It was July 4, but instead of celebrating Independence Day, I was trying to find my baby sister. Actually, I was at a cemetery in Los Angeles, searching for her grave—a grave that hadn’t been visited by anyone in 42 years.
I was just six years old when Judy was born. She was a “blue baby.” A heart defect gave her skin a bluish tinge from a lack of oxygen. In the late 1940s, blue babies often didn’t survive infancy.
Judy was born June 7, 1948. She lived just one day.
I didn’t tell anyone my newborn sister had died—not the nun who taught first grade, not my classmates. And I never talked to my parents about Judy’s death either. A few weeks later my father drove us to the cemetery to visit her grave. It was marked by a little concrete disk and nothing else.
I was confused. Other graves had headstones, but hers didn’t. When I asked why, my dad replied evasively, “Maybe someday we’ll get her one.”
Those were the last words about a headstone, virtually the last words spoken about Judy, and it was the last time anyone visited her grave until July 4, 1990.
Through the decades, I occasionally thought about Judy, but in early 1990 she was more and more on my mind. “Finding her” became an urgent matter—-almost a compulsion.
A great sadness fell over me when I thought about her being alone all those years. She had never been acknowledged, had never been part of our family. We had abandoned her.
I became acutely aware, too, of the things I’d missed out on because she died prematurely: I never got to hold her as an infant. I didn’t get to play with her, tease her, or teach her to ride a bike or to throw a ball. I didn’t get to defend her from bullies, comfort her when she scraped a knee, or help her with her homework. We never shared a secret or a candy bar. I never got to call her names or buy her a birthday present. I didn’t get to check out her boyfriends, have her husband for a friend, or hold her kids and have them call me Uncle Richard.
We never had the chance to be sister and brother.
Of course, I admit that I’m idealizing that relationship. It wouldn’t always have been fun having a sister six and a half years younger than I. Still, I can’t help thinking the good would have far outweighed the less good.
That’s why my wife, Donna, and I were at the cemetery to visit Judy. A few days earlier Donna had called the cemetery to get Judy’s grave identification number: row number T-50 and the grave number B-42. I wasn’t worried about locating her grave; a cemetery employee would direct us to the exact location. But we found that the office was closed for the holiday.
Standing at the locked office door, I was wrapped in frustration. I had come to put flowers on Judy’s grave—the first flowers she’d ever had. I was there to talk to her for the first time. She’d waited 42 years for me to show up; I didn’t want to delay any longer. But how would I find her?
My mind drifted to back to July 1948. I remembered how we came into the cemetery, approximately where my dad had parked the car, and the general location we’d walked. I told Donna, “I’m pretty sure I know where her grave is.” But it wasn’t that easy. We spent several hours in the blazing midday heat searching, but we finally found Judy’s grave.
I stood next to Donna, looking at a concrete disk in the ground with T-50 stamped into it. Then I knelt on the thick grass, clearing it away from the deteriorating concrete disk. The T-50 was deeply pressed into the disk, but the grave number had eroded badly. Tracing it with my fingers, I nonetheless could discern the numerals 4 and 2. It was her grave. I knelt there caressing the disk as if it were a tangible connection to my little sister.
And then I was crying. It was as if deep inside me a reservoir had been released. Forty-two years of unshed tears rolled down my cheeks.
When we left the cemetery later that day, I felt some peace. I knew where Judy’s grave was; she wouldn’t be alone anymore, and my grieving for her could finally begin.
A few weeks later, we ordered a headstone for her grave. It was black granite with a guardian angel, her name, and June 1948 engraved on it, along with “Always in our heart.”
In the first two years after finding her grave, I returned to it many times and talked to her a lot. I’ve written her letters—letters of anger, letters of love, letters telling her about my wife, my family, our mother, father, and older sister.
I still visit on her birthday and a couple of other times during the year. Those early trips to the cemetery helped me move through the grieving process. Each visit I made, each flower I brought, each letter I wrote and read to her and to trusted friends, each tear, helped heal the tender wound of a six-year-old boy from four decades earlier.
June 7, 1992, was an unseasonably cold day in Southern California. There were thick clouds and light rain. I went alone to her grave that day, a special day. I took flowers and a half-dozen multicolored helium balloons. Using a felt-tip marker, I wrote love notes and messages to her on the balloons. I sat on the wet grass at her grave and wrote her a letter, talked to her, and told her I loved her, and then I released the balloons.
Those balloons danced skyward, seeming to frolic with joy as they sailed into the silver-gray sky. I watched them drift higher and higher until they looked like tiny black dots. Then they vanished into the clouds.
In releasing those balloons, I released my grief along with them. I will always miss Judy, but I came to accept her death as a part of God’s mysterious plan.
As I walked back to my car, I felt an exhilaration I’d never felt before. Pure joy. The joy of acceptance. If this is what heaven feels like, I thought, I want to go there. As I left the cemetery that day, all I could think of was a favorite saying: “For all that has been—thank you. To all that shall be—Yes!”
A friend asked me what I had learned from finding Judy’s grave. I learned many things: No death in a family is a minor event or a simple loss, and time, by itself, doesn’t heal unacknowledged pain. I see, too, that small children need to have death and other major separations lovingly explained to them. They need help in grieving, and they need reassurance that it’s all right to be sad and cry.
I learned, too, that just because a loss occurred a long time ago, it’s never too late to grieve. While it’s painful work, the healing that comes through grieving brings with it serenity, well-being, and often even joy.