Reflections on a week I will never forget and my tribute to Sheryl
I am home this morning after a long, difficult week filled with both grief and precious memories. It feels good to be home and strange to be home (in WV) at the same time. WV has been home base since February 2012. WV has been our primary home ever since we bought a business here. And I've made many wonderful friends here. But Nashville will always be home as well because it's where my family and many lifelong friends are. I also love the city of Nashville. So no matter which direction I'm going between here and there, it kind of feels like I'm always traveling "home." Which is nice. I'm thankful for our cozy condo there. It's a little haven for me to spend regular time in and stay connected physically to so many people I love and miss.
John and I left for several days in Nashville on June 1. We thought the only purpose of our trip was to be with his mom for a new treatment she was about to begin. I always go to be with her for medical appointments. I help her digest, process and retain details. I like being with her for any treatment in case she has any reactions or side effects. John doesn't always go with me because he has a business to run. But this time John decided he would go and we would leave early to spend a long weekend there (relaxing) prior to her appointment on Tuesday morning.
Sunday evening John and I were watching Netflix and my phone rang. I saw it was my close friend Janette. Janette and I text a lot and call rarely. I had no feeling of dread like anything bad was happening, but I knew that I needed to pause the show and answer (not call back later) because it must be important if she was calling instead of texting. One of the reasons we opt for texting is that we know texts can be read and responded to when convenient.
My instinct to pick up was the right one. Janette was calling to tell me Sheryl had been found unresponsive after a family member had been trying unsuccessfully to contact her for hours. Janette was sobbing and I couldn't understand every word, but I knew this was the day we had all feared and dreaded for so long. And in those moments, it was hard to be 30 minutes away from Janette and her family. But I was so thankful I was only 30 minutes away. God had already brought me to town from WV because this did not catch Him by surprise. He has intervened so many times before in, frankly, miraculous ways. So I knew it was finally His ultimate mercy. But that didn't make it any less painful for those of us who loved her. I never stopped hoping and praying for her recovery and triumph over addiction.
Many people don't grasp the disease aspect of addiction. I can't claim to fully understand it either, since I don't struggle with it. But I knew Sheryl on such an intimate level and watched her struggle over a very long period of time. We also had many long, heart to heart talks about it. Sheryl was transparent and open and always exhibited humility in those conversations. She told me how much she appreciated that, even though I acknowledged I would never fully understand her struggle, I WANTED to understand it from her perspective and I didn't judge her. I would often ask her questions about what she felt and what drove her to take a pill that would provide such temporary relief and bring such endless pain to her own existence. She tried to tell me things she knew I couldn't relate to and I listened intently, trying so hard to put myself in her shoes. She knew it was disappointing and frustrating and even devastating at times for everyone who loved her to watch her cycle through recovery and relapse. And she hated disappointing the people who loved her most. She felt disappointed in herself. And she DID know what it was like to suffer from addiction.
One thing Sheryl helped me to understand about addiction was that, for her at least, the pills and substances were not about seeking a "high" or any kind of euphoria. She said, "It's relief from pain, shame, anxiety, depression, loneliness, the struggle to get through another day of all those things, knowing after I get through today, I will then have to get through it all again tomorrow and every day for the rest of my life. This battle will never end for as long as I'm living. I will always fight just to get through a day without taking a pill for a little relief."
When you think of an addict, you wouldn't see my friend Sheryl in your mental image. She was brilliant and gifted in so many ways. She was beautiful. She was part of a loving, close, lively family. She had everything to live for. And she knew Jesus. She had a deep connection to the love and grace of her heavenly Father. She knew He loved her. She knew her family loved her. I don't think she comprehended the impact she had on so many of the people who had the privilege of knowing her, even briefly. But she knew she was loved. Shame is a driving force in addiction. We all have shame to some degree. But we don't all have the gene that results in an addictive personality.
If you are someone who has ever looked down on a person struggling with addiction, I hope reading this will help you grow in compassion and understanding. It's a horrible disease that is all too often terminal. The family of an addict suffers the pain of trying to know how to respond in a healthy way, not an enabling way, because they love the addict and want them to be well. It's a constant pendulum swing between wondering if they are being enabling or their tough love is too tough. No matter which end of the spectrum their swing is in, they doubt every choice, word and action. All anyone wants is just to help them get well. But we are all human and flawed. This is something Sheryl and I talked about many times and very recently. The addict needs grace, for sure. But so does the family of an addict. And when Sheryl was struggling with "tough love" aspects of her family's efforts to motivate her NOT to use substances, I reminded her that she had to extend grace TO them equal to the grace she desired FROM them. She totally agreed even when that was hard. The pain her family is in now is a completely different kind of pain and even more intense than their previous pain. It's a pain they could only imagine and now it is all too real. It's a pain one cannot be prepared for.
If you had met Sheryl on a good day, you would have had absolutely NO idea that she was plagued with so many intense inner struggles. She was funny, bubbly, quick witted, SO intelligent. She was one of the most empathetic and compassionate persons I have ever known in my life. As so many mentioned in memorializing her, she made you feel less alone. She made you feel safe, accepted and loved. She seemed much more uninhibited than she truly was. She seemed less self-conscious than she actually was. She often seemed much happier than what she felt deep down inside. But she always tried to make other people feel better and mask her own pain. One of the honors I had in life was to be the kind of friend Sheryl could completely take the mask off with and let the content of her heart spill out. We were both so transparent with each other. But I wasn't the only friend she could do that with. Many who spoke of her Saturday mentioned how they had experienced her as transparent and open. I think sometimes her humor helped her to be both open and guarded at the same time.
