By guest writer Sian Barnett Wike
She was gone in an instant; a taxi ride after a night out that never made it home. We held a service on the university campus for her and said goodbye to our lost coursemate. In front of me, her sisters sat stoically while I sobbed uncontrollably during a service in a language I couldn’t understand. The guilt I felt as I called my own sister for comfort on the walk home was ravaging; I still had one to call.
A year later, I visited my older sister, Alisha, on secondment in Paris. Realising the date, we remembered that call and cried for those sisters into a carafe of wine, sitting at a red checked table cloth. The unimaginable. The only thing worse than both of us going, we agreed, was one of us. I’m not sure if I’ll ever look at a checked tablecloth without feeling haunted by how fortunate I was back then.
Shortly after, I received a midnight phone call from my best friend: “Caroline’s sister has died”, she croaked. What was happening to these young women? And what was happening to the siblings they were leaving behind?
If you lose your romantic partner, you’re widowed. Your parents, you’re an orphan. And with those names, your loss is authenticated, rubber-stamped to signal the shift in your relationship status. Dismayed by the lack of an equivalent word when she lost her son, the author Karla Holloway began describing herself as a “vilomah”, which comes from the Sanskrit for “against a natural order”. I was born a sister, but there’s no word for my regression into an only child.
I became one over five years ago. After a 14-month battle with an incredibly rare cancer, Alisha passed away aged 29. I’m a true believer that there’s no hierarchy in grief – people lose their favourite people every day, and no one person’s pain trumps another’s. Everyone close to that person has lost someone different – something different – from their lives. But I lost multiple things that day. Not just my sister, not just my first and best friend, but also the role I played by being those things to her.
No matter how well you do or don’t get on with a sibling, it’s an evolutionarily formative relationship. They are your reference point – a daily calibration of behaviour, successes, failures. Whether your views are similar or not is irrelevant; the equivalence in a sibling is the rope holding your loftily dreaming feet to the ground. Skills of cooperation, negotiation, competition – basically learning that you’re not “it”– are all taught through sibling dynamics.
And anyone who knows me, knew us, understands how seriously Alisha and I took that role. The usual sibling clichéd disclosures are required here – yes, we fought, yes, we deliberately pissed each other off, and yes, she annoyed the hell out of me by making banoffee pie mandatory at birthdays, but by God, is there something primitively painful about losing the closest thing you’ve ever known. I tried to sum up the absolute role Alisha played in my life at her funeral but couldn’t come close. And because I’ve never managed to re-open the word document I typed them into, I can’t relay any of my attempts here and now.
(I am still pretty dubious about the whole banoffee pie thing, but I order it at any opportunity – my sweet tooth is placated by feeling connected to her)
As the bookish one, after her death, I scoured the self-development aisles, bereavement guides and psychological studies. In all the texts I pored over, paltry few pages were dedicated to the death of a sibling, and even more meagre were those dedicated to such a loss as adults. This baffled me. Around 80% of people are siblings, and I certainly wasn’t the first to lose theirs. I’d think of those I’d heard about and pitied in the past: the girl from my school class whose brother never came from holiday, another sibling who was taken by an aneurysm. Suicide, tropical diseases, lymphoma and car accidents. All stealing the lives of young brothers and sisters, all leaving behind a club of the equally bewildered and damned. Two years, three months and five days after we said goodbye to my sister at her ICU bedside, my husband joined the club and we found ourselves uttering similar words in disbelief at my sister-in-law’s graveside. Helena was knocked down one Monday morning on her way to work, also aged 29.
As anyone bereaved will tell you, it’s not just the pain of today that halts you. It’s the loss of an imagined future that shatters your soul into pieces all over the place. We grieve on our sisters’ behalf’s, for the chances they’ve lost, the things they’ll never get to do, and then more indulgently, the people they’ll never get to be, alongside us. Forgive not just the Harry Potter reference here, but also the negative connotation with it: my sister was a Horcrux – part of me walked with her, and without that part, I feel one step closer to the end myself.
I do not doubt that this feeling is due to the redundant spot in my original form. The role I’d done since birth no longer exists. My brother-in-law could one day have another wife, my parents are still parents, and maybe one day will still become grandparents. Even her longest-term friends can celebrate her together. But, self-indulgently, I find myself asking what about me? What about my husband? What about all the others in the club? What are we now? What will we ever be without them?
There were inevitabilities in the future Alisha and I saw together. ‘The dependency swap’ as we coined it – equal parts in eye-rolls and chuckles as we helped Mum find Strictly on iPlayer, and introduced Dad to Citymapper so he no longer waited for the bus in the rain. I’ll now be navigating that swap alone. And when my folks are gone? Who else will know anything of the life we lead together? My husband and I take immense comfort from the fact that being together since our early twenties meant we knew each other’s sisters well. We can reminisce, laugh and cry knowingly. But that’s it. We know the stories, we heard their equally ridiculous laughs, but we cannot feel each other’s sisters’ hands clinging to our own like they did when we were little.
I never grew up dreaming of becoming a mother. If I couldn’t be a ‘big sister’ like my own, my sights were firmly set on Auntie. That’s where the adage of time being a healer goes as far out of the window as my sporty sister’s overarm could launch it. Losing the possibility of such a role means that when each natural juncture to play it arrives, you start the process of grieving all over again.
So where are we left?
Unfairly and furtively furious at those with multiple siblings: “You’d have two to spare if you lost one.”
Overzealously clingy to others: “You didn’t call me back. Are you leaving me too?”
Alone, with a core-shattering pressure of living life on their behalf: “Live life as they did. Live as they would want you to. Love hard. Go after what you want”, and all the other existentially trite crap we try to navigate.
But I’ve learned that when I think of the Big Stuff without her, I can’t think at all. So I focus on the small things instead. I mix Coco Pops in with my muesli. I tick, sign (and date!) when I finish a crossword. I treat my dog like a human child. I love my husband with everything that I have.
When an old friend (who has always been an only child) told her two-year-old to “thank Auntie” for his birthday present, I crumbled. It’s easy for people to say, “you’ll always have us; you’re part of the family,” but with this real-life embodiment of that, my solitary fears for the future had nowhere to go but out of my tear ducts. It’s not that I don’t believe these heartfelt sentiments – I have many incredibly close, long-time friendships – but the reality of there only being so many seats around a Christmas dinner table can’t help but set in sometimes. Perfectly bemused as to why his gratitude caused Auntie to cry, my friend’s son quickly offered his balloon for another game of keepy-uppy.
In time, I’m managing to accept the loss of our physical proximity but will forever long for the emotional one we shared. Such a connection is never tangible, even with a living sibling. And so, I’m sure I’ll always wonder where it could have gone, or if it has gone at all, now that she has. Sometimes, when the confusion is just too much, I go into Boots and put on the perfume she wore (the one I don’t like) so that just maybe, she really did just borrow my softest jumper and slip it back into my drawer thinking she’d got away without handwashing it.
Sian is a writer planning a mini-series around sibling loss and would love to hear your experiences. If you or someone you know has lost a sibling, or anyone representing a sibling figure, drop her a DM @sianbarnwike, and follow her work at sianbarnwike.medium.com to see it unfold. (Anonymity will absolutely be protected if preferred)