How Losing My Older Sister Saved Me


“She said she usually cried at least once each day not because she was sad, but because the world was so beautiful and life was so short.”

Days after my older sister Céline succumbed to cirrhosis on April 5, 2009, at age 30, I was searching through her dresser for an outfit she might deem “coffin appropriate,” grateful for the break from fielding calls from sympathetic friends and family. That’s where I found it—a small, black-and-white notebook peeking out from beneath a stack of crumpled clothing. It contained a single journal entry, which she had drafted during a brief stay at the psychiatric ward of Saint Vincent’s hospital in lower Manhattan. My alcoholic sister had landed there after a particularly bad bout with the bottle, which led Emergency Room doctors to diagnose her as depressive, and potentially suicidal. Imagining Céline amongst a group of patients declared unstable, I shook my head with a mix of disbelief, sadness, and outrage. Had she made any friends while she was there, I wondered. Had she been able to sleep soundly? How again had addiction and premature death become part of my brilliant older sister’s narrative?

I set aside the task of styling my deceased sibling to sit cross-legged on her bed. As I read those pages, which concluded with the above quote by artist Brian Andreas, I absorbed their meaning and admired the perfectly slanted penmanship I’d long tried, but failed, to mimic. In spite of suffering from severe liver failure—skin green from the bile that rose to its surface, muscles atrophied, stomach bloated—my sister’s tone was more wryly amused than bitter. What struck me more than her strength in the face of physical decay, however, was the realization that, in dying, my sister had given me the gift of perspective.

The maxim at the core of Andreas’ line is familiar: Life is short. But it’s one thing to be told this, and quite another to stare this truth straight in the face. Clutching my sister’s journal, I wept, not because alcohol had finally taken her, nor because there were things I wished I’d said before she left us, but because I finally saw how many of my choices had been informed by her illness and eventual death.

Through losing my sister, I was empowered to lead a completely different, more rewarding life. Inadvertently or not, Céline taught me that life is too short not to be embraced. In my case, that meant abandoning a lucrative Wall Street career I hated to recast myself as a creative, even though I once considered writing her territory. It also meant listening to my heart rather than caving into an unwritten societal rule about dating married guys I might once have followed blindly.

At my sister’s funeral, I hugged the urn containing her ashes. Then I kissed that surprisingly heavy, ornate pink thing and placed it before her tombstone, understanding clearly what my role would now always be: I must live, times two, for both her and me.