On grieving for my sister and youth

Rafaela Green drowned in Lake Como, Italy. The crystal clear blue water of the Lake claimed her. She was 18-years-old.

Rafaela became the character in my novel After Rafaela who allowed me to grieve the departure from my life of my best friend, D, a person hugely important to me, and my sister who died incredibly young from cervical cancer. The water of the Lake is the fluid substance that hides a million secrets and the house – the Villa San Antonio – is the sanctuary for quiet reflection. Both are ‘characters’ in the story, the water and the house, things that are solid, ever-present and comforting, never judgmental, but also dangerous. 

These two defining moments shaped my life in those early years; my deeply intense relationship with my teenage best friend, who I will call D, out of respect for her privacy. D and I were inseparable. When our worlds were changing and we were changing with them, D and I found solace in each other.

Together we felt we could take on the world. She was, in essence, my first love – a love that was platonic – but more important in many ways than any early sexual relationship. 

Then, a few years later my sister died. She’d been my rock when my world was fluid, transparent and on very shaky ground. Her dying happened quickly – but gradually; in that, although in the grand scheme of things she was there and then she wasn’t, in the minute detail of everyday life, her slow decline took many months. 

My sister, Suzanne, was funny, creative, successful and warm. She listened, she advised, she cared, she was interested in me and all those around her. I was her quirky little sister and she loved me with such gusto and genuine caring. 

Suzanne left school when she was 16 and moved out of home, renting a bedsit close to the college she had applied to and had been accepted for. The college of art was well respected in the fashion industry as one that produced fashion designers of note. She was talented as a fashion designer and this talent had been obvious from an early age. I was her willing ‘model’, loved being part of her creative world; by model, I meant the person she would design clothes for – in her apprenticeship. 

I looked up to her as the woman I wanted to aspire to be; warm, down-to-earth, worldly, creative, motivated, successful but most of all at one with herself and the world. 

My sister spoke no ill of anyone. She was everyone’s best friend, in the truest most genuine sense of the world. And then, when she was only in her early 30s, she got ill and died. When she died, my world fell apart. My world, as I said – fluid and transparent, in its early formative years, became a world now that had shattered and splintered into millions of unconnected pieces. In being alive, I also died. I wanted to die. I wanted to be with her. But I had to carry on living and so I fled, to the other side of the world where no memories of her hid in the landscape.

In writing After Rafaela, I wanted to exorcise these demons of grief that have never left me. In writing the novel, I wanted to examine grief from the point of view of obsession. In After Rafaela, Leni is obsessed with her dead friend Rafaela. All her mistakes and every bad thing that happens to her comes back to one thing; her feelings of guilt at the way Rafaela died and her own inner failings.

Leni, India and Becca’s lives were all shattered when Rafaela died. None of them – and none of them had help to deal with what happened – could deal with their rage and grief and so this anger manifested itself in a variety of ways; Leni in her marriage to evil Robert Wheeler, a narcissistic control freak who mirrors the behaviour of Leni’s own narcissistic mother; India’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder and her mental breakdown; Becca’s inability to keep a job or a boyfriend or remain solvent. 

When someone dies, our own lives are viewed from a new perspective. It is as though we have died with them and forced to be reborn without them. The adjustment to this new identity is incredibly hard, sometimes impossible. To go through this at such a young age when nothing much makes sense is inexpressibly difficult. 

Today, I still have questions about my best friend’s departure from my life and my sister’s death. I am still grieving the loss of both of them. Daily, I mourn their absence from my life. Daily I think sweet and private thoughts about them. Daily I am reminded about their physical beings from photos, physical souvenirs, little whispers of conversations I can still hear in my mind. These losses informed and directed my future and led me to where I am now.
AFTER RAFAELA (March 2016.jpeg

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