What I’ve Learned About Grief And Loss A Year After My Sister’s Passing

My family. Kelly, mom, Lisa, me and dad.

By Belinda Cai

I’ll never forget the phone call. I screamed and cried so loud the neighbors knocked on my door and asked if I was okay. I’m not okay, I yelled. I’m not okay! The rest is a blur. 

“Belinda… Kelly… Kelly is in the hospital for attempting suicide,” my dad sobbed. 

Upon hearing this news, my other sister Lisa and I flew from Los Angeles to Cincinnati, Ohio, where my mom, dad and sister Kelly lived. We spent as many hours as permitted at the hospital, in the University of Cincinnati Neuroscience ICU, by Kelly’s bedside as she was in a coma. We talked to her. We bawled. We held her hand. We kissed her. We told her we loved her. A few days later, she passed away. 

Kelly died on August 23, 2020, in the midst of COVID-19. I have no doubt in my mind that the pandemic affected her mental health and pushed her over the edge. Being a recent college graduate, Kelly was juggling a lot at the time: a new job, a first serious breakup, missing her friends who were all pandemic-cuffed to their partners and trying to figure out her place in the world.

Speaking of the world, it is a far dimmer place without Kelly in it — without her warm smile, gentle humor, profound kindness, deep generosity and frequent silliness. Kelly was the best listener and gave the most heartfelt advice. She was such a fun friend. Movies were our thing. Lisa, Kelly and I watched hundreds of them together, into the unspeakable hours of the night, laughing until we couldn’t breathe or screaming at scary scenes. 

Speaking of the world, it is a far dimmer place without Kelly in it — without her warm smile, gentle humor, profound kindness, deep generosity and frequent silliness.

Kelly doing what she loved best.

Kelly was a beautiful soul, shy and passionate. She loved to read, play with cats and make food including desserts like mochi brownies. It’s tough for anyone who knew her to not feel deep regret. To not feel we should have done more. That’s the thing with suicides: you always end up blaming yourself, others and sometimes even the person who is gone. In the end, the only culprit is severe mental illness and a criminal lack of education surrounding suicide prevention in schools and society at large.

It’s been a year since we lost my sister and there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t think about her. Her sweet face with the smoothest skin, her trendy glasses, her straight dark hair. I cry. I mourn. I give myself permission to feel my feelings. I allow myself to be human. Sibling loss is so incredibly painful, especially when it’s sudden and unexpected. Especially when it takes place during a global pandemic that is already causing stress and wreaking havoc on peoples’ mental health. 

I’ve been grieving with the rest of the world about the year lost to COVID. But I’ve also been grieving about something that only certain people will ever understand: the pain of losing someone who has taken their own life, without the chance to say goodbye or make amends with them. Only others who have lost loved ones to suicide could possibly understand the cruel depth of this pain.

It hasn’t even fully sunk in yet that I won’t get a future with Kelly — that Lisa and I are forced to go on without her. We’ve both envisioned futures with her. She moves to Los Angeles, becomes more confident in her identity, spends time with us constantly watching movies or exploring the city, and we all get very close… Now those visions are just fantasies. So we are not only mourning having lost her, we are mourning the future we were supposed to have with her. The future that was taken away from us. 

I’ve realized, even in this one year: grief is never something you “move on from” or recover from — you grow with it. You learn to live with it. It morphs and takes different forms, and comes in waves. It’s something that will be with you forever. I find myself crying almost every day; even happy memories are tinged with sadness. Grief has changed who I am, for better or for worse. 

I’ve realized, even in this one year: grief is never something you “move on from” or recover from — you grow with it. You learn to live with it. It morphs and takes different form, and comes in waves. It’s something that will be with you forever.

On good days, I can think of Kelly when I’m reminded of her — seeing the foods she liked (such as pho, macarons and boba), watching a show she liked (like “Avatar, the Last Airbender”), thinking of the books she liked (like Haruki Murakami books), seeing quirky things she’d find amusing (like funny cats) — and feel warm, like she is present. I can experience the sun beaming down on me, feel a breeze on my skin, and believe that Kelly is watching over me. 

Kelly and me.

