What I Learned after My Sister Died

This entry is part of my personal series on grief, called Wish You Were There, that’s unrelated to travel.

Now that it comes down to it, I’m struggling to figure out how to write about my sister even though she’s on my mind a lot. Turns out, it’s tricky writing anything negative about a dead person, especially if people are still alive who were close to her. What if her friends read this and get offended?

Here’s what I want them to know. I judged Kim harshly when she was alive, but I also understood her, even at her worst times. That was a sore spot itself, though; it’s why she was so cruel to me near the end of her life. I imagine her mind worked this way: if you’re miserable and you don’t want to look inside yourself for the reason, you blame the person who won’t walk away, no matter how you treat them.

I did walk away, though. I did it to protect myself, and, I hoped, to help her see that she was responsible for her own misery. Now I’ll never know if she understood either reason.

When Kim died, despite all the conflicting feelings she conjured, people offered up good memories of her, out of courtesy, maybe, or because she had so many good qualities in with the bad. When I told my friend Heather that she’d died I got a god memory in return, and Heather had been on the phone with me through some of my worst times with Kim. Such as the time when Katherine was in PICU (Katherine was her only child; PICU is pediatric intensive care, where Katherine was a lot), and I had to take over with Katherine, and deal with the police who were on Kim’s case because Kim was publicly threatening to kill herself, and deal with the decision about putting Kim in a mental hospital against her will, and the fact that Kim left her usual note blaming me, but this time the sheriff’s office got a hold of it, all of this simultaneously from Katherine’s hospital room.

Wait, that is not the story I meant to tell.

I keep getting into spirals of explaining things and can’t even find the end of my own thought. That’s the way life was with Kim. My point above is that when Kim did die, Heather said, “Well, she sure made an amazing vinaigrette.”

I’ll try to take Heather’s positive stance on this.


One thing I learned after my sister died is how much alike we both were. I’d spent literally my whole life distancing myself from her, so much so that, even after I’d blocked her from contacting me, I had asked people to stop referring to her as my sister and to use her name instead. Seems like people were always calling or emailing me things that started with, “Your sister [insert here something she’d done to screw up her life or someone else’s.]” I realized that I was internalizing everything she did, as if I’d been responsible, so I needed to think of her as separate from me. It didn’t help much.

Wait, back to the positive.

I was born when Kim was eight years old, so she and I were raised as only children, basically. I hear that I was so small for so long (three pounds at birth and slow to grow) that my family treated me more like a doll than a child. (Home movies show Kim using me as a prop for gymnastic shows.) She went to college when I was eight and she never lived at home again, so we were not close even as children. What does “close” mean, though?

I do know that Mom used to talk about how different Kim and I were gene-wise. We’d refer to Kim as a Cox and to me as an Atkinson: Kim was forthright and action-oriented (how we imagined the Cox family, since my dad had been that way), and I was more quiet and sympathetic, like my maternal grandma’s family.

The thing is, I learned to be quiet—as a foil to Kim. She was always sucking up all the air in a room, always dramatic and loud and funny and beautiful and outgoing and complaining and laughing. Because she was such a big force, I fell back.

Her nickname for me was Dialtone. Seriously. She was that astute and clever with language and good at insulting a person.

When she was up, she was the busy signal or the ringing sound that seemed to get louder and louder, or, during down times when she slept, she’d be off the hook entirely. I was always on but at a low key, watching and listening, with the even presence of a dialtone. I think that, in this small way, my sister made me into the person I am. Or, the person I used to be.


She died when she was living in Napa, California, where she’d gone to live after Katherine died, to gather herself together and figure out how to live again. She settled (as much as she ever could) on a plan to move to Mexico with a friend, and maybe they were going to live on a boat. But then she overdosed on prescription meds—I knew it was an accident because, this time, she hadn’t moved her dog anywhere; Ruby was in the house with her when the police broke through the sliding glass door.

Wait, that is not the story I meant to tell.

When Kim died, she left behind something like five small businesses, a rental house in Napa full of her stuff, a car, a small sailboat, a kayak, a bike (the bike and kayak surprised me because she wanted to be athletic again but she didn’t follow up, as far as I’d known, except to buy running clothes and shoes and lots of books about running. Which is how she managed a lot of her problems and goals, to buy things. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised).


My point is that she left a lot behind her that I needed to sort through, and quickly because I had our mom in assisted living and wanted to settle Kim’s estate so that Mom would inherit any money and I could use that to keep her in her current facility.

So, I flew to Napa, dreading to meet Kim’s friends. I imagined she’d said horrible things about me abandoning her, so they must’ve hated me, but they ended up helping me for three straight days of sorting through her paperwork and electronics and jewelry and family photos so I’d know what to take back with me and what to leave for another friend who offered to sell the rest.

My point is I ended up back on the east coast with several computers and cell phones and a spreadsheet I’d made to track her accounts and businesses and passwords. Plus, a lot of jewelry. And later a double storage unit in Virginia that I discovered while paying her bills that turned out to be full of furniture and random items from her large, beautiful farmhouse in Virginia that she’d left rather suddenly when she decided to move to Hawaii.

It was a lot of stuff.

Here’s my point, I promise. It turns out that as I was making these spreadsheets of things to follow up of hers, I knew the password to her laptop. I mean, I guessed it, and I hit it early in my tries, despite the fact that she and I hadn’t really been in contact for years. It’s a random date, not a birthday but an historical date, and I knew it.

