My sister-in-law's first yahrzeit is tonight – the anniversary of her death, and a mixed bag of emotions stir inside of me. They range from profound sadness and longing for a time I can never get back, to guilt over the lingering thought that surfaces time and again since her passing: Could I have done more?

Her name was Rachel; she was my husband’s single sister who wanted a family more than anything else in life. She craved that sense of belonging and cleaved to the possibility of it happening one day. She felt family would ground her and keep her from floating away into her thoughts. A husband and kids would be her final proof that she was worthy.

She was 36 years old when she passed away last year; a year when death tolls in accidental overdoses skyrocketed. A year when many turned to desperate measures during desperate times.

One of the many symptoms of Covid was isolation. We became inundated with Zoom calls to engage and connect, as if our very fiber, our very life depended on it. And on the most basic level, it did.

The truth is I rolled my eyes whenever someone shared yet another invitation for a zoom get-together. Morning yoga time! Happy hour with friends! Board game night! I was, after all, navigating online zoom schedules for four school-aged children, a husband who was now home ALL OF THE TIME, and my own personal goals to tackle all the things my old schedule didn’t permit. Things like learning how to draw and creating really cool YouTube worthy montage videos were on the top of my list.

And then Rachel died. In her home, alone. Cause of death: accidental overdose. And everything I thought I knew about family, connection, and isolation, went up in the air like a cloud of smoke, but the puzzle pieces remained laid out for me to sort through. I used to tell Rachel that I wish I would have known her in my early twenties because we would have had some really hilarious and memorable times together, back when a fun night out defined and highlighted my week.

She was that fun friend. The person who walked into a room and instantly gave someone a compliment, or said something really awkward but funny. She was strange in a cool way, and never realized it. You could read her mood instantly on her face, and it was both scary and reassuring. The eyes are the window to the soul, and Rachel’s soul was deep, profound, and sometimes deathly afraid of her own greatness.

I’ve rewinded all the tapes in my head a thousand times. We spent our last Friday night together, a week before she died, and we said the blessing over the candles together. I told her after lighting the candles that she could make a request to the Creator of the universe, she could speak to God, for it is an auspicious time for connection. And she did.

And the night before her death we texted briefly, but the last thing I wrote to her was this: you look beautiful. And she did.

Me and my sister-in-law, of blessed memory

And for a long time after, I wondered if I missed something. If I denied something to myself. If I purposely saw pink flowers when alarm bells were blaring. If I used these moments of connection, to negate the cries for help. And the truth is, yes I did. I used a point system for Rachel, and unknowingly, I did so for everyone else in my life, for those that I loved most. I kept score and checked boxes. Phone call, check. Deep conversation, check. Spent time together, check. It was an endless game of connection, but with true connection, with real relationships, there are no rules. There are no check boxes.

I had it backwards. I thought connection was something for me to give away, like a sort of prize for those that I loved – keeping them at arms’ distance to avoid what scared me most: real connection. Rachel’s passing taught me that to connect fully means to receive fully as well. Connection flows back and forth, from one person to the next, and back again; no disruption of flow, and definitely no check boxes.

At the heart of it, Rachel wanted real connection. She looked for it with every relationship in her life. And sometimes the lesson comes after. When it’s too late to change things. When the window has closed.

I loved Rachel. And I don’t think it’s productive to wallow in guilt on the should haves and could haves, because doing so would make her passing in vain. Rachel taught me what it means to connect. To love without condition. And it’s not too late. She’s in the conversations I strike up with a stranger. With the time spent with a loved one, over a hot cup of tea and soft whispers of connection. With the bedtime routines that suddenly slow down. It’s in those moments that Rachel’s lesson becomes a flame to forge new connections, and I keep her legacy alive.