On losing my younger sister

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Me and Rachel at my high school graduation, June 2016. Taylor Balfour

My best friend, my future maid-of-honour, my life partner

Wow. I never thought I would ever need to write an article like this, but here I am.

My name is Taylor, and on Feb. 2, 2019, my little sister Rachel passed away all alone in her university dorm room. Her body wasn’t found until Feb. 5, 2019.

By the time this article is published, the one-year anniversary of her death will have passed. I will be in Vancouver, holding the hands of my loved ones, crying over the fact that my best friend, my life partner, the friend who saw me through everything, is gone forever.

The past year of my life has been a blur, but calling it a nightmare is an understatement.

On Feb. 5, 2019, I woke up at my then-boyfriend’s house. I went to my creative writing class, passed time by browsing through Facebook instead of working on homework, and got a text from my Dad that initiated the worst anxiety I would ever feel in my life: “Have you heard from your sister?”

My gut assumption was that my sister was mad at my parents for something. I figured that I’d text her – seeing as we talked about everything – and would ask if something was wrong. To this day, I hate that the message I sent her was: “Yo dude, how’s life?”

Two hours later, I arrived at home. I found my Mom in her room, crying, telling me that she called the day off work and booked an emergency flight to Edmonton. “I think she’s unwell, and you two mean the world to me.” She had said to me.

Hours later, while I was up in my room attempting to eat, wanting to stop worrying about how none of us had heard from her in almost four days, there was a knock on the front door. I felt my stomach clench when I heard a voice I didn’t recognize say, “Are you Mrs. Balfour?”

The rest of that day feels like a blur. I remember exiting my bedroom, wanting to see who it was, and stumbling down the stairs when I spotted a police officer in my living room. I will never forget the sound of him saying “I’m sorry to tell you this, but your daughter was found deceased this morning.” I remember bits and pieces of the sounds of screaming and crying. I remember watching my parents collapse onto the couch and the floor.

I remember my heart feeling so heavy that I couldn’t breathe. I felt as though I was dying, and that day a part of me had. Because after Feb. 5, 2019, I never felt whole ever again.

The weeks following, I needed to deal not only with the inevitable approach of her funeral, but I needed to dodge the rumours. The people messaging me prying for information, the friends of hers from high school digging for dirt, the classmates – who I knew bullied her – approaching me in the university halls, expressing their sorrow.

And in response, being too tired to put up a fight, I needed to bite my tongue, just trying to survive the days.

Because of this, I was isolated by the people I thought loved me. The amount of friends and loved ones that cut me off during my time of grief because they “didn’t know how to deal with me” was tremendous. This is why friends of mine ditched Rachel’s funeral and haven’t spoken to me since.

In June 2019, we learned that Rachel had taken a combination of drugs laced with fentanyl – what inevitably caused her overdose and ended her life. It was deemed accidental.

Rachel was a straight-A student, a tech whiz; a woman who loved Slurpees, leather jackets, and animation. She loved coffee, and bagels, and late-night trips to Denny’s. She wanted to animate, but was pursuing her dream of a computer science degree.

None of that mattered when people learned she died because of drugs. Then, the stigma took hold, and the view of the beautiful, driven, talented woman was tarnished with the stereotypes of a “druggie” with people refusing to look further into it.

People didn’t realize that it was because she struggled with her mental health. People didn’t realize it was because she was anxious and depressed, struggling with the weight of the world on her shoulders. They didn’t care that she had to wait weeks for access to counselling services, and they didn’t care that when she cried for help, her school didn’t listen.

No longer did people look at her for who she was, people began to look at her for how she died. I hated that. So, I decided to change it.

I started frequent charity campaigns for Canada Learning Code: an organization that teaches young women and new Canadian immigrants how to code in hopes of expanding diversity in the career field. It is because of Rachel that I’ve begun preaching for safe supply and harm reduction in Canada to make access to drugs safer.

It’s because of Rachel that this section exists today: our memorial issue for the loved ones we cherish and lost. This section is in memory of Rachel, of Professor Abu Abdullah Ziauddin Ahmad, of Rascal, of all of us. This section is because of Rachel, but now, it’s for everyone.

To this day, I regret that on the night she died, I was at a student film party. I was dressed in lace, wearing my favourite dress with matching heels, and texted Rachel saying I couldn’t help her locate the Netflix password because I was out. I would do anything to take that night back, but I can’t.

What I can do is make every day I still have matter for her. As my trauma counsellor told me: “Everything you do now, you do for you and her.” This section is one embodiment of that.

I hope you enjoy this memorial issue. I send love to anyone and everyone that’s hurting. My heart is with you. I send you love and kindness, and I know that Rachel does too.

After all, this is all for her.

3 comments

  1. P Carr 9 February, 2020 at 14:16

    Such a beautiful tribute elegantly stated. Your sister will always be with you. Continued strength and healing as you and yours travel this journey. Respect…

  2. Bonnie Yake 10 February, 2020 at 22:56

    Taylor, thank you for your openness in expressing what is so hard to talk about – to express those things that matter most, the things that make us human and vulnerable and true. I grieve for your beautiful, passionate sister, and for you and your Mum and Dad. I grieve for Rachel who slipped away far too soon in a random, terrible way, and for the many where feeling OK is a struggle every day. I carry the essence of Rachel with me – her shadow and her light. Big hugs to you, Taylor as you find your way, accompanied by memories of Rachel in all her many colours – your wonderful little sister.

  3. Sandi 11 February, 2020 at 17:14

    Taylor,

    Losing a sibling is a uniquely painful experience. You expect to have them there with you, and for you, forever. You will raise your kids together, grow old together, and eventually, bury your parents together. When that is taken away, the loss is renewed with each milestone you face without them.

    Thank you for expressing yourself and taking the steps to move forward. It will get easier, but it will never be the same.

    In memory of my brother, Rick.

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