The Grief of Losing My Sister – An Interview with Jo Pullan

Only someone who has lived through it can comprehend the grief of losing a sister. Neither my mother, nor I (the authors of this website) had a sister, and so we felt it was important to talk to someone who has first hand experience to help us cover this type of grief.

Sadly, my old school friend, Jo lost her sister not so long ago, and she kindly agreed to answer our questions about her loss. She has a lot of good advice to impart, as she has learned to live with her grief and to find meaning in her life again. We are so grateful to Jo for sharing these difficult feelings with us, as we know that it was not easy. We hope that her words will help those who have also, tragically, lost a dear sister. 

Grief of losing a sister - photo of AngelaIn Loving Memory of Angela

Can you describe what you feel is special about the relationship between sisters?

There is a bond between sisters that is like no other formed in life - even your best friend does not come close. I call it a knowing!  There is a depth to it that no one else comes near to, not even a parent. I have three sisters and each one knows my inner self almost better than I do – they have watched me grow and change or not change. They have seen each phase of my life and from a woman’s perspective can see how I think, how I feel and how I comprehend life. My brothers can observe but not in the same way – they couldn’t understand a girl’s pubescence, they wouldn’t know when I was flirting or interested in a boy - not like a sister, and parents are easily deceived as their minds are elsewhere.

Sisters can tell you if that boyfriend is good or not without losing your love and without having an ulterior motive, knowing that for the most part they have your best interests in mind. Sisters have a view into your heart that no one else will ever have.

Quote about sisters - Sisters have a view into your heart that no-one else will ever have.

How did you feel when you lost your sister and has that changed over time?

Although I knew my sister was going to die and I knew her medical condition - when I look back I don’t think I ever thought she was going to die. I think you prepare for your parents to die all your life, from the fears of a young child to being an adult knowing their parent is aging, but you don’t think about it with your siblings. She was my big sister - how could she really not be there?

Her last day of consciousness she was her usual self, outsmarting people with her immensely clever brain, recalling memories, laughing loudly, complaining about politics but then saying she didn’t care anymore. And looking so beautiful, with her famous long black hair in little pigtails, looking 17 again.

She told me some truths, which, of course, I knew deep down. She asked me to care for her loved ones. She confided in me things I didn’t know from her adult life, our times apart but even then I knew. I think the hardest part was watching her say goodbye to her loved ones  - there is nothing as painful as to see her pain in that. But when she actually died I was completely shocked. I don’t know why that was, as I knew what her prognosis was and that she was dying.

It took me months and months to stop crying – I would wake up crying in the night, I would go to sleep crying. I have never ever been so sad. I have never felt a loss like that. There was a huge hole in my heart that no one could ever fill. It is still there – emptiness inside!  I miss her all the time whatever is going on in the world. I cannot speak to any one else about things so honestly and openly and knowing that whatever my views, even if outrageous or not the norm, she would not judge me or lose her faith and love in me. I can hear her with the pandemic say, “ if I want to go for a walk twice a day I bloody well will!’ in her ultimately stubborn manner.

She was a special sister in that she always looked out for me. It took me about a year to stop the tears constantly flowing and to stop feeling such overwhelming sorrow. I had to stop myself and make myself climb out of the depression. Two and a half years on the emptiness is still there but at least I can carry on and not cry in the same way. I hear her voice inside me all the time.

Do you feel that you have managed to come to terms with your loss?  If so, how?  If not, what is holding you back from acceptance? 

I have now come to terms with it partly because I can see the healing within her little family and them getting on with their lives and if they can why can’t I? Life does go on. I’m not sure I will ever accept her loss because there is such a part of me missing but you learn to live with it - or without it. You form a new normal and it doesn’t include her, but there is always that voice inside wondering ‘what would her thoughts be on a matter?’, ‘what would she have to say?’, ‘would she think this is right or wrong?’, ‘what would her advice be?’

Maybe I just don’t want to let her go, maybe it’s a little sister thing and I need to accept that mine is the only opinion that matters in my life now. I am not sure what it is that holds on to her but it hasn’t let her go yet.

What has helped you most along the way? 

Probably my daughter. I think it hurt her so much to see me so weakened  - so utterly sad. I feel if I hadn’t had her I wouldn’t have wanted to carry on. The worst part is not being able to talk about her to people as they don’t feel the same– so actually being on my own and talking it through in my own head helped me too. Honouring her wishes, for example, feeding the birds and having lots of them come to visit every day, knowing that she would love that, makes me feel better. Ultimately though, it was my daughter that needs my love and attention that helped me to stop self absorbing in my grief.

Have you had good support from friends and family?  

My friends are always supportive and most of mine knew her very well too but you do feel you can’t keep talking about her all the time. I never felt that anyone really knew what I was going through because most of the time I put on a brave face. My daughter knew, but your own children don’t always want to see that side of you as you’re supposed to be the strong one.

What advice would you give to others who have lost a sister? 

Understand that it will not be easy – give yourself as much time as you need to indulge your sadness, to let it work its way through you like any grief. But I guess with her more than anything it feels like she hasn’t left me - inside of me- she is still there just seeing things through my eyes almost and having her opinions inside my own head where no one else can see her except me. Be okay with that.

Keep her photos close, keep her memories close, hear her laughter, smell her scent, go to places she liked to visit, do some of the things she liked to do - it makes you feel close to her, it keeps her soul close to you. And that is what you need, to still feel she is with you, that she lives in you still and is close by- that is what gets me through.

grief of losing a sister-image

Is there anything which has made it tougher, or easier to grieve?

Even writing this is so hard. I have hardly written anything since her death – I used to write all the time; I never knew something could blow me apart so much as this has. Grief does stay with you. It becomes part of your journey and attaches itself to you like a small burden on your back that you can’t quite shift. Although you live with it and soldier on it is always just clinging on. I think we have to accept that is how it is and stop trying to shift it. We should allow ourselves that like a badge of honour, rather than a sign of weakness for which society says there is no time.

Society gives you a sort of time limit on grief – when people say time heals all – well, I think it actually means – “look, if you are still crying in two years time you need to get a grip”. Society wants us to heal and be strong in everything but we should not feel we have to adapt to that pressure to put on a smiling face all the time. I know we can’t be crying all the time but don’t feel hurried. Allow your sister to stay with you and you can then still have that understanding or knowing that only you can have with her.

related Pages: 

Read Jo's Poem about the Loss of her Sister Here. 

Losing My Sister at 17 Years Old - A Story from a Reader

Do You Need Bereavement Counseling? 

Advice from Dr Christina Hibbert on Sibling Grief

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