Saying the Hardest Goodbye Far From Home

It was an unassuming Tuesday evening when I heard my best friend had been killed in a roller skating accident in Hawaii. At 28 years old, her life was over in an instant. What made the news even more difficult to accept was that I am moving back to Oahu next week to the island where she resided, and we both looked forward to rekindling our friendship after four years.

Both friends and family of Sarah Stanislawski are grieving her loss. Sarah was so vibrant, lovable and full of life. She had just returned from Chicago, our hometown, to visit her family for the first time in four years. Exactly one day after returning to Hawaii, she was killed.

How could any of us make sense of it? Almost too bizarre to be true, all who knew Sarah were forced to grieve her death when, mere hours ago, everyone was just celebrating her presence.

The news of her passing rendered me undone. I crumbled to the floor and begged God for it not to be true. I repeated over and over "so young, so young" in between uncontrollable sobs. I imagined the Hawaiian sun on her face as she went for the last thrilling skate ride of her life.

The next few days were filled with phone calls from family and friends, condolences and flashbacks. I crept around corners, half expecting Sarah to meet me there. I heard the echo of her laugh as I drifted off to sleep. I checked my phone for more "Wait until you move to Oahu...Then the adventures will begin!" text messages from her. I dealt with the harsh reality that her beautiful Facebook profile picture is forever frozen in time, and her phone number is now a dead end dial tone.

Selfishly, I thought about myself. How could the only person I knew from childhood now living in Oahu pass away right before I arrived? What kind of sick joke was that? I wanted her to teach me how to paddle board, and was looking forward to joining her rowing team. I pictured us going jogging together on the beaches, talking about home, the old days and days to come. Those images have gone dark.

Sarah's body will be shipped back to Chicago for her wake and funeral. I won't be attending, as I'm flying to Oahu tomorrow to begin my new life. My original plan of meeting her upon my arrival has been altered in the worst way possible. While her family and friends back home in Chicago grieve her loss together, I will be left to make sense of her untimely passing on my own.

How do I pay my respects to someone from afar who for so long was by my side? As a traveler, I have made the sacrifice time and again to miss important milestones for the sake of adventure: Christmas, birthdays, New Years -- but, this is the first time I miss an important funeral. The solace people find in grieving together is lost. I can't hug her mother and father who were so influential to our childhood, her sister and brother who I knew so well, or my friends who are just as hurt as I am. I can't partake in the communal healing process and lay my feelings to rest with Sarah.

What's more is that in the same week, my godfather Donald Weingartner passed away after a long battle with cancer. In the blink of an eye, my childhood memories of July 4th picnics, Thanksgiving dinners, birthday parties and "just because" Hallmark cards in the mail are no more. A loving and selfless man, "Uncle Duck" played an integral role in my childhood and will forever be remembered as an amazing man many were lucky to know. Eerily, his services are on the same exact day as Sarah's. Again, I won't be able to embrace my aunt, my cousins or my family and exchange stories about Uncle Duck.

While I won't be home with the ones I love to pay respect to two very important people to me, I have found ways to grieve their loss from afar.

Talking on the phone with friends and family has been therapeutic. I wrote a long, hand-written letter to Sarah, saying all the things I never had a chance to tell her, to be given to her mother at the wake. I spent hours looking out the window, driving, thinking about the way Sarah lived her life: fast, hard and full of fun.

While driving to Seattle where I will fly out of to Hawaii, the radio became my medium to the other world. As if Sarah was playing DJ, songs we loved to sing together came on the radio in rapid succession. Somewhere in between listening to Foghat's "Slow Ride" and Pink Floyd's "Goodbye Blue Sky," I felt Sarah riding shotgun, just as she always did, along for this adventure we call life.

I may never be able to pay my respects for Uncle Duck and Sarah in the traditional way, but I believe the way I live is what they both would have wanted. Chasing my dreams no matter what is my life's passion. Both Uncle Duck and Sarah have encouraged my travels to everywhere I've gone.

Now during the time of their deaths, I'm confident they'd nod in approval from above as I travel to Hawaii with their love in my heart. As the Hawaiians say, death is not a time to say goodbye, but rather, a chance to say see you later, or a hui hou. To my loving Uncle Duck and my soul sister Sarah, a hui hou -- until we meet again.