12/06/2012 12:11 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2013

What Does It Feel Like To Have Your Sibling Die?

This question originally appeared on Quora.
Answer by Shannon Holman, Poet and Builder

I wrote this in 2000, when my sister Jan had been dead eleven years. It's now been twenty three years, so she has been dead for as long as she lived. My parents moved south, my brother has a new family, but the rest of the poem remains accurate.

The Shape of That Emptiness


How the road looked that night, we won't know that,

if the sky was still black, or gray, or bluish-gray,

or if the light was starting up, the birds. 

We won't know what was said in the car,

if the radio was on, what station, how loud.

Or where you and Roger thought you were off to,

out past town, so late, so fast, not toward your home

or anyone's home we knew.  I'm stalling.


Near four.  You swerved,

split the car on a telephone pole, were killed.

He was thrown clear.


Maybe a squirrel in the road, maybe a slick patch.

Or else you argued, he grabbed the wheel.


For a long time, because he lived,

it seemed important to think that.


Look: you were drunk.  It was your fault.

I can say that.




I'm the first to enter your apartment;

I want to keep your secrets. 

And catch your ghost?  What I get

is this: imprint of your body

in the sheet's hollows,

half-empty mug of coffee,

shopping list, unfinished letter,

smell of your skin on a red sweater.




At the viewing, I admire the parlor's furniture.

On the sofa, a team of hounds is running.

Flags wave gaily.  Our mother says,

you made my child a wax-doll.


I'm given warning: the process

of reconstruction, so delicate,

touching is forbidden.  Even a finger--

they tell me--could spark the crumbling,

the collapse of all their efforts.  We might have urges--

they speak so gently--we will resist them.



So cinematic, those first days.

Your life's another story.  Here's all I remember: us driving

back from a party on the bayou, REO Speedwagon on the radio,

daiquiris sweating between our legs (I try to call up your face,

but your long hair's always in the way).  And your arms,

currents of muscle under your skin.

And also, I've got an image of the last time I ever saw you,

but it's just your legs below the knee, and the sound of the vacuum. 




I was 17; you were 23.  It's been

eleven years: I'm older

than you were, than you will be.

Our brother has children, cats & dogs,

quail, even a raccoon--all the pieces of a life, and then some.

Our parents moved up North; their house now

has no doorbell to trigger Mom's nightmares.

Dad loves the snow--it covers everything.

I guess you could say

we're happy. Is that okay?

Is this what I'm supposed to do, give the news?

All's well at Camp Earth.  Send money.


My friend Laura's brother died suddenly.

She makes these sculptures, large rocks with flour

dropped over them; and then the rocks are

carefully taken away, so that what's left

is just the shape of that emptiness.


That's what I wanted

when the house

was full of people

and ridiculous hams and casseroles,

pictures of you everywhere.

I turned them over,


went out to walk the dog.

The world looked

exactly the same

without you.

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