Author: Tony Trott
My wife Sheri lost her sister to liver cancer at the end of September. Sheri’s sister, named Debra, battled her disease for 2 years. Being married to Sheri for almost 17 years, I got to know Debra quite well, and I do think I knew her better than many people know their sister-in-law. I’ll explain why.
Throughout our marriage, Sheri has had many serious hospitalizations. Most have been at least a week long, and at one point, she was in the hospital in Georgia for over 6 months. In Georgia, Sheri was a patient at the Shepherd Center and/or the nearby Piedmont Hospital. The Shepherd Center, one of the premier rehabilitation centers in the U.S. for spinal cord injuries, provided apartments to family so they could be near the patient and have easy access back and forth to the hospital. Sheri was at Shepherd for some not-so-drastic surgery, but she had major complications following the surgery and ended up in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit). Both Debra and I were at her bedside right away and Debra and I spent many hours together and were “roommates” in Georgia. That gave us time to talk, even though it was under difficult circumstances. You find that when you are with someone else during difficult times, it gives you the opportunity to forge a very special bond. And that’s how I felt about Debra.
I wasn’t only with Debra during the bad times. She lives only 5 miles away from where we live in Northern, Virginia. She stopped by our condo quite often and we would all chat and even if it was a wave hello, I saw her frequently. Additionally, we always spent the Jewish holidays together, many times having dinner at her home. And, when Sheri’s parents were alive and would come down to visit, we would have dinner at our condo or Debra and her husband David’s house. She also attended many of the Memorial Day gatherings at my parent’s home in Falls Church, Virginia, for the parade.
Sheri told me everything about Debra’s battle as she went through it. The first 9 months were very good because she was on a medication that was working. After that, she went on another medication that gave her significant fatigue, so I did not see her as much. And near the end, she only wanted minimal visits, so Sheri would go over by herself with a ride for a quick visit and then come home.
I was at the funeral, and one of the best things for me is that the family got a service called CART (Communication Access Real-Time Translation). This is a speech to text interpreting service that I need because my hearing is so bad. The captioner was remote and I could read everything that anyone was saying on my phone. It was very meaningful to me and gave me full access to hearing the words of the rabbi and those who gave eulogies. It made me feel that I was a full part of the family and included in the service.
After the funeral, I accompanied Sheri to the 2 Shiva callings. Sheri visited with guests and relatives, and although I didn’t know who everyone was, I made sure that I was there for her.
About 2 weeks after the funeral, Debra’s loss hit Sheri hard. She and her sister were extremely close. I consider them to be more than sisters, more like best friends. Sheri was sad, quiet, and obviously in mourning. I knew this was far from her normal self. She is usually talkative, outgoing, and ready to take on any challenge, but she was not like that anymore. I’d say for over a month she was very quiet, cried frequently, and was not herself.
I realized that she was experiencing grief, but I also knew that it was impossible, even as her husband, to understand what she was going through. I have siblings, but I have never lost one. And we are all very close like Sheri was to her sister, but I still couldn’t imagine what it felt like. Sheri did talk to me and explain how sad she was and how much she missed her sister. She would sob uncontrollably and tell me that she worried the feeling of grief would never go away.
I must admit, I felt powerless. I knew there was nothing that I could say to make the pain go away. It hurt me so much to see her suffering. She took a big hit. A person that she loved for her entire life was gone. And then I realized something. I couldn’t take the pain away. There was nothing I could say that would make Sheri’s grief vanish. So, I did what I thought was best. I listened. I listened when Sheri told me how much she missed her sister. I listened when she told me why she missed her sister. I listened when she told me what she would miss about her sister. I listened when she told me she would never feel the same. And I listened when she told me that her heart felt like it was tearing open. Sheri was very involved in counseling and various therapies that helped her with her grief, so I am not trying to take all the credit for helping her get through it, but listening definitely helped.
Sheri is much better now. That doesn’t mean she has forgotten about her sister. She talks about her openly and we both talk about what we miss. But that is now. It is very different than it was 2 months ago.
Every loss is different. But if I have any advice to give to someone who is supporting a grieved loved one is simple; just listen.