My Sister Janna's Last Words
When my older sister died unexpectedly two months before I was born, she taught me everything there is to know about life, loss, and what it means to guide your family to survival. Here, I uncover some of her last few entries and advice from a life cut all too short.
When you’re young, things that’ve happened just don’t seem to click. Even catastrophic things, like death. Maybe it does click for some kids, but most of them just process a sudden tragedy, they may ask questions, and they may express sadness, and then they move on.
That’s the difference between adults and kids.
Kids move on.
When you’re young, things don’t affect you like you think they would. They just don’t. They don’t affect you until you’re older, and look back on things, and realise that maybe it affected you this entire time, you just didn’t know it.
My older sister died of a sudden and unexpected heart arrhythmia at the age of 16. Her autopsy revealed that she had an irregular heartbreak that prompted her sudden dizziness while at a (ironically) YoungLife end of the year meeting. The report cited IHSS, idiopathic hypertrophic subaortic stenosis as the cause of death. Now, more recently, known as HOCM’s disease, hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy. Basically, an irregular movement of the fourth chamber, of all seven chambers of the heart.
After spending half my life thinking that I, too could just suddenly become dizzy and collapse the same way, I’ve researched everything there is to know about it.
There were no symptoms, and at the time, in the '90s, families didn’t regularly get echocardiograms or EKG’s unless there was a known problem or issue. No family history. No shortness of breath. No issue in her regular activities of gymnastics, soft ball, soccer, dance, nothing.
The craziest part, is that nowadays, people diagnosed with this, those that may experience some shortness of breath or dizziness, often times misdiagnosed as a heart attack, can live with the disease.
Just in my short time on Earth, in the last 24 years, the idea of having HOCM’s disease has gone from a very grim, untreatable disease, to effective treatment options, and a low rate of death, said Dr. Barry Maron, director of the Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Centre at the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation (MHIF). (Cardiomyopathy, the Heart Muscle Charity, 2015).
Growing up, I had seen pictures of my parents with a young woman, long, blond curls and a huge smile, showing her perfect teeth all over the house. I’m not certain if it clicked, or that it really hit me that my family had lost a child, just two months before welcoming another.
But, this isn’t a sad article on why I think I am the way I am because of her, because trust me, the older I get, the more I realize the impact her death must have had/has on my psyche. Please don’t take pity, because to me, there’s nothing worse.
She and I have a lot in common, I have her coloring, attitude, and although we both can sometimes be cold, and less emotional, for the most part, always bubbly and cracking jokes. Her features are a clone of my younger sister’s, same dimples, same height, same build, same athletic ability. Although, unlike both my sister and I, she had a much deeper, raspy voice, much cooler than my sister and I’s high pitched voice. We also didn’t inherit the perfect teeth she had, and we underwent the horrific periods of braces.
I recently found journal entries she wrote, and questions she answered, just two weeks to three days before her death. Most of the questions sound like SAT prep writing questions, so it is still unclear what the journal entry questions are from, but the date she answered them eerily show that she wasn’t a beat off what the rest of the world was like, and everything she says is still true today.
Reading the entries now, although I’ve read her letters before, have a completely different impact on me now. Maybe it’s because I’m much older, or maybe I’m realizing that my life would’ve been completely different had she not left this world so soon. Maybe I would’ve been a completely different person.
Here, in her own words, are some things that stood out to me. Although I am sharing her words without her consent, her perception, to me, is impactful, and can help anyone who reads it. As her sister, it’s also a beautiful way to get to know her. She’s funny, serious, and deep at times, and gives great dating advice.
May 17, 1994 #2: Do you think society encourages children to grow up too quickly?
Janna: Yes, definitely…I mean give me a break, my teachers started talking to me about college in the 8th grade, which was five years away. Parents encourage teenagers and younger to get jobs, real jobs, get bank accounts, etc. This adds unnecessary stress to one’s life. Sex education (though helpful) is being taught at a younger age.
Death in the family makes a person grow up more quickly than anything else.
#5 May 24, 1994: Agree or disagree: people can overcome their own problems.
Janna: People can overcome most. People overcome their problems if they want to. [Other] people can help but only so much, it all comes down to you.
#6 May 25, 1994: What makes you depressed? What do you do about it?
Janna: ….What makes me depressed is knowing my parents are going to die one day, my dad being so far away from me, people graduating that I’ll never see again, never knowing my grandfather, seeing someone you like with someone else, wondering about my future, etc. I usually don’t do anything but once in a while I’ll have a heart to heart talk with someone. Other than that, I live life and try not to think about it too much. I focus on other areas in my life and do things which makes me happy.
Violence, crime, child abuse, wars, also make me depressed.
May 20, 1994: When do you feel you stopped being a child? How did you know?
Janna: I stopped being a child when I was about 10 years old. I knew because I was thinking independently and relying on myself to make decisions. I figured things out. I liked freedom. And I didn’t believe everything my parents told me. I discovered new things each week such as 1. to get anywhere in life you have to know someone and 2. the only person in life whom you can trust is you. I realized that fighting is stupid and pointless because time is too short.
#8 May 31, 1994: Establishing mature relationships requires..?
Janna: I’ve been through relationships and they never go the way you planned or you’ve seen on tv. Both people have to accept each other the way they are and there needs to be trust and at this point in time trust is hard. I think if you’re old enough, actually mature enough, then it is possible. Both parties have to listen to each other and not be so protective. A mature relationship may be difficult, but it is possible. It’s possible when you find someone that you get along with and who wants the same thing you do. If there is, don’t let pressure persuade you it won’t work.
#4 May 23, 1994: What is your concept of an ideal relationship?
Janna: My ideal boyfriend is one who likes me for me. Someone who is themself and can treat me like a friend first. Someone who enjoys spending time with me and who is somewhat different than me so we can teach each other and share about our past. Someone who lets me make my own decisions. My ideal boyfriend doesn’t have to be 6’4, blue eyes, blond hair, body builder, but someone who has a quality separate and unique than everyone else. He has to make me laugh and be creative, too.