Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of my sister Carol’s death. As the date approached, I’ve thought a lot about the impact of her death on my life, and about what it means to lose a sibling. So I will share some of those thoughts here.
I fully recognize that not all siblings are close, often separated as they are by geography, age and even generation, by life choices, and historic grievances tracing back to childhood. Though my sister and I had had a few low points in her relationship (especially when I became a hippie and frequently criticized her for taking a “straight job.” I was insufferable!) But once I came to my senses and returned to university to become a teacher myself, our bond grew closer and closer.
When our mother suffered a massive brain aneurysm, Carol and I promised we would care for one another when we were sick or in need of help. And I was able to fulfill my half of that bargain when her cancer (originally diagnosed in 1978) returned with an unstoppable force in January 1997.
As often happens when someone is seriously ill, we became closer than we had ever been. Spending hours together, watching videos and bad daytime TV, remembering our childhood antics, talking about hopes and dreams (and fears).
When she died on July 4, 1997, I was devastated. Even though we all knew the end was coming, we had focussed on the immediate – tests, blood transfusions, medications – anything to make her more comfortable. My days were taken up with helping her, organizing her care, and commuting back and forth between Toronto, where she lived, and Ottawa where my immediate family resided. And then, suddenly, all that was gone. After months of thinking about what Carol needed, I had no idea how to carry on.
One of my strongest memories from that period was my desire for some sort of visible sign of my loss. A black arm band, a long black dress (as worn by widows in the Portuguese and Italian communities where I had lived for many years) – something to indicate that I was in mourning.
Though friends and colleagues sent cards and flowers immediately after Carol’s death, soon enough (far too soon for me) they began to carry on as if nothing had happened. Yes, I had a brand new job as the Director of Women’s Studies, and there were responsibilities I had to fulfill. But I still needed consoling.
What I found so difficult was the silence. Perhaps people didn’t know what to say. Perhaps they found my bereaved state frightening. I had certainly been in their shoes before Carol died. But now I experienced first-hand the impact of avoidance and silence.
One factor, I think, was that most people my age had not yet experienced the loss of a close contemporary, be it a friend or relative. I was only 47 and Carol, just 51. While most of us experienced our grandparents’ deaths, and some of us, parents, siblings were part of the fabric of our lives, people who knew us from the very beginning (or soon thereafter), people with whom we could still consider ourselves young and more or less invincible.
At hospice, I see many people who are faced with the death of a sibling. I can still vividly recall the first person – her sister was a teacher, as Carol had been, her career and life now cut short by cancer’s horrible force. Her sister brought in baked goods almost every time she visited, and she would share the lemon bread, blueberry muffins, and other treats with the staff and volunteers. It was something concrete she could do, when there was nothing she could do to prevent her sister from dying.
Though we are not supposed to talk about our personal lives, I told this woman that my sister had died four years before. We didn’t discuss details, only that I, like her, had been her caregiver. She thanked me for telling her about my loss, and I could see her shoulders relax as she realized that she was not the only one.
Several years later, I bumped into her on the street.
“You know what I tell people?” she told me. “I tell them that when I met you, and I could see that you had lost your sister and you were still standing, and volunteering even, I knew I would survive the loss of my sister too.”
After Carol died, I searched for books that might help me deal with my loss and grief. While there were many books on parental and spousal loss, I found virtually nothing about losing a sibling. It’s one of the reasons I started writing about Carol around the time that I took the hospice training. Not only did I want to honour her with my words, but I wanted to let others know that I understand what it means to lose someone who has known (and put up with) you your entire life.
The death of a sibling can leave a deep and abiding void in one’s life. There will never be another Carol in my life. But I am grateful beyond words for what she taught me. And for the ways she has enabled me to help others through their loss and grief.