Moving On After the Grief of Losing a Sibling
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Moving On After the Loss of My Beloved Younger Sister

Though sister love is eternal.

photo collage of two happy sisters
Paul Spella

I hung up the phone in excitement, already making plans. My younger sister, Nickie, had at last told me she was ready to retire from her corporate communications job. And not just retire in any old place, but move from Virginia to the Bay Area, where I live. I immediately began updating my guest room with some of Nickie’s favorites: an Atget poster of Paris on the wall, The Portable Dorothy Parker on the bookshelf, a “Sisters make the best friends” mug on the bedside table.

On an overcast summer day in 2018, less than a year after this phone call, the doorbell rang. It should have been my beautiful younger sister, greeting me with a “Bonjour, darling,” toting suitcases full of her vintage skirts and precious journals, the culmination of days we’d spent earlier in the year making countless visits to The Home Depot to choose new kitchen countertops in preparation for selling her house and continuing to plan and dream for Nickie’s new life in California.

“Remember,” I told her, “Tahoe is only a few hours away if you yearn for East Coast snow. And Berkeley Bowl is even better than Wegmans!”

But it was only a delivery person at the door, a uniformed man asking me to sign for the somewhat beat-up package he was carelessly holding that contained Nickie’s cremains. Wrapped in plain brown paper, and heavier than I expected.

Just a month after our last sisters’ get-together in 2018, Nickie went to the doctor for a lingering cough. She received the shocking diagnosis of terminal lung cancer. I took a leave of absence from my job to spend Nickie’s final days with her in Virginia, as did our older sister, Linda.

It was both the best and the worst time we ever spent together. Nickie died in July 2018, just eight weeks after the diagnosis. I can still see her, wearing a pretty nightgown, propped up by pillows in a hospital bed in her living room, handwriting us funny little notes, because she’d lost her voice.

Nickie was cheerful and upbeat until the very end, the quintessential younger sister I’d known for over 60 years. I don’t know how she did it.

Having a sister can be exhilarating and maddening at the same time, especially when you’re only a year apart in a family of five kids. When we were young, Nickie and I could go from happily playing with Betsy McCall paper dolls one minute to fighting (with secret pinches) over who would have a window seat in the car. Sharing a bedroom meant I always had someone to talk with late at night, but also meant that someone was quite the snoop when I had a friend sleep over.

From our 20s through our 40s, Nickie and I mostly lived on different coasts and saw each other once or twice a year, usually at some family event. It wasn’t until we were nearing age 50 that Nickie and I regained some of our childhood closeness by having regular get-togethers, along with our sister Linda. We’d play endless games of rummy and laugh nonstop, sharing childhood memories, such as those of our heartfelt performances as the McGuire Sisters at our grandparents’ house in the late 1950s.When Nickie died, not only was I left devastated, but I began reflecting on my own life — on how I’d been so excited to see my younger sister ready to make a huge change by moving cross-country. And here I was, in a rut, trapped by inertia. I’d been doing the same editing job at a publishing company for over 25 years, and I was bored. I was 67, but I wanted to continue working at least three or four more years, holding out for the maximum Social Security benefit.

Suddenly, that timeline no longer made sense. I quit my job right after Nickie’s death and began searching for a way to both honor my sister’s memory and bring more meaning (and fun) to my daily existence. I hit on doing something involving humor writing, a passion of Nickie’s, which she planned to pursue after retirement.

After six months of exploring options, I landed on the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. Here I cofounded Nickie’s Prize, a humor-writing competition on the subject of sisters, which led to a book, Sisters! Bonded by Love and Laughter. It is filled with funny real-life sister stories, my favorite being a piece Nickie had sent me one birthday about a memorable childhood Halloween; it was her first published humor writing.

Nickie’s remains stayed in my home for a year after her death, until my mother died in 2019. We buried them both together in the family plot in New York that already included my father and a younger brother. This left only three (me, my older sister and younger brother) of our original family of seven.

While the urn of Nickie’s ashes is no longer in my guest room, I’ve added more things to remind me of my beloved younger sister, such as one of her favorite mirrors. I think of Nickie every time I look in that mirror. I can’t help but raise an eyebrow with a slight smile, the way Nickie did when she wanted to silently signal to me that something funny was happening — such as our mother retelling the same old family story.

I pull up the McGuire Sisters’ song “Sugartime” on my phone and picture 6-year-old Nickie standing next to me as we belt out the lyrics: “Sugar in the mornin’ / Sugar in the evenin’ / Sugar at suppertime / Be my little sugar / And love me all the time.”

I will love you all the time, Nickie.

Have any of you lost a sibling? How did you cope? Let us know in the comments below.

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