Bearing Witness

Witnessing her dying has challenged me to now bear witness to my own aliveness.

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I have replayed the last days of Vanessa’s life over and over in my mind since February 23. Not by choice, but by some primal unconscious necessity, some part of me that simply must roll it around and around, examining it from all angles, rubbing it in the palm of my hand until it gleams, until it ceases to be surreal, until I can absorb it, until I can understand what it was, and what is left.

In the first days and months after Vanessa’s death, the replay was a constant loop, forming the soundtrack of this unsettling new life without her. Little specific moments would lodge in my head, fleeting seconds that became weeks when played on repeat. It has been hard for anything else to break through the bombardment. I backtracked and fast-forwarded through days, hours, minutes, seconds. I heard again, smelled again, saw again, said again and felt again, in forward and reverse, incessantly.

More recently, the memory replays have relented a bit, giving me longer interludes between their popping up uninvited, before distracting me from the hard business of my living on. I have wondered if I will ever be able to exist without thinking about it, or, without feeling guilty for not thinking about it.

But I do believe that time will continue to give it more perspective, and that distance will start to make it recede from this mental place of prominence. Until then, I try to focus on really feeling each small detail, owning it as part of my story, tucking away that part of Vanessa’s story into the closest part of my heart. It helps to honor the experience and allow it the space it needs – and I suspect that the more I respect it now, the less space it will ultimately require for permanent safekeeping.

Weaving the reality of this death experience into the very fabric of me is a hard but ultimately holistic and honest task, and I believe it’s work worth doing. An alternate approach of stuffing it in a dark closet now so full it’s barely able to be shouldered shut, only ever succeeds in keeping it locked up there as an invariably-temporary hostage, until it eventually bursts out and demands to be felt and dealt with, all the same.

Flowers2My first breath after Vanessa’s last breath, I sat there in that sacred circle of love and grief, with sobs shaking my entire body. Vanessa was gone, finished, done, and I was honored to have been witness to that transition.

But what I hadn’t previously considered was that having we four still-living beings present together to behold that painful end would also cause me to be present for three other painful beginnings, the arrivals with the departure – for in the very same moment I saw Vanessa leave, I also saw a husband reborn as a widower, and a mother now doomed to live on without her daughter, and a sister now floating without a third of her heart. I said goodbye to Vanessa in the very same second I bore witness to my newly changed family, transforming in front of me from the people we had been, to the people we were now, who had now experienced this, lived through this, were this.

Right then I had been flooded with grief over the loss of Vanessa, of course, but I was also unexpectedly overwhelmed by the intensity and magnitude of *all* the transformations that were taking place in that room, at that exact moment. To be privy to that end and those beginnings, swirling all together… It was a moment of such sanctity that it scarred my very soul. It feels both a burden and a gift, to have been a part of. I can’t undo it, and I can’t escape it, and it’s not that I want to, but oh, does it sting. It will be part of the rest of my life, this mothering moment of sorts – the birth of such loss and pain and struggle and sorrow.

New insights and words finally come to me in the typically random places and times – the shower, the bus, currently at 3 in the morning with snot from a head cold dripping from my nose onto my tablet as I tap tap tap the glass in the dark next to my sleeping husband. Each time, a voice in my head points out the oddness of me being alive, having this realization, even just having this cold, while Vanessa is no more, gets no more, has no more. But I am grateful for the insights just the same, for they give my narrative a plot, and my story’s heroine a resolution.

While I wish sometimes for the discernment to ease up and give me a break, these reflections are helpful in many ways. They let me feel my grief and identify it as that, instead of an exhausted general depression or a vague unease. They help me get up from the floor when I’ve found myself lying there next to my bed because I suddenly couldn’t even take another single step to lay on my bed. They remind me of the trauma experienced by my own heart and soul these last few years, and that I have, presently, survived it – and that this is something that deserves some respect, even on the many occasions when I feel like I am not accomplishing much progress.

Here’s a thing I’m learning about grief – it’s completely unpredictable and sometimes inexpressible and ever-always-changing, and the rules of regular really don’t apply. Sometimes no progress is still progress. Sometimes you’ve put one foot in front of the other one all day, and that must be considered a raging success. Sometimes you make big strides in your grieving, and can do things today you couldn’t do just last week. Sometimes having a productive day of catching up on projects you’ve neglected for two year is just plain fun, and you find that fun is something that feels ok today. Sometimes missing someone so hard that you can do nothing but curl up in a ball and cry, is exactly what you need to do.