As I cracked into her many, many websites associated with her small businesses (at one point she had knitted and sold small dog beds, painted and sold bright scarves, built websites, edited text, ran a website for a dog kennel, worked as crew on a sailing charter, gone to nursing school, oh, and took a child under her wing as she taught her ESL, while she was getting a masters in linguistics from Columbia) ….


My point is, as I cracked into these websites, her email addresses and passwords all seemed as familiar as if I’d created them. And I found that she’d used some of the language from my freelance editing business’ website for her freelance editing business’ website (that ticked me off). But it felt like I was seeing the back-end workings of her brain at its best, when she was striving for something, and her brain was enough like mine to surprise me.

That shouldn’t have surprised me, though. She’d given me a nickname that fit, Dialtone, and I’d actually named her, as well. I once showed her a message board about Tolkien (whom she’d shown me when I was a kid.), and she was eager to sign in to start typing, but she needed an online name. I knew it. I just typed it in for her. AragornIsMyKing aka AIMK = Kim. She loved it.

I also called her once and said, “I have your dog.” She was a partly frozen beagle I’d found in the woods, but I knew that dog was Kim’s soulmate dog, as if I’d fallen in love at first sight with this dog through her eyes. You know, the dog she would re-home when she meant to kill herself but that she didn’t that last time, and that’s how I knew she’d killed herself this time by accident.

I knew her back then, so I don’t know why I was surprised to find out I knew her later, even after all we’d gone through.


Kim had money through her ex-husband (she was litigious, to put it mildly) and she had perfected taste. When you combine the two, amazing things happen.

When she wasn’t slumped in bed or screaming at a nurse in the pediatric unit, she was put together beautifully, with subtle makeup, clothes in silky fabrics, and jewelry. Lots and lots of lovely jewelry.

This is not me. Kim was the university cheerleader; I was the hippie. I’ve never worn makeup, my clothes are loose and sloppy, and what passes for jewelry to me involves twine and something hanging from it that’s organic.

She made fun of me, and I used to make fun of her for all the luxury items she owned, especially because she was the one who taught me about Buddhism’s tenant of non-attachment. (When I was a teenager, she took me to a Zen meditation center when she lived in New York City, and as a total beginner I found myself in a room filled with people sitting in orderly rows, criss-cross-applesauce style, while a monk walked around snapping at us with a cane when we’d lost focus. Which meant I was in over my head, as usual, with Kim.)

Wait! My idea here is that she knew better than to attach herself to so many possessions, but she did it anyway, without apology.

And, soon after she’d died, I needed to carefully sort through her jewelry (did I mention her jewelry?) to catalogue it, get it appraised, and sell it to help pay for Mom’s assisted living, and that’s when I began to see her point. This stuff was gorgeous. I started wearing some items plus accessories I’d brought back, and, at Happy Hour, friends would make a joke out of guessing which item I was wearing from Kim’s, but they were always right. Her stuff was so lovely compared to my thrift-shop stuff.

Seriously, I’d go to the brewpub in a long floppy skirt and sweater from Goodwill, but my handbag would be Chanel and my earrings would be sapphires. I was letting Kim creep back into my life through the gorgeous things she cherished, and I was learning to cherish them, too.

I was learning that expensive items are appreciated by you and by people around you, and they last longer. That real silver feels very different in your hand than any other metal. In other words, luxury has its benefits.

I was learning how retail therapy works: new things make you feel like you’re starting over. They’re a distraction from whatever’s difficult. Buying them puts you in control.

I was learning how to soothe the soul with things. Ironically, this all happened just as I was preparing to ditch all the things I owned for a life on the road. In a trailer, though, not in a boat like Kim. Is that different enough?

Well, I’m thinking that’s not the positive conclusion I was working towards. I never talked about how much my sister loved my son, how generous she could be, how smart and funny she was, how often I quote her.

Maybe a spiraling story isn’t the best way to start digging into this “Wish You Were There” series. But, one of her nicknames—one she gave herself—was Hurricane Kim. She knew that her nature was to spiral out of control and leave destruction behind her. I’m not destroyed, though, and I will keep this story as it is, spirally and out of control, maybe with some beauty in it, like Kim.

5 thoughts to “What I Learned after My Sister Died”

  1. Goosebumps! A wonderful outpouring that I’m sure you hoped would say everything there is to say about Kim and your relationship – but with time I would guess you’ll find more to say. We are all the product of the people and events around us. You have a healthy balance of seeing good and the not-so-good parts of Kim. And you have the ability to look inward, that some, like Kim, never learn. You’re right – when someone is gone, people don’t want to say or hear bad things about them. That’s OK. But it’s also good there’s someone left who remembers who you really were.

  2. I think what comes across here is a real person, who had good points and bad points like we all do, she just burned more intensely than most. The fact you’re starting to see, and can appreciate, the whole person will hopefully mean that over time the memories of the bad stuff will be tempered by the good. And if that good is lovely jewellery then I think all the better because as you say, beautiful things existing make other people happy too. I’d never thought of it that way but yes, when I see a friend wearing a gorgeous ring or some pretty earrings, it makes *me* happy too. I admire them and we both have a nice moment. And we all need those! It’s nice to think that Kim, after so much pain and unhappiness, is living on in little moments of happiness and appreciation of beautiful things.

    And also AIMK – that was a trip down memory lane! 😁