When I started typing this blog post, I was going to write a short introduction and then share the tribute I gave to Sheryl at her memorial. I wanted my friends who weren't there to know how I felt about her and how special she was. I didn't know I was going to write such a long preamble. But I think Sheryl would approve every word. And if anything I have written helps someone reading to have more understanding and compassion for the struggle of addiction and the struggle of an addicted person's family, I would view that as a legacy Sheryl would love to embrace.
I want to preserve and share the words I wrote and spoke at her memorial here on my blog. I cried and sniffled from beginning to end. I even got an unexpected laugh after a reference to why I would not need a long goodbye (when I go). In that laughter, I felt loved. It was warm, knowing, embracing laughter (at least that's how it felt in the moment). I didn't feel laughed "at" for being who I am. And that makes ALL the difference. It's exactly how I felt when Sheryl teased me. My son had mentioned how he experienced Sheryl's humor as intimacy. I had never thought of it that way, but it resonated in that moment with a whole room full of grieving friends sharing their love for Sheryl (whether by speaking or just being present). Another tribute to the person whose life brought us all together to remember.
In loving memory of Sheryl Louise Linder ...
Sheryl leaving this earth is one of the hardest losses I have experienced in my 60 years. I knew I would want to speak today and I could talk for hours about my friend, which is not appropriate in this setting. So I decided to write something, rather than take the chance that I would talk too long and be overcome with emotion. I may still be overcome with emotion. But this will keep me from taking too much time. Most in this room know I am a person of many words – especially when I am trying to fully express my heart. That’s something I’ve often felt embarrassed about. But Sheryl made me feel that she loved and appreciated every single part of me. Which was one of her wonderful gifts to others, including me.
I saw a meme today that said “Sometimes talking to your sister is all the therapy you need.”
I immediately thought of Sheryl and our many long, meaningful visits together. How she comforted me, encouraged me, affirmed me, and ALWAYS made me laugh. Sheryl was a blend of my favorite qualities in a friend and I told her that often. She was so real and genuine. My soul was at home with her. She was so intelligent and insightful. Our conversations were deep. She was so compassionate and empathetic. Her presence was soothing and healing. She was so quick witted and funny. She was fun to be with even when I was laughing through my tears. Laughter is what gets us through the stresses of life. It takes the edge off of pain. And she did that for me as recently as two weeks ago.
In a recent text conversation Sheryl referred to me as her fourth sister. And she texted these words that I have already shared with Dee Dee and Janette:
“We are blessed, so blessed. When I think about all we have been through, ALL OF US, it makes me want to cry. We are all so blessed to have each other. Forever and even after death. That’s the great news. Morbid, but great.” And then a laughing out loud emoji.
Sheryl has been a true sister to me for decades. Along with her mom and sisters, she drew me in close during some especially difficult times in my life and held onto me all these years as I held onto her. Even though there were periods of time when I wouldn’t hear from her, the minute we were together, our connection was unchanged.
As the years went by and we grew older, our bond only seemed to continually deepen. When I would think of Sheryl, I would think of someone who really got me on the deepest level of who I am and how I respond to life internally as well as externally. That is one of the most comforting things in friendship and life; to know your heart is truly known and truly loved; that your heart or motives are not questioned or misjudged. Even when someone knows you well enough to see the worst along with the best in you.
The last time I was with Sheryl, she came over to my condo after work and spent the night so we would have more time to catch up. The morning of May 25th, I would see her for the last time. She told me not to bother getting up to say goodbye. She would just slip out because she had to leave for work by 5:30. But I got up so we could talk while she got ready, and to give her one more hug before she left. Then I walked out on the balcony and stood there until her Uber came. I watched her drive away. I remember thinking about how much I was going to miss her until I saw her again. I had no way of knowing it was the last time until heaven. But I’m thankful I will have such a vivid memory of that unknowing goodbye. God does little things for us all the time that we are not even aware of until we are looking back in hindsight. And then they are no longer little things but big moments.
Different people have told me in the wake of Sheryl’s death what a good friend I was to her. But I want you all to know that SHERYL was a good friend TO ME. She is irreplaceable in my life. Every time I think about the reality of not seeing her, not laughing with her, and not being able to share my heart with her again in this life, I am overcome with unspeakable pain and sadness. The only person I’m not sad for is Sheryl. Because we know where she is and who is with her now.
We don’t always have opportunities to tell people how deeply we will miss them if they are ever not here because we’re usually not anticipating imminent loss. Especially premature loss. But I have learned in my life that loss sometimes comes suddenly, unexpectedly, and prematurely. And I think about my own mortality on a regular basis. So I try to tell people how I feel about them every chance I get. I know I’m “too much” for some. But I’ve often said that I won’t need a long goodbye because I leave so very little unsaid. I believe the people in my life know how much I love them even if everything in our relationship isn’t perfect.
Because of Sheryl’s struggles, we had many conversations about “if” this day one day came. Nobody likes to talk about death. But Sheryl and I could talk about anything. And I told her so many times, through alligator tears, that I couldn’t begin to put into words how deeply I would miss her for the rest of my life and what a huge, gaping hole she would leave in my heart if she left. I told her I cherished our time together and I cherished her. I told her she was one of my dearest and most favorite friends. She was the kind of friend I would run to first when I needed compassion and unconditional love. And I told her how honored I have always felt to be her sister-friend. She was such a gift in my life and I made sure she knew that.
Sheryl, if you are looking down on this gathering, I want to tell you that the pain of your absence feels more intense than I could have ever imagined. But deeper love means deeper pain. All the pain I am left with in your absence is a consequence of knowing and loving you, and is like a monument in my heart to who you were and what you meant to me in this life. You were and are so worth feeling this pain. And when I think of you, I will remember how you always helped me to laugh through my tears.
I love you forever.