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The Car Accident That Changed How I Think of January Forever

Trista Shattuck (right) with her sister Marisa (left)

Having a policeman show up at your front door unannounced never means good news. So when I saw the officer making his way up my icy sidewalk my heart caught in my throat. And I knew. Before they could even say the words "fatality" and "car accident," I knew they were coming to tell me my sister was dead.

An hour before, I'd been on the phone with her as she drove from Wisconsin to Minnesota only to hear her gasp, "Oh my god" and the line go dead. I'd called 911 but there were many accidents on that snowy day, and it took highway patrol a while to reach her.

During that time I'd called my husband, an army officer stationed a thousand miles away, and some friends, making plans just in case I needed to go help her. As the time passed and she still didn't call back, I pictured her stuck, waiting for help to come, or even in the hospital. But I never imagined she was gone—how could I? At just 10 months apart, I'd never known a world without her in it. Until the police came.

Five years ago, on January 12, 2012, my sister, and best friend, Marisa died. It's still so hard for me to say that out loud. After the accident everything was a blur. I was seven months pregnant with my fourth child but instead of collapsing in a hysterical heap I buried my feelings taking care of everything for her, like I'd always done. I called our mom (there is nothing in this world harder than telling a mother her child has died), planned her funeral, contacted her friends, sorted her pictures and did the million other tiny things that come with the unexpected death of a loved one. This busyness kept me going for a while but once everything was finished, I was confronted with my grief. At first it felt like the sadness would swallow me whole. I remember breaking down in a Walgreens of all places and sobbing, "Everything I see reminds me of her and it makes me so sad. But I know that someday I'll stop being reminded of her all the time, and that makes me even more sad." And the worst part was I had no one to talk to about it. I'd always talked to her when I was upset and now that was gone too.

There was no escape from the huge void my sister left in my life. I hadn't realized how many roles she'd filled for me—best friend, confidante, comforter, cheerleader, loving aunt to my children—and who would be all those things to me now? She was the yin to my yang; tender where I was tough, romantic where I was practical, funny where I was serious, all heart where I was all head. Perhaps the biggest difference between us was our life passions. She was a hair stylist who loved everything fashion, makeup, and beauty-related while I was a tough-as-nails military wife who didn't even own a curling iron, much less know how to use one. But being polar opposites drew us together: What one of us lacked, the other had. Now, without her, I felt like half a person. Incomplete. Who would be my Marisa now? But the truth was that no one could ever take her place. Recognizing that there was no fixing, no replacing, no undoing was one of the hardest moments of the whole experience for me. I realized I had to let her go and find a way to live with the hole in my life rather than trying to fill it.

But how? My healing started with naming our baby. We'd been set on "Andreas," but after Marisa died, I knew I wanted to name him after the aunt who loved him so much and yet he'd never know. So we named him "Marius" after Marisa with "Ronen" as his middle name, after her nickname "Roni." But things were still so hard. I had to function for the sake of my other children, then 6, 4, and 2, but I felt like a zombie wandering through my old life.

A year later, the anniversary of her death hit—and it hit me hard. The New Year is supposed to be a time of celebration and new beginnings but as everyone around me made resolutions to lose 10 pounds or write a book or run a marathon, I couldn't get into the resolving spirit. What good was making goals for a future that was so horribly capricious anyhow?

But then something simple happened: My daughter asked me to curl her hair. I have a short, sassy, low-maintenance haircut and Marisa, a hair stylist, had always been the one to do that kind of thing for my girls. I realized in that moment that instead of worrying about who would be my Marisa, I was going to have to be Marisa for them.

So I made a resolution then and there: I was going to channel a little bit of Marisa every day. I embraced my inner princess, painting their nails, curling their hair, and dancing with them. My daughters were thrilled and eventually it didn't feel like a performance, it felt genuine—so much so that I didn't even bat an eyelash at all the glitter stuck in my carpet. But the biggest change that came from shedding my tough girl image wasn't all the sparkly pink around the house, it was the way I softened on the inside.

As part of my New Year's resolution to be more like Marisa, I also made an effort to be more open with people, to try to connect and share feelings and all that emotional "girly" stuff I'd avoided for most of my life. Being so open was scary but as I reached out to others, I realized that I had a pretty simple choice: I could choose to be vulnerable or I could choose to be alone. I'd lost Marisa and I'd pretty much lost my mother to her own grief in the aftermath of the accident. So if I wanted to have a life filled with love, laughter, and happiness (the kind Marisa always wanted for me) then I had to make it that way by filling it with new loved ones—not to replace her but to honor her. Since then I've grown a lot and changed in ways I never would have had Marisa not died. I still wish every day she was here but I can look at how much I've become like her and appreciate that bond we still have. I don't have any regrets—she died secure in the knowledge that I loved and adored her—but now I understand just how important it is to tell people you love and appreciate them, right then, when you feel it. And you don't need to wait to make a New Year's resolution to do that.

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