Welcome back to The Story Behind The Story series. Today’s post is by Belinda Noakes. Her courage and big heart touches me immensely. Prepare to be inspired!
In 1979, my younger sister was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. There were three of us: I was nine years old, the littlest one was two and Virginia was six. To say her diagnosis came as a shock to us all is a gross understatement.
As the eldest child, I felt both an increased sense of responsibility and a heightened sense of helplessness. I was supposed to take care of my little sisters. But how was I going to keep her safe in the face of this disease that we couldn’t even see, especially when the treatments seemed almost as brutal as the cancer itself?
When Virginia first got sick, she said her whole body hurt. She didn’t want to get out of bed. Everything hurt too much. She cried and cried even when lying in bed. She screamed when she had to move. This was very unusual. She didn’t normally complain about anything.
We lived with our mother and father on a remote sheep and cattle station in the Australian outback. I recall creeping around the house those first few days, wondering what was wrong with her and feeling my mother’s anxiety growing. I wasn’t sure whether to keep behaving normally or drop everything and sit beside Virginia’s bed. I didn’t know what to do.
She got worse, not better. As my mother began to work with the limited medical resources available in our local area to try to find out what was wrong, I started to feel guilty because Virginia was so sick and I wasn’t. Being well suddenly felt like cheating. Being happy felt somehow disrespectful. Continuing with ‘normal life’ felt out of the question, yet the adults seemed to expect me to do just that. It was very confusing.
So I settled on a compromise: outwardly, I would keep it together. I wouldn’t show them I was worried. I wouldn’t let them see how scared I felt. I would keep all the wondering and waiting and worrying on the inside – tucked away, out of sight.
A couple of weeks later, after the doctors confirmed her diagnosis and I’d wept into my grandmothers’ pillow for half an hour, I decided I’d cried enough. Crying all the time wasn’t going to help anyone. My grandmother wasn’t comfortable with visible emotion – she always said if someone else cried, she couldn’t help but join them. So I wasn’t going to add to my family’s distress by letting them see how upset I was. Ever again.
From that moment onwards, I rarely cried at all. When I did, it was brief and in private. I tried very hard never to cry in front of my family and I learned how to stuff emotions into my body and lock them up tight so they wouldn’t leak out. Over time and with practice, I got better and better at it until eventually, I hardly ever felt much at all.
When Virginia died a week after my 16th birthday, I let the tears out at her funeral. I sobbed until there was nothing left. I realised the service was almost over when, with a soft electrical hum, the coffin moved. As the furnace doors opened in front of me, the wooden box that contained my sister’s body trundled quietly into the flames.
As I said goodbye, I thought the sorrow might actually tear my chest apart. It felt unbearable – like my heart might actually explode from the strain of holding it all. So I made a vow.
I will live. But I can’t do THIS. I will NEVER feel like THIS again.
For the next 25 years I mostly felt numb inside. Hollowed-out, like a brittle shell. There was a dark vacuum – a black hole – where my heart was supposed to be. And I felt that old sense that I’d cheated. Because she was dead but I was still alive. I wasn’t sure how that could’ve happened.
In 2010, I was face down on a massage table in the loft of a little house in north-west London. The therapist had been working on me for over an hour. As she moved from my rib cage to the right side of my neck, I felt the words move up and out of my body before my mind could register their shape, sound or meaning.
It should have been me. Because she was kinder, gentler and nicer than me. I don’t deserve this life, because I cheated and stole it from her. It should have been me who died.
My mind started to catch up and I realised: I’d been carrying those words, that belief, that declaration, in my body for almost 25 years. Like a good older sister I’d taken responsibility for saving Virginia’s life. And when I’d failed, I’d believed I no longer deserved to be alive… except that I wasn’t aware of either belief, until now.
I’d made what I now understand was a classic older-sibling move. They call it ‘survivor’s guilt’. Although I can’t find any studies or statistics, many grief counsellors say it’s quite common for siblings of a child with a serious illness. It’s especially common for the oldest sibling to try to live up to the role of big brother/sister. For me, it showed up as an unconscious drive to protect my little sister, which went as far as the desire to trade my life for hers. On some level, I think I actually tried to make a deal with God. And I failed.
All of a sudden, the arc of my adult life made complete sense. I spent 25 years having conversations with friends and mentors and bosses that went something like this:
“Belinda – you have so much potential. Why do you keep sabotaging yourself? What’s holding you back?”
And I would shrug and look at the floor and say I didn’t know. Because I honestly didn’t. I knew I was supposed to be living the life she couldn’t have – making the most of it, grateful for every moment. But I couldn’t ever shake the feeling there was something dark and broken inside me, something so awful I couldn’t even find the words to describe it to myself (and certainly not anyone else). So I was always faking it. And every time I had a success at work or made a new friend who told me they liked me, I was surprised. And I didn’t believe it was really true or that it would last.
So for 25 years, I lived a greyed-out life. I gave up all the things that brought me the most joy and immersed myself in things – jobs, places, relationships – that made me miserable. I punished myself for living when she’d died. In a misguided attempt to atone for my failure to keep her safe, I put my happiness on hold. I put my life on hold, for her.
But it’s the last thing she would’ve wanted.
Because when I began to get in touch with the deepest layers of holding inside my body,
I saw what I’d most been avoiding: beneath the grief and the loss was shame. Raw, hot, metallic shame. It tasted like blood – like I’d bitten my lip really badly and it was bleeding.
The shame was there because I knew she would have wanted me to live my life fully, the way she couldn’t live hers. I’d even promised it to her, as her coffin slid into the furnace. But I forgot that and let the guilt overwhelm me and spent 25 years sinking into darkness. As I sobbed and shook and heaved at that realisation, I also saw the bind I’d been caught in: shame triggered my descent into darkness and then I’d feel ashamed because I’d let the shame win. I saw how perfect the setup was – how I’d created a game I could never ‘win’. And I saw how ‘winning’ was only ever going to look like doing exactly what I’d done… falling into darkness and slowly, over years, climbing back out.
I’m writing a tiny book about my journey through Virginia’s illness and death. I’m writing the grief and shame out of my body because it’s a critical part of my healing process. I’m writing because there’s a chance my story might help others rewrite theirs. And most importantly I’m writing because with every word, I reclaim life.
Belinda Noakes is a compassion coach. She helps people rewrite old stories that create suffering and shape new narratives that support self-love. She’s soon to launch an online course called Compassionate Grieving – find out more and register your interest at http://tinybrave.com/grief/
Belinda blogs regularly at tinybrave plus you can find her on