When my family was together on a day trip in Yellow Springs a few months ago, we yelled into the sky, “We love you Kelly!” We felt her with us. What has helped my family and me a lot is honoring and celebrating Kelly’s life in almost everything we do. Most recently, for her birthday on April 1st, we planted a dogwood tree in our front yard and placed a memorial stone that says, “Kelly JinJin Cai / Always A Cai / Forever Love” next to it. The tree will blossom like our love for Kelly will continue to grow. We also all wrote personalized messages onto balloons and released them into the air for her. 

What has helped my family and me a lot is honoring and celebrating Kelly’s life in almost everything we do.

We purchased a memorial bench for her in one of our favorite parks — one that we’d taken many a walk in as a family. It has a plaque that says “Kelly Cai, daughter and sister. Avid reader and lover of cats.” When people see it, they’ll learn a little about her. I wrote an EP titled “Kelly Forever” and am continuing to write music for her. I’m also journaling as much as I can, jotting down things I wish I could tell her, memories I have with her and what I wish our lives together could be like. I’ve written some poetry about her. My sister Lisa is making visual art for her. My parents are writing and painting for her too. Just channeling our heartache into creativity has been healing for us, and it shows Kelly in a beautiful light. We’ve also donated money to groups that help prevent suicide, in Kelly’s honor. Oh, and dad, mom, Lisa and I all got matching tattoos with a “K” inside of a heart (a big deal for mom and dad!).

I’ve read some books and watched documentaries that are specific to those who have lost someone to suicide. It’s a unique and tormenting experience to know your loved one took their own life, so it’s comforting to find solidarity with those going through the same thing. Like others in our situation, my family and Kelly’s friends struggle with regret, self-blame and guilt. I think those feelings exist with other forms of loss too. I try practicing self-compassion and self-forgiveness. It’s tough, but in the end, I have to be kind to myself to move forward.  

I think what’s helped me most is connecting with others who have lost someone in the same way I have. They truly understand. No one else does. I’ve connected with five or so people who have lost siblings and loved ones to suicide. Hearing them talk about their experiences, what’s helped them and how they are starting to heal has been incredibly valuable. 

I’ve connected with five or so people who have lost siblings and loved ones to suicide. Hearing them talk about their experiences, what’s helped them and how they are starting to heal has been incredibly valuable.

We love you, Kelly.

I’m in a support group on Facebook and follow Instagram accounts about grief. I occasionally attend a support group via video chat. I’m also in therapy. I was in a community group, Proud Asian Women+, where we could be vulnerable and talk about healing — so I brought up my sister a lot. It’s nice to know that others care about me and support me, especially in a community where mental health isn’t typically discussed. My family and I also video chat once a week and do prayers for Kelly, religious for my parents, spiritual for Lisa and me. We talk to her in the prayers and catch up with each other, to make sure we’re all doing okay.

My family has become much closer and more empathetic. At Kelly’s funeral, my father finally admitted that mental illness is real (ignoring mental illness is not uncommon in the AAPI community). He didn’t want to believe it before. He didn’t personally go through it or understand, but now he does. It’s deeply unfortunate he had to learn this way. Beyond talking just once a week, we check in on one another often. We practice more patience and kindness towards one another. I try to visit my family back in Ohio more often. I don’t take a single moment with my family for granted anymore.  

When alone, I let myself cry a lot, as mentioned earlier. I let myself sleep in when I’m feeling blue. I go out in nature and try to feel connected with her spirit. I carve her initials into trees everywhere I travel, leaving a bit of her behind. I try to feel her when I’m outdoors, letting the sun, her presence, graze my shoulders. I don’t try to distract myself. When the sadness hits, it hits. I recognize this is normal and I should give myself as much time as I need.

But also, very importantly, I try to take time to find happiness in my days. I try to be present and practice gratitude for all the little things I previously overlooked. The kindness of a stranger, the intense love I have for those in my life, creativity and introspection, the gratitude I have for living in Los Angeles and the happiness I experience when I travel to new places. Kelly’s death has really put what’s important into perspective. I try to appreciate life, knowing that it’s short and fleeting, and we don’t have any control over what happens to us.

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