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The Empty Chair: Part 1 — With Jessica Handler

“My brother, my younger sister’s twin, died when I was five years old. I was the lucky one. My sister is not so lucky,” writes a listener who calls herself “Forever Grieving.” “There's a constant reminder that my sister survived and our brother didn't. At every holiday I watch as my sister wilts at the table when my mom reminisces about those we lost.”

In our Empty Chair series, the Sugars discuss early childhood death, an absence that can be ever-present. In Part 1, we read letters from siblings who live in the the shadow of their parents’ grief.

“How do I broach this with my mom?” asks “Forever Grieving. “Every time I've tried the conversation turns into one in which I'm reassuring her that she's not a terrible mother. Sugars, I am at a loss.”

To answer, the Sugars call on writer Jessica Handler, whose two sisters died from different blood disorders. “I grew up knowing that I would be the only one left,” says Handler, “and I very often feel the need to live for three people.” Handler recounts the responsibilities that fell to her after her sisters died, and helps tease apart the different ways parents and siblings grieve.

Jessica Handler is a professor of creative writing at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta and she's the author of Invisible Sisters: A Memoir, and Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss. Her new book, “The Magnetic Girl,” is comes out in 2019.

The Sugars Recommend...

“Ordinary People,” by Judith Guest

“The Catcher in the Rye,” by J.D. Salinger

“Sophie’s Choice,” by William Styron

Support for Grieving Siblings

The Dougy Center

The Compassionate Friends

Bereaved Parents of the USA


New episodes of Dear Sugars are released weekly. Do you have a question for the Sugars? Email dearsugars@nytimes.com.

Amory Sivertson Twitter Associate Producer for New Programming
Amory Sivertson is an associate producer for new programming at WBUR. She's one of the producers of Modern Love: The Podcast.

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