Sister's Protector

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J is grieving, an emotion too big for one so small. The dog next door succumbed to breast cancer today, and J is heartbroken.

“I’m mad because I’m sad,” she told me. “I’m mad at you and I’m mad at M and I’m mad at the neighbour and I’m mad at God. It’s not fair. Our cat is alive and she is old and Chloe is dead and she is old and it’s not fair.”

According to the pop psychology I know, J’s expression of her pain, while hard to watch, is healthy. We talked about how much pain Chloe was in toward the end, and how her pain was now over. We talked about how the combination of sadness and anger that fills J right now is called grief. J asked if I would sleep in her bed tonight so she could feel snuggled. I agreed. She wanted me to go to bed when she did, she clarified. I agreed. Dishes can wait, and I can make up my workout.

J’s grief extends beyond Chloe’s death to another dog’s cancer. A close friend’s dog, Pumpkin, is also suffering from cancer. This friend, however, lives some distance away, and it’s unlikely that we’ll have a chance to see Pumpkin again. Wrapped up in J’s feelings about Chloe’s death are also the grief of Pumpkin’s illness and pain of the vast distances between us and the friends we left behind when we moved last year.

I’ve been holding J, listening to her, and acknowledging her feelings as best I know how. In the intensity of J’s grief, I’ll admit that I was glad that M was holding her own. As J moved from anger towards a quieter sadness, however, I began to worry at M’s complete lack of emotional response to the news of Chloe’s death. Instead of prodding her about it, I decided to let her deal with it in her own way, in her own time.

Over dinner I began to see what was going on. M was too busy caring for J to deal with her own emotions. She made fart joke after fart joke in an effort to get J to laugh. She got up, unprompted, to throw herself over the back of J’s chair. Her silly action turned into a long and heartfelt hug.

They’re only 5, but they shared a womb and every step since. They have a far deeper understanding of how to give one another comfort than I have at 32 years old, with 9 years of talk therapy under my belt.


I had the opportunity to speak briefly with M at bedtime. She told me that she, too, was sad and worried.

“Who are you worried about?” I asked her. “Chloe or J or Emily or …?” (Let’s call Chloe’s elderly owner Emily.)

“I’m worried about Emily’s sister. I didn’t think life would let this happen.”

Emily inherited both Chloe the dog and the house next door when her sister died of cancer this summer. She had promised to care for Chloe. It had been clear to me, and apparently also to M, that her fresh grief was as much from the loss of her sister as of the dog.

“I have a picture in my mind of Emily’s sister. She looks like Emily, but younger. In my picture she is beautiful.”

In the flood of emotion surrounding her, M empathizes, in her own way, with the story of the sisters next door, one still here and one gone but in her sister’s heart and the picture in my daughter’s mind.

Sadia is the mother of identical twins M and J, aged 5. She comes, in part, from Bangladesh, where death is discussed with children as a matter of course. She has shared her past neuroses at Double the Fun, although she has since taken her personal blog private.

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