The Second Year

Sunrise | Hansen-Spear Funeral Home - Quincy, IllinoisI’m three months into the second year. My younger sister died unexpectedly in early 2017. I’ve officially made it past all the “firsts.” The holidays without her, her birthday, my birthday without her, more holidays and finally, the anniversary of her death.

I often hear from others that the “first year is the hardest.” And I knew from past experiences that this past year would have the challenges that come with these firsts. But what I’d forgotten from my earlier experiences with the death of immediate family members was what the second year holds.

Because the second year also has its own special flavor. Most prominent is that the feelings leading up to each “first” are not present. I have survived the “firsts.” But now, now I find myself digging into the work of finding my footing in the second year. Finding the ways I’ll live now without my younger sister.

What I’ve learned through all of my losses; the deaths of both my parents and now one of my younger sisters is that grief includes identity work. That with each loss I’ve been invited to discover more about myself. About who I am now that I’m not a daughter to aging parents or a sister to one who had significant health challenges. I’m learning that my life has changed in so many ways that I feel unrecognizable to myself without these previously clear roles.

It is this unrecognizable feeling that is on display on a daily basis in this second year. And, being open to the self-discoveries at hand. In many ways I will always be that daughter and sister. That doesn’t change in my heart or mind even though these beloved people are not with me. I still tell people I have two sisters for example.

But I find myself uncertain too. I’m not in a caregiving role any more. I don’t have to check in or keep track of another’s health issues only my own. My responsibilities have been lessened. At the same time, I find myself at odds with my work life and even my social life. Some days feel filled with mystery and this sense of “who am I?”

My younger sister lived and adventurous life. She loved to travel and had gone places that she’d always wanted to see or experience. Europe, Tibet, Australia and New Zealand. She’d met people from all over the world doing work she loved on behalf of the environment. She settled in Seattle and built a community of friends there. She’d lived a full and rich life surrounded by these friends who in her dying days we came to understand were her family.

And in her death at a relatively young age, she taught me to consider how I am living my own life. It seems that at least the beginning of year two is filled with self-examination.  Am I doing things I love? Am I following my heart and living in ways that reflect what I care about most? She was determined for instance to leave the smallest possible carbon footprint; she grew her own foods, shopped locally, carefully made decisions about her lifestyle and recycled. She was dedicated to these interests. Am I living in ways that are dedicated to my own passions?

As this second year without her has begun, I’ve moved beyond my initial grief into a time of exploring, reflecting, remembering and considering my own “what’s next.” Although some days remain difficult – because there is nothing I would like more than to pick up the phone and speak with her – I’m also finding myself on a new threshold.

I’m starting to face forward. Facing forward without the same anticipation for what the next “first” will be, but with fresh eyes. Looking at the present and the future with a little bit more creativity and a little less trepidation. I think of my sister every day. I remember that we spoke often of staying curious in times of change and challenge. And I seek to recall her life with gratitude; for what we shared as sisters and friends and for what she continues to teach me now.

Deb Brandt (formerly Buehler) has blogged for Hansen-Spears Funeral Home in the past. She took time away from her writing after the death of her sister in 2017. She is a certified funeral celebrant, certified creative grief practitioner and professional writer. She works virtually and in-person with individuals and families as they tell their stories of grief and loss. Deb co-authored The Hollowed Heart; Inspiration for Women Awakening from Grief and Loss. You can learn more about Deb and her services at or contact her directly at

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