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,


  1. Alisha said on September 9, 2010 at 11:28 am ... #

    Diana, thank you so much for this article. You speak from a unique place, one that I can’t personally speak from. I work for CZC, and just recommended your article to a family who is in a similar situation. Wanted to let you know that sharing the story of your loss will be helping others as they face their own.

  2. Diana Doyle said on September 10, 2010 at 3:26 pm ... #

    Dear Alisha,

    Thank you so your comment.

    You must be a special person if you work for CZC, I imagine you are helping so many others with your work.

    Thank you for sharing my article with the family you spoke of. Sometimes, it does help to know you are not alone, as grieving is such a lonely experience.

    Please tell this family I will keep them in my thoughts.

    with love
    Diana x

  3. Sara said on November 10, 2010 at 11:06 am ... #

    Dear Diana,
    I just read your story and am so grateful I got to reAd it. I lost my little sister Katie Lynn just a few months ago and am feeling so lost right now without her especially with the holidays not far away. I was so close to my sister and now I am pregnant and I wish it would have been me instead of her so that she might have had this wonderful experience of creating life. It is so crazy too that I supposedly conceived the night before she passed away which was the last time I saw her alive. Thankyou again as your story of your experience has helped me tremendously.

  4. Diana Doyle said on November 10, 2010 at 1:52 pm ... #

    Dear Sara,

    I’m sorry you’re feeling so lost without your sister. Your grief is so fresh and painful I’m sure.

    I know how you feel about wishing it was you instead of her….when Tarnia died I wished the same thing as she’d just had her dream come true, twin girls that were only six months old when she died. Guilt is normal and an awful, exhasuting emotion.

    I hope in time your memories of your relationship will give you strength. Katie Lynn will always live in your heart and maybe if you have a little girl you can honour the baby with her name as a middle name. We named our first daughter with my mom’s name as her second name. It felt so special.

    It’s a miracle that you conceived just before she died and sad that as one life ends another begins. The same happened to me when I was pregnant with our second daughter.

    I wish you good days ahead. You’ll always miss your sister however I hope this new little bub can give you comfort and know, from what I’ve experienced, your sister’s spirit is around…look for the little signs that can bring you comfort.

    Thank you for leaving a comment, it inspires me to keep writing about my losses to help people like you.

    With love
    Diana Doyle x

  5. amber fernandez said on May 24, 2011 at 5:39 pm ... #

    Dear Dee,
    Hi Dee this is Amber Fernandez. I think of you and Savannah all the time. Savannah was my first real friend and I miss her so much. Sometimes I wonder how it would be if she was still here. My mom and I just found one of your websites online. Dempsey is so beautiful and I wish I could get to know her. I really hope someday we can see each other again. I have many pictures of Savannah and me all over my school folder just so I can see her each and every day. I can still vision the times that my mom and I came over and visited. Please tell everyone that I said hello and I miss you all very much.
    Love always,
    Amber Fernandez

  6. anonymous said on July 17, 2011 at 4:50 am ... #

    Diana, I have just read your article and I can relate to it very well as my sister Sharon died when I was 18 months old. She was 4 years old. I am now 38 and last year I only found out the true cause of death when I over heard my dad telling my mother in law that she had died of cancer. I love my mum and dad for all they have done for me but the lack of communication about my sister has effected me through out my life which really, I am only just realising now. Its not their fault, they had their own grief to deal with. Thanks for sharing your article, I am sure it will help people in a similar situation.
    Regards John.

  7. Bess said on February 21, 2012 at 6:13 pm ... #

    I like the article conclusion. Comfort comes from the strangest places.

  8. Ellary said on March 27, 2013 at 4:01 am ... #

    Hello Diana, I am out trolling the internet on a lonely night reminiscing about my sister who passed in January of last year, trying to figure my way through this life without her. She died young, 44, of alcoholism. I happened upon your article and had to click on it because our family also has 2 generations of lost siblings. My mother lost her only sibling, her little sister, while I lost my only sibling, my big sister. It’s a club we’d rather not be in but here we are. Thanks for the article and I will continue to try to move towards healing. Peace to all -Ellary

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