My older sister died in February from end stage liver disease. She was an alcoholic. She was also a chemist, an avid craft connoisseur, an animal lover, a friend, a daughter and stepdaughter and a person with a beautiful heart and smile. Tracey (“Sissi”) was also a twin, born in August 1969 alongside Kelly, who died two days after they were born. Sissi lived a life that carried a great weight as the survivor.

I looked up to Sissi because she was an intelligent, independent, kind and generous woman who was working fiercely to create the life she wanted for herself. She was also flawed and battled demons, as we all do in our own lives. She wanted nothing more than to be loved. At times, she lived a life very alone and cloaked in shame.

Our relationship was strained the last 15 years due to her disease. This has made facing and dealing with her death very complex for me. Being a clinical social worker specializing in addiction and grief, I thought I would be ready for this process. I have realized that nothing professionally could ever prepare me for something so personal.

My feelings of guilt and anger did not die when Sissi died. I still face the questions of “if only I had” or “how could I not have known?” The challenge of having an alcoholic in your family does not stop when the disease stops. But neither does the opportunity to work through it. I have been able to find a few slivers of a silver lining in these months following Sissi’s death.

I find myself talking to Sissi more now as I explore my spirituality. I listen more deeply to her and realize I know her better than I had thought.

I am learning more about myself by attending Al-Anon meetings and working through the pain of what the disease did and is doing to my family.

I work harder at being present, mindful and grateful. I am gentler on others and myself. I am more loving to others and myself.

Stephanie and her family. Sissi is in the middle wearing a red print dress. Stephanie is the second from the right wearing a blue tshirt and jean skirt.

Sissi would be happy and honored to know I talk openly about her journey and tell people that she remained courageous, stood up to the challenges life presented her and battled the disease that refused to stop bullying her.

Despite those tense years, in the end, she knew how loved she was by those surrounding her. She found great inspiration from her favorite children’s book — The Velveteen Rabbit — later in life.

In The Velveteen Principles it reads:

There is a difference between superficial beauty and the inner beauty we all possess as unique human beings. One is the product of a materialistic culture, which reduces us to the things we own. The other is the result of a life well lived where our struggles and challenges make us more lovable and truly ourselves. Inner beauty is the kind you can feel and others can see and is what happens when you stop chasing false ideals and become the real person you are meant to be.

I have no doubt Sissi died as the real person she was meant to be, which comforts me and brings a sense of peace when a wave of grief knocks me down. I am able to get up more quickly than before, and I know Sissi would be proud.

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