Fact: I have watched the life leave the body of my sister(/best friend/keeper of my childhood secrets). This truth, this witnessing, is carved onto my soul for the rest of my days, etched as deep grooves in knotty wood. I wish and work to buff them smoother, so the splinters are gone, but so the marks remain, to keep vigil as witnesses and guides as I journey onward. Once polished smooth, I intend to carefully apply a glossy varnish to the grooves, preserving them as the indisputable wisdom I have learned, by way of the hardest path possible.

I shall never again be she-who-can-take-the-shortness-of-life-for-granted. I will nevermore be able to deny death as the inevitable end to each and every body.

I am unable to ever forget that we all carry the yoke of this impending destiny. And I can’t help but think about how it often seems to be an uneven shouldering of that shared cosmic load. We tend to leave it mostly to the terminally ill and the mortally wounded and the traumatized, each facing this fate without choice, to talk about only among themselves, while many of the rest of us choose to feign ignorant bliss (with a lingering inner fear, if we listen to it in the darkness).

Maybe we could redistribute the weight of that truth, from only on those already suffering, to a more even distribution among us all, where no one must be consumed by it because we all carry a small corner. Maybe we can carry each other, in conversation, in remembrances, in allowances, in compassion, in kindness. Maybe we can serve as a witness to each other, saying “I see you; I am here, too” – reaffirming that we are all both always alone (“I am me”) and never alone (“I am we”).

An obsession with our mortality, like anything, could be wildly unhealthy; a paralyzing fear of death ironically ruins all the living that comes before the single moment of dying. No need to think or talk about it all the time, and of course our mortality must be forgotten in moments, pushed aside to let in passion and joy. But regarding death, that of our own and of all, it seems to me that a healthy dose of awareness, of acknowledgement and of acceptance would be, again, both a burden and a gift. We must carry the burden to be given the blessing. We must be a witness to our fear to then receive its graces.

It is in the knowledge of the finite-ness of life that we can really understand the privilege and wonder of being alive, now, this moment. And I’ve finally pushed through to see what witnessing Vanessa’s dying has challenged me to do next. It’s equally hard and urgently critical work, full of sweat and tears and love and hope: I am to bear witness to my ALIVENESS.

This is the delicate strength that is flowing like a life force through those wise, sorrowful grooves now carved onto my soul. Babbling like a spring brook, it whispers “you are alive! you are alive!” in tones of reverence and exultation. And I will witness and affirm that aliveness with each breath I take, each moment I exhale out any despair and breathe in sweet joy. And I will assist others in remembering their own aliveness, each time I help, listen, and connect.

So I’ve come around full circle to this striving so dear to me: that I will live sincerely, and in doing so, make progress towards reconciling the death of my sister and the life of me. My very being bears witness to both.


  1. Linda Boyd says:

    My sister and I want to thank you for sharing your journey. You truly express what I think a lot of people feel and do not know how to put in words. Our thoughts are with you and your family.

    • Jessica Yaeger says:

      Linda – Thank you for being here, and your kind words. I think we grievers can be a silent/quiet bunch but are actually a pretty huge group of people – hopefully by talking to each other we can all feel less alone. :)

  2. jo says:

    I just wanted to say how great it is that you have shared these emotions and experiences with everyone. Firstly because it means you are working through your grief and not locking your feelings away and also it will help others who experience similar feelings and may feel they are going mad. My father died of cancer when I was seventeen and all I could see in my head and in my dreams for a long time was his concentration camp face, dressed in a smart blue shirt by the hospice nurse who knew better than I how close the end was. With the passage of time I can still remember every part, smell, look, feel of that scene but only revisit it if and when I choose to. I now remember a strong healthy man who took us riding on the penny slot machines and was so proud of us. The grief doesn’t completely ever go away but mostly I just feel the bitter sweetness and the poignancy; that he didn’t walk me down the aisle, that he didn’t live to see his grandchildren, that he is not here for them to have a relationship with. But mostly I remember with smiles and not tears. As you move through your grief I hope you continue to be honest with yourself and your feelings day by day and not feel guilty if you forget for a moment and have a good laugh. I wish Vanessa did not have cancer and that she was still with you being a sister, daughter, wife and mother. Mostly I want to thank you and her for her legacy, the pledge to live sincerely, love sincerely every day and make good use of every moment we share with our love ones. With love always Jo x

    • Jessica Yaeger says:

      Jo – thank you so much for sharing your experience! It helps to hear from others who are farther along in their journey than I. I am hopeful for a time in the future when it isn’t so raw any more and feels a bit “easier”. I am so sorry that your father died, especially at a age when you were so young yourself. I think we must share the experience of struggling to reconcile the no-more-ness of someone we love so much, with so many other further life experiences ourselves. Your line starting “I wish Vanessa…” made me cry this midnight thirty – hearing someone else echo your own heart can be such an unexpected relief, even if it doesn’t change the reality of anything at all. <3

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