You grieve more when you lose people twice

How do you grieve for someone you really didn’t know, but should have?

Just last week I heard that my half sister, May, had passed away. Perhaps I should tell you the whole story. In 1902, my Dad returned from the Anglo-Boer war to find that his wife had abandoned the three older child­ren, left baby May with her grandparents, and walked out of his life forever. Years ago I asked my half brother, then in his 90s, if he remembered his mother. He said, "I think of her only as the woman in the red shoes. I recall her walking away, wearing a pair of red shoes." 

Just over 100 years ago, my Dad arrived in Canada with a new wife and four young children. He established a homestead near the town of Galahad, in Alberta.

Actually, the maps in those days identified Galahad simply as a future townsite. He took his first crop to Killam, a full day away by wagon. His children roamed the then unfenced prairie on ponies, setting the stage for the boys to grow into skilled horsemen.

When Dad’s second wife died, he married a woman close to his children’s age and had three more children, with me as the middle one. I lived near May for only a few months during my third year, so I knew her only by the vaguest of memories, rare visits, and infrequent letters. May and her husband had permanently abandoned Alberta to settle in the lower mainland of British Columbia.

I last saw May when she had just passed her 100th birthday. She had difficulty figuring out who I was and where I fitted into the family. I had hundreds of questions to ask about her early life on the prairie.

She did talk at length about pioneer life in the original one-room sod shack, but her failing mind limited conversation. There would be no more letters from her, but her daughter, Norma, kept in touch with me and my younger sister, if only by exchanging Christmas cards and rare letters. Unfortunately, within a year or two, Norma lost her sight, and the communication stopped. Then when May and Norma moved to new quarters, we lost track of that part of the family.

Two years ago, when planning a trip to B.C. I tried to track them down without success. This year, as I planned to go again, I broadened my search and eventually contacted a family member who filled me in with the sad news. I finally learned that my half-sister, May, had died four years ago at the age of 104 – a year or so after I had ‘lost’ her and two years before my first unsuccessful search.

This year, I hope to visit her grave and pause for a few minutes to remember and grieve for the sister I hardly knew. I’ll grieve for all the wasted years when we failed to keep in touch. I’ll grieve for the half-sister I lost, then found, only to learn that I had truly lost her.

One of the best ways to deal with a death in the family is to remember the good times with that person. No one can take those memories from you, but in the case of my half-sister May, I have only the sketchiest of memories.

Do you have family members who have dropped out of sight? Track them down and keep in touch. Take it from me that when they die, you will regret that you never worked harder at keeping the communication channels open.


Ray Wiseman