Two Generations of Sibling Loss

Two Generations of Sibling Loss

By guest writer, Diana Doyle

It started in the car yesterday with Dempsey, sitting in her car seat, dripping wet from hours of swimming at Summer Camp, when she hit me with one of her question times. “Mommy, can you tell me how old I was again when Savannah died?” she asked. I turned the radio down and adjusted the rear vision mirror so I could see her.

“You were eighteen months old, Precious…almost two.” I told her.

“I miss having my sister Mommy, can you tell me again how Savannah died?”

Here we go, I thought. Dempsey is obsessed with how her sister died, what it was like for her, and all sorts of other questions that I keep answering openly and honestly so she can have some sort of picture of what Savannah was like.

The conversation continued when we got home, on our sofa. I sat down next to her and put my arm around her as she asked questions like, ”What was I doing when she died?” “Did Savannah like me?” “What were Savannah’s last words, Mommy?”

I told her what a good baby she was for me when her sister was sick, and I racked my brain to remember what Savannah’s last words were… how could I ever forget?… but time clouds your memory.

I stroked her arm and told her Savannah loved her, and was so proud to be her big sister that she would crawl over to Dempsey’s bouncer and read Winnie the Pooh to her, and pop her binky back in her mouth when it dropped out. Demps sat there smiling and staring off into space in a trance. I would’ve loved to know what was going through her tiny brain as I told her the stories, the same stories I’ve told her over and over. I asked her what she was thinking and she said, “Nothing Mommy!” With a shy smile.

Then my beautiful eight year old reached over and hugged me, “Mommy, I feel sad for you too because you don’t have your big sister here either!” I cuddled her and kissed the top of her head with a lump in my throat… “No Precious, Mommy doesn’t have her sister either!”

Suffering the loss of a brother or sister is like misplacing a part of you. It changes the family dynamics, especially during the holidays or special family occasions. I remember my Dad and Brenda’s wedding a few years ago, fighting back the tears when I saw her twin daughters dressed in flowing lilac dresses, their hair curled into ringlets with huge smiles decorating their faces. Tarnia wasn’t there to witness our Dad so happy and in love again, and of course that she didn’t get to see her two boys looking so handsome. I will always be saddened that she can’t participate in our family get togethers. And I know I wouldn’t be human if on those special days I didn’t have that longing for my sister to be part of our family as she should be.

Yes, Dempsey and I share a special bond that we’ve both lost our sister’s, our siblings. I was fortunate to have had Tarnia in my life until we were adults, and I have a lot of memories and photos I can reminisce over. Not all of the memories are happy, Tarnia and I being so different! :)

And I know I have to be careful when I tell Dempsey stories about her sister’s time with us as I know it’s very easy to paint of picture of Savannah or of a sibling that is unrealistic or flawless, as we tend to do when people we love die. I know some people have put Tarnia on a pedestal, have forgotten her imperfections. It’s important to be honest and real, especially with children who have lost a brother or sister. My friend Dr. Philippart sent me the email below after Savannah died…..

Dear Mrs Doyle,

It is important to make sure the surviving child is not given the impression that the deceased child was such a perfect being that there never will be another sibling who could match that perfection. Two of my friends who had lost an older sibling were feeling their lives were under the shadow of that perfect sibling and were uncomfortable with their inability to compete with someone they never knew. Sincerely Michel Philippart, M.D

His words are always in the back of my mind when I tell Dempsey about her sister. Losing a sibling creates a new identity. For a long time after Tarnia died, I felt ripped off that I didn’t have her to call and talk about Mom dying, or Savannah.

I also remember standing in a queue at the checkout a few days after Tarnia died and wondering why her, and not me. I felt guilty that I was alive and she wasn’t! I was angry at her for dying, angry that she had caused our family so much pain… “God Tarnia, how could you be so careless!” I thought to myself. Then of course I was upset at myself for thinking such a thing.

I know for me, I still have my brother Mark, whom I adore, but I do miss having a sister. I’m envious of my friends and the relationships they have… even if sometimes I do romanticize how Tarnia and I would be now. I know Dempsey gets lonely for her sister too, and I know how she feels. I also know I can’t change what has happened to our family, I have to accept it, keep Savannah’s memory alive for Dempsey, continue to tell her over and over that she has a sister, she just can’t be here with us.

I know I’ll always miss Tarnia and the relationship we could have had. I will always yearn to have her in my life. However, I know I’m not alone, some people never experience having a sibling. I have to look at what I do have, which is great girlfriends who are like sisters, and cousins who I can call on like I would have Tarnia. I have to look at these positives to survive not having her here.

I take comfort now in passing on what I do remember about my sister to her two little girls, Emerald and Charlotte, who never knew her. I’ve started a journal full of my memories of Tarnia as a gift for them when they are older. This also helps ease my guilt that I am still here while she is not.

And I’ll continue to answer Dempsey’s questions about her big sister with a smile, reinforcing to Dempsey how precious she is to us!

Our conversation yesterday finished with Dempsey providing me with comfort – a hug and a sloppy kiss, as she added, “But you still have me Mommy, and I’m hungry!”

How lucky I am!

By guest writer Diana Doyle. Read more from Diana at her blog,

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