¡hola papi!

‘I Lost My Sister. I Don’t Know How to Grieve.’

Illustration: Pedro Nekoi

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack.

¡Hola, Papi!

My sister recently passed away from her long fight with breast cancer. She was very supportive of me and would see me getting in drag a lot of times in our home. Things have been rough since that. There are times when I feel like I don’t want to do anything, times when I want to scream and cry all day. 

I guess I want to know … What’s the best way to deal with life while I am grieving her and her spirit?

Lost at Sea

Hey there, Lost!

I’m so sorry to hear about your sister’s passing. I hope you have people in your life who are supporting you right now. There’s no “one size fits all” method of grieving. It looks different for every single human being, so try not to feel like you’re doing it wrong or failing at it. While I can’t tell you exactly what to do right now, I can definitely offer some advice. Well, that’s the whole point of this column, huh?

No matter how many times I lose someone or something, grief always feels new. Sure, some of the textures and hallmarks get more familiar over time, but you never quite get used to losing. Each person, each good thing in our lives, they’re all unique, and so too are the cavities they leave behind when we find ourselves suddenly without. Absence can take on so many different shapes.

I do, however, have something of a ritual for dealing with it. Whenever I hit my absolute lowest point, a phrase, not a perfectly coherent one, will surface in my mind to see me through —“Sometimes, there’s just the living.” What it means to me is there are times when there is little else but the pushing along, the mere fact of existence, the stubborn, solitary act of breathing. Sometimes, it’s all I can accomplish. It’s not “fine,” and certainly not approaching “good.” It just is, and I just am. But then …

But then, you get enough distance between you and the day the wound visited you. The daily stings of loss, thinking someone is here before remembering they’re not, come less and less frequently. At some point you take enough steps, hear enough jokes, cry enough cries, that you are something new, something changed, something that can live and experience all the colors of living again rather than a select, dusty few.

Yes, loss is harrowing and scary and so often terrible. But loss isn’t merely subtraction. It doesn’t just take. Loss is also change. I would say it’s the change, the one the alchemy of our world depends on. All things die, and all things are recomposed and made new again. Where gaps are left, something always rushes to fill it. I have seen in my life entire canyons of loss be filled with music, love, and new things sprouting up, nourished by the rich soil of ruin.

I’m not trying to romanticize it, Lost. The fact of the matter is, something devastating has happened, and there isn’t a series of words I can throw at it that will make it better for you. If there were, I’d get to arranging them! But I think what I can do is remind you that you haven’t lost everything. You have all the good times with your sister. You have the lessons she taught you. You don’t even need to think of these things. They are living, breathing, as you.

Your sister’s support, that shaped you in some way, didn’t it? That’s part of her legacy, and part of you. It’s a powerful, sacred thing, one you get to hold forever. It’s one of the greatest gifts a person can give another person, and I’m so glad you have it, and that you shared it together.

For now, Lost, cry all you need to. If you didn’t do anything with your day because you felt heavy, that’s fine. It will be like this for a little bit. Reach out to your friends and family. Talk to people. Don’t keep it all bottled up. Offer yourself small indulgences throughout the weeks and months, little goalposts — your favorite dessert on Friday, an afternoon of reading, a new journal. You feel me.

For now, there’s just the living, Lost. You’re going to make it through. Better days are coming. And when you make it there, while I’m sure the loss will still sting a bit, I hope you can think of your sister and think first of happiness.

Con mucho amor,

Originally published on October 13, 2020.

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack. Purchase JP Brammer’s book Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessonshere.

‘I Lost My Sister. I Don’t Know How to Grieve.’