My Sister’s Death

Today would have been her 63rd birthday. My baby sister.  Of all five children, I thought Caroline would be the last to go. Vibrant, healthy, active, a wife and mother.  Instead she is the first.

I looked after her so much when she was little. She felt like my child and this is all so wrong. I was supposed to die before her. She was my executor.

I find it hard to write her essence down in words. She was one of the most alive people I have ever known. Whatever she was doing, Caroline was there in the moment, absorbing it completely.

I won’t talk about all her accomplishments, of which there were many, but instead tell you three stories that give you a glimpse of her.

First, her courage:

Caroline was fearless when facing injustice or standing up for something she believed in. When she was in her twenties, she went to Sierra Leone to teach in very rough conditions. They had not yet fallen into the civil war that was to come but a lot of the critics of the regime were disappearing in the middle of the night. Authority of any kind was not to be questioned. Except perhaps by my sister. One of her students was a girl who was more than qualified to attend the university but they would not let her in simply because she was female. Caroline marched right into a meeting of the board at the university to take them on and told them exactly why they were wrong in great detail. I don’t remember the outcome of that fight only that she took it on and I have always admired her bravery in standing up to them when it was not safe to do so.

Second, the inquisitive scientist in her:

Caroline returned from Sierra Leone right before Christmas. There is an insect there called the Tumba Fly (also known as the Tumbu or Mango Fly). They are parasitic which means they burrow under the skin of mammals, including humans, and hatch their larvae there. Caroline brought one of these back embedded in her forearm. One easy (!) way to get them out is to cover the area with Vaseline. This shuts off their air supply so they come up through the Vaseline to breathe and you grab them with tweezers.  So explained my sister. She was so excited about having this creature in her arm and the process of getting it out. She decided to do this on Christmas Eve, enlisting our sister and I to watch. Caroline thought we would be as enthralled as she was. You could see movement under the skin of her arm. It was gross. She was fascinated with the whole thing. The Vaseline worked and she was able to grab the larvae. Her face was so alive and animated as she said “wasn’t that cool”. Not really Caroline.

Third, the silliness:

We used to have a number of Christmas albums growing up and one was Burl Ives’ Rudolph the Red- Nosed Reindeer. One of the songs is “We’re a Couple of Misfits”. One time (she was already a young woman) the song came on and I said “Hey Caroline. That’s us, a couple of misfits.” She leapt up and started jumping up and down and dancing around like a mad person (Yes, I joined her) and we sang the whole song like that. The image of her dancing like crazy will be one of the enduring memories of my sister.

Her life continued to be full as she went on to make many more memories with her own family. And then came the news that changed everything – she had a tumor on her liver.

She had major cancer surgery (they took 75% of her liver and bile ducts and repaired her vena cava vein) and her doctor felt sure he had gotten all of the disease out. When she survived the long surgery we all breathed easier. For the next ten days, either my other sister, I, or her husband and daughter were with Caroline during visiting hours. It felt so good to watch her come back to us and I almost cried when I watched her take her first steps. Her surgeon said her numbers were improving and he was happy.

Then the 2 am phone call came and the race to the hospital. The next six hours were difficult. In short she had picked up a super bug and it raced through her body shutting down one organ after the other. They tried everything (including operating again) but they could not find the source of the infection they were sure was in her body.  Her caregivers were really good about giving us updates. They let us briefly in to see her. We held on. Then they told us her heart stopped and when that happened the emotional dam in all of us burst and we all fell apart simultaneously.

They were able to resuscitate her but we all knew what that meant and 15 minutes later they called us into the ICU to say goodbye. With the four of us crying, we watched them squeezing air into her and as I saw her chest rise and fall, I felt my stomach being ripped out. My brother-in-law nodded for them to stop and a minute or two later I looked up at the monitor as she flat-lined.  Caroline had died in less than nine hours.

I was the last to be with her. I kissed her and told her I loved her of course; for her to rest easy; and that she should go and be with mum and dad. I was sobbing as I came out of her room. I saw my other sister and brother in law and niece together some distance away and I just felt so alone in that moment and I put my hand over my face and continued to sob and clutch my stomach. Suddenly either a doctor or a nurse in the ICU put her arms around me and let me sob into her chest. She held me like that for a couple of minutes. It was the smallest gesture in the biggest of moments and it meant everything to me. She has likely long forgotten it but the humanity she showed me in that moment made me feel so incredibly comforted.

It is months later and I still feel gutted. If there are things for which I am grateful, one is that she was not alone during those 10 days following her surgery. More for my sake than hers as we spent so much time together. I will always have those hours. Coronavirus shut everything down four weeks later and we would not have been allowed to be with her. We were with her at the end. I consider that a blessing. I cannot imagine what all families of those who died from Coronavirus have gone through not being able to be with their loved ones as they lay dying.

I admit I have had days when I said out loud to her “I am so sorry sweetie. I should be dead and you should be alive”. Not rational I know but the way I feel.

Of course when someone you love dies they take a piece of you with them. What is important to remember (especially hard when you are in the middle of what my friend calls “grief work”) is that they also leave a piece of themselves with you. And it is an incredible piece, full of all the love and memories you shared through the years.

I will be forever grateful to the person who held me as I sobbed at the hospital. Be kind to people. You never know when your gesture might make all the difference.


  1. Cheryl Harrington
    Dec 1, 2020

    Dear Susan, thank you for sharing your wonderful memories – you made me laugh and cringe and shed a few tears. These are the stories that will keep Caroline alive for all who knew her. Stay strong, my friend.

    • Susan McNicoll
      Dec 1, 2020

      Thank you Cheryl. If you could have seen my face that Christmas Eve you would have laughed. And Caroline not understanding why we thought it was gross!! Memories are a blessing and I cherish them as much as I loved her.

  2. Seema
    Dec 1, 2020

    This is such a beautiful piece, Susan. Sharing stories of Caroline’s courage, inquisitiveness, and silliness is such a wonderful way to honour her on her birthday. And you’ve also provided a poignant example of how small kindnesses can have a big impact, even/especially in the most difficult of times.

    • Susan McNicoll
      Dec 1, 2020

      Thank you Seema. I tried to show what a well-rounded person she was through some of my memories. Those memories comfort me today as I know she will never get older. We should all live showing those small kindnesses.

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