By Susan Beal
My older sister, Cynthia, was killed by a drunk driver when I was nineteen. I was certain I was the one who should have died, not her. I had to cope with not only the loss of my beloved sister, but with the void that opened up in my own understanding of what was real, what was truth and who exactly I was.
Unfortunately, the way I coped was to deny my own nature in order to appease the inner voice that said I had to atone for the mistake of her death. I felt guilty to be alive when she was not and decided I had to be as much like Cynthia as possible. It was intentional at first, driven by the fierceness of my grief and the tortured way it expressed itself. I wrote in my journal, over and over again, I must be more like Cynthia. I must be good like Cynthia. I wore her clothing. I moved into her bedroom so it wouldn’t become a grim shrine. I stuck it out with my boyfriend through the fights and disappointments between us and married him right after college, because Cynthia had declared we were perfect for each other and to break up with him would have been to betray her.
Cyn was the bright yellow to my cool blue, the sunlit meadow to my misty greenwood. She was outgoing, heart-on-her sleeve, romantic, dramatic, and generous to a fault. Whereas I was shy, quiet, and kept my feelings to myself. I preferred the company of animals and plants to people, whereas Cynthia probably would have thrown herself in front of a train to save a stranger. When she was sad or distressed, the entire household vibrated with her pain. When she cried, she howled in long, drawn out, gutteral sobs that forced all of us to participate in her heartbreak. If she had a paper due or a big exam, we all progressed through the stages of inspiration, creative block, hair tearing and then final triumph at the 11th hour! Mom pulled all-nighters to help her finish school projects, type up and proofread papers, quiz her on questions and soothe and encourage her until everything was done.
I was completely different. I wrote my papers and studied for tests on my own. And whether Mom formed her opinions of me from watching me through the years, or I molded myself to fit her expectations, I grew up hearing, “I never worry about you, Sue. I know you can handle it.” But this never felt like a compliment, more of a dismissal of who I was. But I didn’t know who I was because I lived so completely in my sister’s shadow.
After Cynthia died, instead of laying her to rest I buried myself and wandered away from my grave. I didn’t realize how far I had strayed until the truth caught up to me in middle age. I think it was Jung who said that the first half of life is spent cultivating the Self in order to fit in; middle age is confronting all the shadow parts of the Self you suppressed in that effort, and elderhood is the process of integrating them into a whole.
For thirty years I had been living according to the vows I had made in the weeks and months following Cynthia’s death, to be the kind of person I thought she was. I stopped doing what I loved and what I was good at and instead began doing what I thought I needed to do to be loved and be a good person. But at some point it dawned on me that I had been suffocating for years, and I couldn’t be Cynthia anymore.
So one night, I created a ritual. I spoke to Cynthia’s spirit and memory and told her I was letting her go. I wrote down the vows I’d made to be like her, and burned the paper in the fireplace. I envisioned my sister laid to rest and my own abandoned selves flying back to me from my past. That night, I got a terrible headache. It persisted, increasing in intensity until by the third day I literally banged my head on the wall to try to make it stop. A CAT scan revealed nothing abnormal, but I already knew my headache was a result of all the energy returning too fast and too burdened by the past. When I was finally able to cry for all that I had denied within myself, the headache dissolved.
One afternoon, about a week after my ritual, I picked up the latest issue of Ode magazine, which we subscribed to. I opened to the back and there was an article titled, “Natural Burial,” by Cynthia Beal. I could hardly breathe for the shock of it--my sister’s name! The author, a bereavement counselor and funeral director in Eugene, Oregon, wrote about honoring death as a part of life. When we let our loved one go, she wrote, we allow them, and ourselves, to move on.
At that moment, an angel appearing in a blaze of light couldn’t have made it plainer that laying Cynthia to rest was what I had needed to do in order to find my way back to wholeness and the Love that lay buried inside, waiting to be reclaimed.
Curious about the port-mortem realms or other subtle world experiences? David Spangler's Subtle Worlds: An Explorer's Field Notes serves as an overall field guide for exploring the inner realms. Also there will be a free teleclass led by Rue Hass and Freya Secrest on Wednesday May 4: Styles of Subtle Perception. This teleclass introduces their six week class Working with Subtle Energies, which begins on Monday, May 9. Click on the links above for more details about the book and/or classes.