Who Am I Without My Sister? A Look At Love and Loss

“I don’t believe an accident of birth makes people sisters or brothers. It makes them siblings, gives them mutuality of parentage. Sisterhood and brotherhood is a condition people have to work at.”

— Maya Angelou


This is true of all our relationships. You have to put in the hard work if you feel it’s something worth having. No question about it. But unlike the remarkable and sometimes not-so-remarkable array of people who come into our lives—the lovers, the husbands, the wives, the friends—we don’t get the luxury of hand-picking our siblings, the very same people who in time will either become our greatest ally or our fiercest enemy.

It is a tightrope. A never-ending dance between choosing battles and making those necessary concessions in order to get beyond what might seem now like nothing more than petty differences, but then an argument worth the bloodletting.

Yes, they push our buttons. Yes, they point out our mistakes, our frailties, keeping us cast in roles we’d sooner forget or hoped we’d grown out of, given all that we’ve done and the great distance it’s taken us to get there. But our siblings are also our champions, our keepers of our childhood, our witnesses, our partners in crime, our press agents, our safety nets, and our non-denominational confessors who not only see us at our best, but our worst and still manage to love us anyway.

Me and Marilyn 001

My sister and I shared more than parentage. We shared a history of moments. Two years and two months apart we were quite an opposite duo. She was the peacekeeper in the family, the good daughter who wore black shiny shoes and crinoline dresses while I was the thorn in everyone’s side, the bad seed strutting around in purple sneakers and frayed jeans very happy to knock her block every chance I got. Which as it turned out was quite often and never more triumphantly sweet, considering she had a few years and definitely a few pounds over me. Being the older sister I suspect she automatically assumed that title gave her certain unalienable rights to do with me as she willed. However, I didn’t quite see it that way. Oh yes, we argued, we tangled, all the time in fact. Because that’s what sisters do.

And the funny thing is…as much as I wanted to wring her neck, in that same breath I always knew she was my world and I was hers. I knew this to be a lifetime companionship that I’d never get anywhere else, from anyone else. And together we were a force. One so powerful standing outside the touch of time shoulder-to-shoulder like granite against the world that the only thing that could possibly cut short this indomitable feeling we had, was death. The ultimate disconnect. That tangible never-again thing that happens to you when you want to tell her something and immediately reach for the phone and it dawns on you like a brick to the head she’s not there. The sound of her voice, the look on her face will never again be yours to behold.

Mari 1

Over the past twenty-seven years I’ve thought a lot about this religion of siblinghood. From the moment my sister died to this, the whole of it has become a curious obsession, a fraternity which I wanted absolutely no part of. And yet, like most things beyond our control, I was inducted nevertheless.

Since my sister’s death, nothing has ever been the same. I have never been the same. How could I? I lost my compass, my identity, my alignment to all that I held sacred. I imagine most people tend to believe when we lose a sibling that relationship no longer needs the care it was once afforded, because it no longer exists. Like a root or a flower it too dies.  But the truth is our siblings will always be our siblings. Even when the discernible part of our equation vanishes, that golden thread of “mutuality” we were born with somehow manages to survive beyond those borders familiar and maybe not so familiar.

I loved my sister, dearly. I miss her very much—still. And admittedly not a single day goes by where thoughts of her don’t drift in, unannounced. Sometimes I weep at those thoughts, sometimes I smile. That’s just the way it is. I know in my heart she’ll always be there but I also can’t help feeling somehow like an orphan, cheated by time. Time where all those big things and little things that collectively embody a lifetime of dreams—the trips to faraway destinations, the shopping sprees to stores yet unconquered, the children, the grandchildren—she will never know, I will never get to share.

That is what I mourn. The passage of time and a life, her life, unfinished.

As human beings, as siblings, the richest moment we experience together is the moment we’re in. Everything else has either already happened or not yet ordained.  But at one time or another we will have to suffer this life alone. And within that state of suffering we have the option of denying or accepting. Of hating the world or embracing all that was given. Of withering or growing. And every moment we spend trying to decide in which direction we’re headed is a moment toward a better understanding of ourselves and how this tapestry of life wraps around us. Fibers that are intertwined in such a way, that with time and with love can and will grow stronger.

All this I’m saying to you now, I’ve said to myself a thousand times. If for no other reason than to remind myself that life is a double-edged sword, a myriad of things filled with such great beauty and such great sorrow and you cannot have one without the other.

It’s a package deal. Oh yes, I know this truth better than most as it’s the same truth that drives me from one day to the next as I struggle along getting this compass of mine re-aligned, fusing my presence of being back into my life and the lives of those I love. It’s work. Something that doesn’t simply happen overnight. But it’s worth it. Love is always worth it.

So the next time your sibling calls and you feel like there’s something more pressing to do, such as answering your emails or watering the lawn and you want to hang up…I say…don’t. I say spend the time, do the hard work and by all means embrace the moment.

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  1. Michelle says

    I can’t type through the tears. I remember meeting your sister when the children were little and I only remember the love that surrounded the two of you when you were together. You again have touched my heart with your words. Thank you.

  2. Anonymous says

    Awesome I enjoyed this immensely. I felt it in my heart,I also lost my sister my best friend, keep writing lau, it’s cathartic. Muahhh

    • says

      Lots of times when people reply I don’t get to see who they are because it comes through as anonymous. Unless of course they choose to identify themselves. However….in this case I only know one person who would end with a “Muahhh!” Sister Starks!!!

  3. tom says

    A beautiful tribute and so well written. Thank you for sharing your story. I’m sure a lot of folks relate to it.

  4. Julie Frayn says

    I can relate to this. Too much, in a very fresh way. So beautifully written, the dichotomy of sisterly relations, push-pull, love-hate, until you grow up and toss aside the childish selfishness and truly know each other. And love each other. And miss it so when it’s gone.

    • says

      The interesting thing, or should I say the most heartbreaking thing about losing a sister later on in life once all those childish ways have been thrown out the window, is realizing that you’ve also just lost your best friend.

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