“If I had a flower or every time I thought of you, I could walk through my garden forever.”

— Alfred Tennyson

“I have some sad news about my sister and your old friend, Sarah. Last Friday she lost her two year battle with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. I didn’t want you to find out on Facebook or randomly months later.”

That is the recent text I received from Sarah’s brother about my childhood summer friend.

I didn’t know Sarah was sick. We were supposed to get together last summer while I was vacationing on Cape Cod, but I canceled. Too much was going on with the house full of teenagers, my elderly mother, and various activities, so I told myself I’d catch her next time.

Sarah and I reconnected on facebook several years ago when she was living in San Francisco with her three children. One summer we both happened to be back on Cape Cod, staying on Sesuit Neck (where we were lucky enough to live in the summer as kids). Of course, it was as if we’d never been a part, joking about our days playing tennis at the yacht club, our nutty mothers, and crazy exes.

Sarah was three years older than me and the big sister I never had. I idolized her. She was pretty, smart, tall, witty, and very kind. She wasn’t like the other older girls who snubbed my friends and me for being younger.

Although her death still feels surreal, four things have helped me cope:


  • Communicating – After her brother texted me about her death, I continued to text with him about memories I had of her when we were growing up. We engaged back and forth, sharing other funny and poignant stories.

My favorite memory of Sarah is the summer I was 11 and she was 14. Sarah had a mean forehand, very Chrissy Evert like with her free hand gracefully placed out in front of her to meet the ball. We and our brothers played on the Dennis Yacht Club tennis team. Don’t be fooled by the ‘yacht’ part – our club met in an oversized shingled shack, but we were proud of it nonetheless. Our team did better than usual that summer and we were invited to play in a tournament on Martha’s Vineyard. Ingrid, our tennis pro from Sweden, chaperoned and took us over on the ferry.

I have no recollection of playing any tennis or how we fared, but my guess is not very well. I don’t remember caring much, my attention was on Sarah and how lucky I was to get to hang out with her. Away from home and all of the older girls who stole her away from me.

The first night on the island, our team walked down the middle of the cobblestone street after dinner looking for ice cream. I was on top of Sarah’s shoulders, our blonde hair flowing down by our sides and our matching rope bracelets brushing against each other, as she cupped my hands to hold me steady. As we strolled by the harbor, we noticed a massive shark hanging on a hook.

“Is it real?” Sarah asked. As we got closer we could see that it was actually a huge mechanical shark. A tourist informed us, “There’s a movie being filmed called, “Jaws”. Everyone’s trying to catch a glimpse of the stars, Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss.” Little did we know what a success “Jaws” would be!


  • Journaling – Writing these memories of Sarah and our summers together brought me right back to what I so admired and loved about her. It made me smile to get down on paper as many memories as I could. Plus, sharing them with her brother and others, helped me keep Sarah alive.


  • Attending her Memorial Service – I decided to fly to Cape Cod for her service, to honor her and pay my respects to her family. I wanted to show up and be with others who were devastated by her loss. I reconnected with other summer friends I hadn’t seen in thirty years as well. The morning of her burial was the first sunny, spring-like day in weeks. The minister opened the service with, “Thank you, Sarah for ordering this beautiful day.”


  • Creating a Vision-Board – I created a vision-board in Sarah’s honor. Similar to a collage, I set an intention to stay open and rip out whatever images from magazines jumped out at me and reminded me of her. Then I glued them onto a poster board. This project brought me back to many wonderful summer memories on Cape Cod. I took a picture of it with my phone when I was finished and texted it to Jay, her brother. He loved it! I’ve made it my screensaver on my lap top. You can see my vision-board here.

I wish I could get together with Sarah this summer. I can’t imagine a world without her in it. It will certainly be dimmer.

What helps you cope?

I’d love to hear from you. Email me your thoughts to Heidi.gessner@unchealth.unc.edu.











Heidi Gessner

Heidi Gessner, MDiv, BCC, BCC, is an Ordained United Church of Christ Minister who serves as the palliative care chaplain and bereavement coordinator of University of North Carolina Hospitals, a level one trauma center. As the bereavement coordinator, her main priority is connecting with the family members who have had a loved one die in the hospital. Her specialty is connecting with these family members, staff, as well as community members, and helping them feel they are not alone. For in her deepest suffering after her father died, she experienced the presence of Love. She was so overwhelmed by this sense of a benevolent Presence, it changed the course of her life. The awareness of being cared for and connected to something bigger came suddenly, and helped her want to share this feeling with others. Heidi is also a certified life coach, who creatively cultivates hope, nurtures growth, and encourages people to be good stewards of their grief, and to learn from it when they are ready. She helps them harness the transformational power of loss to become their wisest and most compassionate selves. Heidi is also a wedding officiant at heidigessner.com

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