Most mediators probably didn't know Sherri Bilinski. She had been mediating for less than 4 years. We had started mediating custody and visitation cases for the courts in Chicago within weeks of one another in the spring of '04. While I had been mediating for some time, Sherri had been a therapist previously and mediation was new to her. You wouldn't have known it, though. After going through an outside 40-hour training and some internal training, Sherri got the process deep down in her bones. More importantly, she was damn good at it.
At the age of 53, Sherri died in her sleep of natural causes either late on Friday, March 28th or in the early morning hours of the 29th. She had been having escalating health issues, but nothing that appeared life threatening. While I had been worrying about her for some time, her death still came as a major shock. Perhaps most difficult was that I received the news from a friend at my old workplace, Sherri's employer, 1 hour before I was to attend a wake for my closest childhood friend's father. There's just nothing that can prepare you for that.
In addition to being a wonderful therapist, mediator, and friend, Sherri was also an artist, although she hadn't painted for some time. She had recently been able to read again as her pain finally lessened enough for her to concentrate on written words. I had given her the book Kite Runner two years ago and she called me sometime in February to tell me that she had finally read it and to exclaim over what a gift it had been -- both the act of reading and the brilliance of the book itself.
Sherri's home and office were decked in shades of purple with lavender in its various forms throughout. She had hoped to be able to dance again one day. She went out for a drink after work with a few of us one time, something that took a lot out of her. It was nice to see the sparkle it brought her, though, despite the effort it took. I think of her when I am cooking, because there were many evenings when we'd talk on the phone while I was making dinner ("What is Miss Laura cooking tonight?" she'd ask. She never did get a taste of my homemade bread). I miss her when I smell lavender. When I hear someone laugh, I realize I will never again hear hers. Her sense of humor was vast and it sustained us both through some shared, and some individual, personal and professional challenges. There were days when we talked on the phone for hours.
I didn't get to say goodbye to Sherri -- we had exchanged voicemail virtually every day the week leading up to her death -- but I had spent a day with her a few weeks earlier helping her get to and from a medical appointment. Her strength that day, and every day that I knew her, was subtle, beautiful, and human. She felt things deeply and spoke with honesty. She showed kindness and respect to others but could also be like "a lioness protecting her cubs" as she sometimes put it, when someone did her, or someone she loved, wrong.
There's no way to fill the space left by Sherri's death. Many of us lost a great friend. The field of Conflict Resolution lost a terrific mediator. I feel like I should close with something funny, but that was always Sherri's role. Instead, I'll close my eyes, smell some lavender, and think brilliant purple thoughts in her honor.