A Grieving Sibling Gets a Message from Her Sister

By Suzanne Leigh

My daughters never looked alike: one resembled mom, the second takes after dad. One was pensive, creative and forever clutching a sketchpad; the other is bolder, more impetuous, a practical Ms. Fix-it commandeering electronics of all kinds and swiftly repairing a vacuum cleaner while her mom flounders on the sidelines.

Marissa is in fourth grade; she’s the same age as Natasha was when she had recovered from her brain tumor treatment and was happy and apparently healthy, before the beast came back and gradually sucked out her joyfulness and kookiness and put the brakes on the high-speed velocity in which she lived her life.

At 9, both daughters express happiness in the same ways. This is what it looked like four years ago when Natasha was 9 and what it looks like for Marissa today: cartwheeling at 10 o’clock on a Saturday night because that final burst of energy must be unleashed; stripping down to swimsuits on a chilly February afternoon because when isn’t it fun to splash in the ocean; fierce hugging and maniacal laughter at a chance encounter with a BFF; the conviction that paradise is the place where ice cream of every flavor is available for the price of a compliant parent and $1.75.

There’s another side to 9, one that foreshadows the preteen years, which are not so far ahead: the locked journal with “private” scrawled on its cover, the closed door and urgent whispers when a playdate visits and the badgering for a cell phone, the ultimate symbol of emerging independence. We never got the preteen experience with Natasha, because when her tumor recurred she drew closer to her parents rather than further apart. With Marissa, it will be different.

“Don’t be surprised if Marissa doesn’t talk about her sister,” a hospital chaplain had warned us when Natasha died. That statement has proven to be largely true. So much is unspoken about Marissa’s grief. We know that Marissa mourns the sister in whose arms she would sleep, whose presence was excitedly awaited at the end of a school day, whose praise made her light up. Many siblings tolerate the other; my children’s love for each other was celebrated every day, in part probably because Marissa sensed her sister’s life was in jeopardy.

“You miss Natasha, don’t you?” I say as my younger daughter slips on her sister’s clothes: the frayed blue jeans, purple patterned T-shirt and pink parka. “Yes. And I don’t want to talk about her,” she says, her eyes brimming with tears. Marissa’s only concession to her loss is her pursuit of rainbows, a sign that her sister is greeting her from a place called heaven, she tells us.

While Marissa undergoes a metamorphosis as she edges toward preteenhood, my parenting role is also in transition. I no longer walk with one hand linked through my sick daughter’s arm and the other holding onto Marissa. After close to 14 years of motherhood, both of my hands are sometimes strangely free. When Natasha was still alive, Marissa needed me because there was so little of me left over after attending to the needs of a critically sick child. Now that I’m all hers, she realizes that having me in the background is sufficient — at least for some of the time.

Last week Marissa returned from camping, an eagerly anticipated two-night trip. “I missed you!” I say when I see her waiting for me to take her home. “Did you miss me, just a tiny bit?”
“No. I missed you a lot,” she says and I notice her red-rimmed eyes. (Is she tired or has she been crying?)

Tight hugs are exchanged as we set off for the car.

“What do you think I saw there? Guess!”

“Well, I heard that there was a red-tailed hawk and didn’t you see seals?”

“No, no, no! I saw a rainbow. A RAINBOW!

And I said, ‘Hello Natasha!’”


And we drive home. My younger daughter is happy for this “gift” from her sister and I am happy — bittersweet happy — to hear the joy in her voice as she says Natasha’s name.



About Suzanne Leigh 

Suzanne Leigh is a freelance health reporter and a Huffington Post blogger. She blogs about her family at: www.themourningafternatasha.wordpress.com

8 thoughts on “A Grieving Sibling Gets a Message from Her Sister”

  1. This story really hits home. Not as a parent, but as a sister. My little sister was a year younger than me. She died from a brain tumor 9 years ago. Now, having a baby of my own, I can;t imagine what my own mother went through, and I am sorry that you are going through this, too. I hope that in writing about Natasha, you have some healing. That was really the only thing that helped me. Your younger daughter is lucky to have you there. Even if she doesn’t talk about it, I hope you know that she will always appreciate you being there for her in whatever way she needs you to be. As I’ve gotten older, I have realized this about my mom more and more. Just thought you should know, you are doing an awesome thing by writing about your daughters.

  2. Your message is the nicest thing to happen to me today. Thank you so much, Jaimee. I’m so sorry you lost your little sister from a brain tumor, too.

  3. Oh how heart breaking. We think so often of the pain of a parent losing a child and we forget the fact that the siblings are the only people in the world to be related so closely, sharing so much more than anyone could. What a hard thing to lose a sister at such a time. What a sweet child. What a cherished life no one can ever take away from her. I love rainbows too……


  4. Thank you, MamaBear, for reading and for sharing the story of your brother. How ghastly. How heart-wrenching. I so understand your dad’s grief and I so appreciate your perspective as your late brother’s sibling. The loss of a child clouds all other emotions, but it is very important that the siblings are never compared and never feel less worthy. I hope your dad finds comfort and joy from his surviving children.

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