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Dealing With Sibling Survivor Guilt After My Adult Sister's Death - placeholderDealing With Sibling Survivor Guilt After My Adult Sister's Death
5 min read | Aug 2021

I Dealt With Sibling Survivor Guilt After My Sister's Death

When my older sister passed away, I had to look back to remember better times.

Boomer Baby / Baby Boomer / Moderate / Writer, Author

She hopped up on the living room couch to dance, the heels of her white go-go boots sinking into the plaid cushions. Blasting from my parent's stereo was the Rolling Stones' “(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction,” the reverberation of Charlie Watts's drums amplified through the speakers. My cousins cheered her on as she swung her thick mane of blonde hair, her face tanned caramel from hours of sunbathing on the beach. Her large, hazel eyes scanned the room until she spotted me in the hallway, and the lips she'd painted pink with Yardley gloss curved into a mischievous smile. Wild and free, she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. And she was my sister.

Cherie was older than me by six years, but the differences in our ages never bothered her. We were inseparable from the start; she carried me everywhere on her hip and told people that I was her "baby monkey." The nights she snuck out of our parents’ home in her go-go boots to dance at the clubs, I stood by my window, watched the dark arms of the sky cradle the moon, and waited for her to come home. 

We Promised We’d Be Each Other’s Best Friend, Forever

So much of my childhood was spent with Cherie. We sat for hours cutting out patterns for Betsy McCall paper dolls, drawing Arabian horses on her giant sketch pad and singing along to her Herman's Hermits albums. She taught me how to play Crazy Eights and War, our card games lasting long past my bedtime. The nights we craved sweets, we pulled out my toy Easy-Bake Oven and made dozens of cakes and pies, eating them until our bellies ached with food and laughter. On a school day, if one of us was sick, the other would feign illness so that my mother would keep us both home. We'd watch Dick Van Dyke reruns, eat crackers and sip ginger ale in our pajamas while snuggled together on the couch.

Growing up, Cherie's bedroom was always my sanctuary—it was a peaceful place that smelled of sandalwood incense, fresh paint from her easel and the White Shoulders perfume she frequently wore. Every inch of wall space was covered with posters of Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, wild animals, peace signs and anti-Vietnam War slogans. At night, she'd switch on a black light lamp to illuminate the patterns on her psychedelic posters, bringing them to life in the eerie blue glow from the bulb. I curled up next to her as she told stories of Puff the Magic Dragon and of the faraway, mystical places we'd visit together one day.

In the dim light of her room, she promised that we would always be more than just sisters—we would forever be best friends. I believed it since she understood me better than most and defended me at every turn when I got into trouble for bad grades or mouthing off at my parents. We often joked that we were the black sheep of the family and so different from our siblings and parents. Our rebellious nature is what bonded us from the beginning.

“”

In High School, Cherie Had It All

I watched Cherie bloom during her high school years; her weekends were filled with movie dates or rock concerts and an endless stream of party invites. She had it all—popularity, beauty, a fun job at a fast-food taco place, a cool boyfriend who drove a VW Beetle and the honorary title of runner-up homecoming queen during her senior year. She was my idol for many reasons, but mostly, I respected the special connection she shared with animals. 

Cherie had a fascination with birds and an encyclopedic knowledge of every species. She took beautiful photographs of hawks, eagles and owls and sketched them every chance that she had. Her artistic skills were impressive, and whenever I studied her drawings, I felt more than her admiration for these birds; I saw her desire to share their fierceness, beauty, resilience and freedom. She volunteered at a wildlife rehab center and fostered so many birds at home that my parents built an aviary in our backyard for the critically injured ones that would never fly again. 

Little did I know that those wounded birds would become the metaphor for my sister's life. 

She Was Not as Fortunate in Adulthood

Her unraveling began slowly: two failed marriages, single motherhood, financial struggles. It chipped away at her self-confidence until there was nothing left but the shell of the carefree girl I remembered from high school. She seldom sketched or picked up her camera anymore. She was too busy supporting herself with a job at a pet grooming salon. She wore her disappointment like a heavy winter cloak. The light in her bright hazel eyes dimmed to gray. 

I got married, had a family and worked several part-time jobs, which meant that I didn't visit Cherie as often as I should have, despite her invitations. Over the years, she continued a downward spiral into depression, trapped in a vicious cycle of yo-yo dieting and emotional binge eating. By the time she was in her early 50s, she had numerous health issues associated with obesity. My sister was killing herself with food, and I didn't know how to stop her. No one did. Something had broken inside her, leaving her heart cracked in too many places to repair. She had become like the wounded birds she once cared for.

In the early hours of Halloween in 2009, the heart that had once been filled with hope and joy stopped beating. When the monitors screamed their flatline goodbye, I knew my sister had taken flight like an eagle from the unhappiness that had caged her for so long. 

An autopsy report stated that she died from pneumonia with a heart three times its average size due to her obesity. I preferred to think her heart was large because she had loved so much.

As Her Sibling, the Guilt of Not Being There for Her Ate Away at Me

I drifted for days after her death, suspended between anger and guilt because I never told Cherie how sorry I was for not being the sister and best friend I'd promised to be. At her funeral, I delivered a eulogy to a crowd that needed to hear she lived a beautiful and graceful life. But I knew better than that. She had been dying inside for years, and no one could save her.

Shortly after Cherie's ashes were surrendered to the wind, a red-tailed hawk circled my yard and settled in the pine branches above me. I looked into his dark, unwavering gaze and saw my sister watching over me. Her loss haunted me deeply like a phantom limb that never stopped aching.

“”

Grieving the Loss of a Sister Means Remembering the Good Times

Over time, the sharp edges of grief softened into a well-worn quilt that surrounded me whenever I thought of her. I listened to my ’60s music playlist of the Mamas & the Papas, Steppenwolf and Deep Purple and remembered the things my sister had loved: strawberry smoothies and iced frappuccinos, snowy mountain tops, orchids in her garden, winter nights and the soulful voice of Andrea Bocelli as she cooked in the kitchen with her dogs by her feet. Remembering her moments of happiness was the only way to push past the grief that had muted my world when she died.

Although the empty pages my sister left behind can never be filled, I can still close my eyes and see the happy girl in white go-go boots dancing on the sofa. She turns to me and smiles, her joy radiating beyond the darkness like a shooting star that leaves a bright trail across the winter sky.

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