Last Saturday, March 31, marked the one-year anniversary of a day that will live forever in my memory. It was the day I sat at the foot of my precious little sister's bed with my hand on her much-too-thin leg and watched her take her last, struggling breath. She had spent the last year of her mortal life in a battle against a rare and advanced form of pediatric ovarian cancer-- a battle that she won with flying colors even as she departed mortality, a sweeter and more angelic person than I ever could have imagined. She endured more pain than I can begin to comprehend, yet she never let it get the best of her. To the end she sought to serve others and praise the Lord for holding her hand through it all. She entered the realms of immortality a conqueror of the flesh, free from the pains and weaknesses of it.
The rest of us, her friends and family, were left behind to learn how to say goodbye.
Her name was Risa-- a name that means "laughter". She was my best friend. My childhood slave and mischief accomplice. As little kids, we fought like a cat and dog, and together endured the humiliation of punishment.All my life it was "Railee and Risa's room" or "Railee and Risa's bed-time." If anyone was to blame for a mess of toys or obnoxious loud noises that disturbed the rest of the household (whether those noises were playful or contentious), it was "Railee and Risa!" I used to resent always being paired with the baby of the family instead of with my idolized older siblings. But as we got older, she became my very best friend. Home with Risa was always more fun than going out with friends. Driving to and from parties with her often produced more good memories than the parties themselves. And more and more with every year, I began to look up to her as a good example to me, instead of looking down on her as a "little sister". She was everything that is beautiful and virtuous in my eyes. I remember the way I would boast about her to my coworkers and boyfriends. I even told one of my friends very randomly one day, "Do you know what? My little sister is my pride and my joy. That's kind of cool, isn't it?" I never could have imagine, at that time, that I would one day lose her.
I'll forever remember the day that Risa came to pick me up from work in a 1995 white Toyota Corolla, beaming with excitement. "Where did this car come from?" I asked her as I hopped inside.
"Dad got it for really cheap and said it could be our car!"
It was no sleek sports car, but to us, it was the most beautiful piece of machinery we'd ever seen. We gushed over it the whole way home, setting up our sharing rules and planning how we'd keep it clean and how we'd personalize it and make it our own. We named it Oscar, and he was our baby.
I was driving Oscar home from a school dance with my oldest sister, Rachel, when I learned that the "dance injury" Risa had been complaining of for several months was feared to actually be cancer. I dropped my sister off at her apartment, and on my way home had to pull to the side of the road because of the tears that blurred my vision. I prayed so hard that night. I prayed that it wasn't true. I prayed that if it was true, it would go away. I prayed for strength and comfort, but mostly I prayed, Why? Why Risa? "Please, not my Risa," I remember pleading out loud. And at the same time, I remember thinking that it made so much sense. She was too perfect. Too good to be in this world. Were she a character in a book, she's exactly the character I would have known from the beginning would die a tragic and inspiring death.
As I sat in the car that night, before Risa's diagnosis was even official, that was when the Savior sat with me and filled me with a peace I can hardly describe. "It's going to be ok," I felt Him say to me. In my naivete, at the time I thought that meant that she would live, but it gave me the strength I needed to bear the next few weeks and months.
In every stage of the process that took Risa further and further from this life, it was the Savior who would give me the strength I needed to go on. It was a strength beyond myself. A strength I never doubted for a moment came from Heaven. Angels truly bore me up as I said goodbye to my beloved Risa and prepared for her funeral.
The Gospel gave me such peace. Risa died on Easter weekend, and it was so powerful to realize the full meaning of what Easter is all about. Christ's Atonement and Resurrection broke the bands of death, making it possible for all of us to do the same. Because of what He did, Risa will never truly die. Because of what He did, her broken and bruised, frail little body will be made whole and perfect and be reunited with her Spirit. I will see her again as she was, but in a glorified form. She will always be my sister, and someday we will laugh together again and embrace. The power of this realization of what Christ has made possible takes me from a place of deepest sorrow to one of indescribable joy. In a moment I could go from dreadful heartache to singing the praises of my Savior for what He has done!
In the year that has passed since that March 31, 2011, I am still learning how to say goodbye. Because of the sweet knowledge I have that death is not the end, I often feel that I have no right to be sad. When I miss Risa so much it hurts and I want to roll over and die, sometimes thinking about the blessings of the Gospel makes me feel better, but sometimes it just makes me feel guilty for crying. I tell myself that I wouldn't cry if my faith was stronger. And that is what this long, long, long post is really about. ... It's about crying.
I understand now, better than I ever did as a primary kid smartly quoting it because it was the shortest in the Bible, the scripture in John: "Jesus wept."
Two words. So simple, and yet so beautiful to me. They describe the Savior's response when Lazarus died and his friends and family were mourning. Jesus knew that He was going to raise Lazarus from the dead, but when he saw the tears of those around Him, He didn't chastise them for their lack of faith or even tell them to "calm down and watch this!" No, he didn't even preach to them. There was no patting on the back and, "You know, it's really ok. I'm going to make it better." Instead, He simply cried with them. He felt, with them, the pain of losing a loved one. Even knowing that it was only temporary, He wept. He wept and in so doing, taught them that sometimes, it really is ok to cry when it hurts. We don't have to be brave all the time. It's a whole other facet of the atonement. It's what He meant when He said that He would take all our pains upon Him. He wants us to turn to Him, not only for strength to carry on, but for a shoulder to cry on and a friend to weep with when it hurts. In His weeping with me, I have felt comfort on the most intimate level. It's a comfort that lets me know that He really, truly does know exactly how I feel, and therefore helps me to trust Him when He says, "You can do it. I will help you to do it." It's that assurance that helps me to stand up again when I feel ready and move forward.
Coming to a place where you're "over it" isn't about learning not to cry anymore. It's about learning how to cry. Crying with the Savior is completely different from crying alone. While there is still the sadness, there is no longer despair.
I've come to learn that no one can possibly understand exactly how I feel about Risa's passing. It hits everyone in a different way. Even my own family members each feel so differently about it, and we experienced it all together. But Christ has felt what I feel in exact detail, and He alone knows exactly how to heal me. He knows how to heal my family. He knows how to heal my friends. This is the beauty of the atonement, and this is what I want to share with the world. No matter what you're going through, the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ, knows YOU and He knows what YOU need. He wants you to come to Him. He wants you to let Him cry with you and hold you and, when you're ready, He wants to show you how to make it better.
I love my Savior with all that I am. I am so grateful for the healing He provides. I am so grateful for His love and His atoning sacrifice. I know that through Him, all our losses will be made up. I know that because of what He did, my family is sealed for time and all eternity, and that we will all be together in the next life. I can't wait to see His face and embrace Him, and Risa, with all my strength!