real life

"My sister died suddenly. The way I grieved made people uncomfortable."

My sister, Raji, is so selfish. 

She died suddenly on a Friday night in Adelaide - giving me no time to reschedule my upcoming gel nails appointment. I had to fly from Sydney to Adelaide, knowing my nails would soon look like this:

Shock. Horror. 

C’mon, Raji. Timing, please.

You may have gathered by now that I’m one of those people who makes jokes and says inappropriate things in times of grief. It’s usually never my best work; it garners polite smiles at best, and deservedly so.

But I learnt, after my dad died in a car crash years ago, it’s one of the major ways I relieve my heart-breaking, suffocating sorrow.

“It’s called a eugoogly,” I told my older sister at the time, who was writing one on mum’s behalf, referencing the iconic Zoolander joke. She looked at me strangely, while I smiled to myself at my hilariousness.

I realised I’d made the comment as a distraction for myself, to comfort my discomfort. But I also knew Dad wouldn’t have wanted us morose.

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The same goes for Raji.

“Either maintain your nail polish or don’t wear any at all,” my always immaculate sister would have advised upon seeing my overdue nails post, whilst calling her nail salon to make an appointment.

I can feel Raj nodding in agreement at that, and in approval of my nail post, and that’s comforting to me. 

Raji, just 42, was a psychiatrist, mum-of-two, beautiful, kind, funny, the most generous person you’d ever meet, and one of my best friends for more than four decades.

We grew up in a household which recognised sarcasm as humour, and it stuck. We are the best roasters of each other, and in particular, it’s how Raji and I have always related.

Fast forward a short lifetime later, I didn’t give a personal eulogy at my sister’s funeral three weeks ago. I didn’t want to overshadow her with my dazzling comedic genius. (Kidding, again. Sort of.) I didn’t give a personal speech because I delivered the eulogy on behalf of my brother-in-law.

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But that doesn’t mean I didn’t try it on; in fact, I opened with a joke about my height in relation to the podium. Everyone in the room giggled, and it perceptibly relived the tension.

Raji would have loved it, and called me a ‘short ass’ as she often did.    

I’ve found that whilst relieving grief with humour is a perfectly valid coping mechanism, it isn’t always recognised as so. It’s deemed inappropriate, or even rude. I’ve often had deadpan reactions to things I’ve said. People are confused, unsure, and think my reaction isn’t normal.

It is.

Of course, I can distinguish when humour is truly not appropriate. I certainly can’t use it with my utterly devastated, never-to-be-the-same mother. Even I can recognise that’s not right.

And that’s what’s key, here. I make these jokes, comments and posts mostly for myself; it’s how I’m processing my grief.

Should I be careful about offending other people? Only my mother and of course, Raji’s husband and two boys. When I’m in their presence, as their grief takes precedence over mine.

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But at other times, especially when I’m truly dying on the inside, the ‘silly comments’ are just instinctive. 

Raji’s death has ruined a number of new songs for me, meant that I can’t physically bring myself to make a nail (or hair) appointment, or use any of the exxy products she sent to me as a COVID care package the week she died.

So. Annoying.

I want to joke about all of that, and post photos of myself wearing the stuff I’ve ‘stolen’ (by invite from her husband) from her, boasting that I finally got my hands on her fancy sunnies. And I will do that over time.

The alternative for me is to be constantly silent and sad, and I can’t do that. I have a child to look after, and I won’t raise him in misery. I have to be there for my family, have very intense conversations, and I’m not strong enough to do that unless my grief is relieved regularly by saying lame stuff that Raji would have appreciated had she not lost her life so unfairly and suddenly.

You not being here sucks, Raj. You owe me a manicure.

Nama Winston has had a decade-long legal career (paid), and a decade-plus parenting career (sadly unpaid). You can follow her on Instagram and Facebook.

Feature image: Supplied.

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