on people we didn’t know’s front porches, handed out cards (saying “You are awesome”! and “Hope you have a good day!”) to strangers, and gave away little toys to families a park, and Myles gave a bouquet of pink flowers to a random lady at Wendy’s. He kept telling everyone later “And then she said that I made her whole day!!!” with so much pride.

We made October 15 a day of joy, even as my heart was so sad that you weren’t here for us to celebrate your birthday with you.


I designed a logo and business cards for Billy’s Bosom Buddies group. I really think you would like what I came up with, design wise, although I so missed working on it with you and getting your feedback. I hope the group continues to help Billy in some ways we just can’t.


Speaking of Billy, I will always remember how much you LOVED your engagement/wedding rings from him. (Billy might here point out how pushy you were about your own part in picking them out, ha!) Since your death (well, even since before, when the rings no longer fit your fingers bloated from steroids), Billy had been wearing all 3 of them on a chain around his neck, but then near the end of 2014, he had a jeweler make the small top and bottom bands into necklaces for Christina and me. Now we all 3 have something special to wear, that you had adored, and I love the way the new pendants look a bit like a bolt of lightning…. I feel it represents your loving impatience quite well. :)


Many days this winter I’ve worn the flannel jammies you sewed me many years ago. Three kids later, the waistband is a little tight, and hundreds of washes later, they have shrunk a little short, but they make me feel warm, and cozy, and that you are with me, just the same.


Christmas came around recently, a time we were dreading, but we took a deep breath and made it through that as well. We had made “Vanessa” remembrance candles in advance which we lit at our little family party (we also took them later to the larger family parties on both sides). We decorated gingerbread cookies and tried to do all the things you would have wanted us to keep doing together. The yearly ornament from you for the boys was little bobble head animals this year, much like the ones you had given us years ago from one of your beloved Mexico trips. In typical Vanessa tradition we set a theme for our party attire….  and this year, “Live Sincerely” felt the only possible choice.


We again took our traditional goofy-poses family shot… (That’s Dad hiding in the back because he “doesn’t do goofy”, ha.)


And now, we’re back to February 23, just about. As I write this on the eve of your deathversary, my mind recalls what was happening right now, last year, the eve of your death: Mom, Christina, Billy and I were laying on various couches and chairs on your first floor, not even wanting to be as far as a floor away from you to go upstairs where the real beds were, taking turns in uneasy sleep while someone was always awake and watching you, talking to you, holding your hands, talking with the hospice nurse on “watch”, and waiting with heavy hearts as you labored to breathe and struggled to rest.

That this was a year ago, feels both like an eternity and just yesterday to me.

This year has not been easy. It has had tears of gratitude, tears of sorrow, laughs that feel guilty and laughs that felt free. I’ve hidden, put myself out there, reached out, pulled in, given up and kept going… sometimes all at once. I promise you that while it’s scary, and hard, the walking through the grief (rather than walking around it with fingers in ears, or walking backwards the way I came) feels like exactly what I need to be doing now. I’ve swan dived into the grief, belly-flopping at the surface, sinking like a stone, and kicking up to the light back at the top with lungs just burning with the will to learn, to live, to love, as long as my own body allows me to.

I had expected to want to share the minutiae of this grieving as it happened, but in so much of this process, what I thought I would want to do was not always what I ended up needing to do. I have found I have needed to keep some things close, thus far – almost as if by keeping some things in me, I was keeping you there, too. A year out, I am able to look at this grief with some perspective, and some distance in some cases, that might soon lend itself to tugging out the bits of hard-earned wisdom and sharing them.

My sweet, headstrong Vanessa, dear sister of mine, forever, please know this: I carry you with me in the ups, the downs, the joys and the sorrows. I know the gift it is, to get to experience and feel all of these…..  this is love, and life, and I will keep my pledge to you, to live sincerely.

I miss you and love you with all of my being.

Some nights for his pre-bed reading time, Max picks out a poem from the "Where The Sidewalk Ends" collection of poems by Shel Silverstein. He picked this one, one night (marking it for me with his pink peony Vanessa bookmark).

Some nights for their bedtime story, the boys picks out a poem or two from the “Where The Sidewalk Ends” poetry collection by Shel Silverstein. Max picked this one, one night (marking it for me with his pink peony bookmark from your memorial service).

Seeing you in every “V” and holding you in my heart,

If you’d like to honor Vanessa’s life by pledging to live sincerely, too, please do join us (and then invite your friends to join you!).

In our conversations around this approaching milestone, Christina and I decided to work on tackling different pieces of our emotions. I wrote the above letter to Vanessa to walk through our past year of grieving her after her death. Christina looked backward at the journey we went through to bring us to Vanessa’s death, creating an amazing lyric video for her song “Battle Cries”, which she wrote in 2011 in reaction to Vanessa’s spreading cancer and our fears around what brain involvement might mean. It’s a song that means a lot to Christina, and me too, and this video is amazing in portraying the chaos and soul-searching that Vanessa’s cancer brought her, and us all. You can watch/listen here below (just hit play) and then read Christina’s beautiful deeper dive into the song’s (and Vanessa’s) story here.


  1. Kim says:

    Beautifully written. I started to follow this page about 18 months ago after seeing various posts/pictures on facebook. I was amazed at the love you all had for each other and it shows in each and every post. Grief is a range of emotions and you capture each emotion so well. I will continue to Live Sincerely.

    Kim (Manchester-UK)

  2. A.I says:

    A beautiful post, containing so much courage.
    Thank you for continuing to share your journey and reminding us to live sincerely.

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