6 min read

Death of My Sister

There’s a corner of Karakatta cemetery which has four graves side by side. I don’t go there very often but when I do I stop at each one for a few minutes.

Three of them belong to my grandad, my stepdad and my dad.  All the men in my life.

At each grave I pause and think the words: I love you. I miss you.

I don’t feel their presence. For me they are not there. Just the gap left behind without them here. And the piece of me that went with them.

I leave the fourth grave, which was actually the first, until last. This one is different. It belongs to my sister.

And the words are different: I’m sorry sis. I’m so fucking sorry.

The words I said to my 4 yr old son the day after it happened:

Auntie Kirrily died yesterday. She made her body stop working.

Oh. That’s a very big thing. Was it in the news?

Yes, it was very big and very sad. It felt like it should have been in the news. But only for our family.

The day before at 5am my phone rang and woke me up. I saw it was my sister and put the phone back down without answering.

It was too early and the last thing I felt like was a conversation with my sister. Especially a drunk, rambling one at 5am which I knew it would be.

I lay there for a while. Eyes closed but couldn’t go back to sleep. I checked my phone and saw there was a voicemail.

My sister: Can you call me urgently? Please, I really need to talk to you.

I called her back, but this time it was she who didn’t pick up.

I didn’t think too much of it. I was concerned but not overly.

I texted my mum and my sister’s husband just in case: Is Kirrily ok? Just missed a call from her.

A few hours later a call from my stepdad. My sister was found dead. She had taken an overdose and written a suicide note. Found by her husband and 5 year old daughter.

I ran out of the house panicking. The grief exploding inside me was like a violent physical assault - pushing up against my chest to restrict my breathing, digging into and wrenching my stomach to make me sick.

Then I drove away from my wife and kids. Phoned my friend on the way:

I’m coming over.  I need to drink.

It was the 11th of December. Two weeks before Christmas.

Almost exactly a year earlier my sister had taken a near lethal overdose. Somehow she survived that one and managed to get discharged from ICU just in time for Christmas lunch.

It wasn’t a great time & place for a serious conversation, but I tried:

You had us really worried there. Are you ok?

I made a mistake, she said. It won’t happen again.

Her voice was still croaky from having been intubated in intensive care.

As a mental health nurse I spoke to patients every day about their struggles, but I didn’t have anything to offer my sister.

What she needed I couldn’t give, and what I offered was not enough.

The following months were a blur. I had to keep working.

Part time at the very psychiatric hospital my sister was discharged from just two weeks earlier. Doing my job and talking to people about their depression. Their hopelessness. Their desire to die and leave their pain behind.

I was also building a software company at the time. On the day my sister died I was building an app to help people get mental health crisis support. Ironic. I never released it.

Many nights I went to bed next to my wife and lay awake for a while. Then I’d get up, grab whatever alcohol I could find.

Drive to my office, pitch black and empty of all life, and get drunk by myself. Where I could stare up at the 2am night sky: Are you there sis? If you can hear me, I’m sorry

Waking up on the floor of my office and leaving before the other tenants arrived at work.

After six months of this a message to my wife:

I'm not the same since my sister died.

I'm sure you already know it, but I struggle to feel the same pleasure these days.

Sometimes this affects the way I act towards you and the kids and I'm sorry for that.

I guess it will get better in time. I feel guilty that this still continues but I can't do much about it.

I guess I'm still pretty burdened and saddened by the whole thing. I cry less now but it's always there.

And sometimes I feel angry and horribly frustrated. Sometimes I feel like an old man with my hopes and dreams squashed. It's hard to explain.

Man I have to say it still really hurts. I have a real aching pain. I hurt.

I think my apathy or if I seem disconnected it's all about that.

The pain had become a part of me now.  Not violently tearing me apart anymore but a constant corrosive psyche-ache.

There was no one to share with. Our family grieved but mostly separately and each in our own way. We didn’t talk about it much. I don’t think we knew how. The complications were different for each of us.

I listened to my sisters phone message again a year later. And then a year after that. It was hard to listen to.

Then one day I lost my phone. And the last words my sister ever spoke were lost forever. I tried everything I could think of to retrieve the data but it was gone. I’m sorry sis.

It took me years to understand the deep feelings I was holding down that gnawed at my gut.

Guilt - yes. I wasn’t there for my sister. I didn’t pick up the phone.

But something darker as well.


Guilty because I did something wrong. I fucked up.

Shame because the reason I did something wrong was because there was something wrong with me.

Picture shame and you’ll see a person covering their face. Hiding from the judgement they know they deserve. Judgement not of their actions but of their character, their soul.

Shame. The most powerfully destructive emotion. Corrosive. Incompatible with happiness, contentment or self-worth.

So many nights looking up at the sky. Forgive me sister. I let you down.

When I understood that shame was different from guilt and was able to give it a name I realised that this was the thing that killed my sister. Shame.

She burned her relationships, burned her bridges, got drunk to try and capture what it felt like to be carefree. Then she’d wake up hungover and depleted. Burdened with the reality of being a neglectful mother and feel ashamed.

I could relate to every part of it. The burden of responsibility. The yearning to be carefree. The guilty first drinks consumed as fast as possible to try and skip past the knowing and get to the magical state of chemically augmented denial.

Then the burning gut, the burning lungs, burning sense of worthlessness. The burning shame. I fucked up. I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’ll be better.

So easily, and mistakenly extinguished by another night of drinks to obliterate unbearable thoughts.

My sister was the first to be buried. Then my stepfather a year and a half later after a sad and drawn out battle with brain cancer.

The grief was complicated. His authoritarian ways contributed to my unhappy childhood, but ultimately he had my back and supported me through some tough times. By the end it was sincere to say I miss you. I love you.

Then my grandfather. A World War Two veteran who survived the sinking of the aircraft carrier he was on while hundreds of his colleagues drowned. He lived for another 70 years. When he died he was old and it was time. But I miss him.

Then my dad, most recently, suddenly and shockingly. A complicated relationship in life. And more complicated grief followed. I miss him all the time.

As I grieved for each new death I also grieved for the sum of all of them. For all that I’d lost.

Every death of someone close to me was also a death of a part of me. A part of my history. The story that made me. My identity.

Taken apart piece by piece and leaving holes and questions that can now never be answered.

Note to Kirrily:

I miss you. I miss the experiences and conversations we could have had. I miss the part of my history that disappeared.

There are parts of my childhood that are hazy. I no longer have anyone to verify they even happened. It could have just been a dream.

I miss the things that were unique about you, that brought a special colour to our family events. A colour that just doesn’t seem to exist without you.

For some reason I was the last person my sister tried to call. Was it a last minute attempt to be rescued? Was it just to say goodbye? Would things have been different if I had answered the call? I’ll never know.

I suspect that I may not have saved her, but maybe she wouldn’t have died feeling utterly alone.

Her final phone call was a last attempt to connect. It failed, and in the end her disconnection was complete. From meaning, from purpose, from acceptance. From all the things that were beautiful about her.