How My Brother's Death Influenced My First Novel 'The Sisters'

I’ve never referred to my sister as my “half sister” even though, technically, that’s what she is. We have the same father, but different mothers. When I explain this to people their response is usually, “So she’s just your half sister?” as though the term itself means that I can only love her half as much as I would if she was my ‘whole’ sister.

Yet my sister and I share a bond that binds us in ways that goes beyond most sibling closeness: the death of our brother.

David was the tricky middle child, sandwiched between me, the archetypical bossy older sister two years his senior, and Samantha, the baby of the family, four years younger than him and the result of my father’s new marriage. From the beginning, Sam fitted into our blended family seamlessly. We both adored her — her chubby cheeks with big brown eyes and hair the color of honey. She was like a living doll to us.

At home, when it was just me, mum and David, he reverted to being the youngest again, allowing me to dress him up and boss him around. But at the weekends, when it was our turn to stay with our dad, he was a big brother, and it was a role he loved.

Both my parents were amazing at keeping things as normal as they could for us during our childhood. If my mum was resentful that my dad had a new family, she never showed it. She made sure we saw as much of our new sister as possible, even having her come and stay with us when my dad and step mum were away. As the years went by, my mum fell in love again and she and my stepmum even became – dare I say it – friends. It was all very civilized, and we were lucky; we had all come out of it unscathed and happy.

It wasn’t obvious at first that things weren’t always fine with David. He was my annoying little brother: funny, witty, artistic, sensitive, rough (his punch always resulted in a dreadful dead leg!). We would be the best of friends one minute, and screaming and threatening to kill each other to next. But we were fiercely protective of one another. He was the one who raced after me as I stormed out of the pub after a row with a boyfriend. I was the one who threatened his so-called friends after a long bout of bullying in the playground.

When he was about fifteen, he began drinking. Exclusion from school and running away from home followed. He boomeranged from our dad’s house to ours. It seemed he wasn’t happy anywhere.

When he was about fifteen, he began drinking. Exclusion from school and running away from home followed. He boomeranged from our dad’s house to ours. It seemed he wasn’t happy anywhere. We were all concerned for him and tried to get to the root of his unhappiness. My mum took him to see a psychiatrist but David was adamant there was nothing wrong with him and would only co-operate for a while. Eventually, at seventeen, he moved in with a friend. Our only consolation was that it was just a few streets away.

“Everyone thinks I’m like this because of the divorce, but I’m not,” he said one day when I questioned what was pressing his self-destruct buttons. “I don’t know why I’m like this.” He was asthmatic but that didn’t prevent him smoking. There were even rumors circulating around our small town that he was taking drugs. I’ve since wondered if he suffered from depression or an anxiety disorder. He once admitted that he drank to feel more confident.

I constantly worried about him but never thought he would die. At that time even my grandparents were all still alive. Death wasn’t something that had touched our family.

In November 1994, my mum came rushing into my bedroom in the early hours of the morning, words tumbling out between sobs. I caught, “David … accident … intensive care.” Doctors said if he recovered he might have permanent brain damage. By the time we got to the hospital he was out of intensive care, awake and grinning at me from his hospital bed. “Alright, sis,” he said, that twinkle in his eye, a long scar cut into his dark hair. It transpired that he’d fallen down the stairs at a nightclub after having too much to drink. He was just eighteen.

I stopped worrying as much. My brother was obviously infallible. He had fallen down the stairs, had sustained a brain injury yet come out of it with a few stitches and a shaved head.

So of course, I stopped worrying as much. My brother was obviously infallible. He had fallen down the stairs, had sustained a brain injury yet come out of it with a few stitches and a shaved head.

We all hoped it would be the wake up call he needed to sort his life out. He was a talented artist, so I tried to encourage him to go back to college, although he said he wasn’t ready. But when I quit the office job I hated to study journalism he was delighted, and I thought it was only a matter of time before he followed suit.

David seemed calmer after the accident and less reliant on alcohol and drugs, and we prayed he had turned a corner.

But just a few months later he was dead.

It was a gorgeous sunny day right at the beginning of June, the sort of summer day where you think that nothing bad can ever happen. I was walking down the garden path, coming back from work. My stepdad was standing at the door. His face was ashen, and I immediately knew something was wrong. I knew it was David, and I knew that this time he hadn’t escaped unscathed.

He had died in his sleep. He was nineteen.

My sister called me on the phone crying. My stepmum couldn’t get hold of our dad, so they were sitting tight to tell him the news. Understandably, my sister didn’t want to be there when he came home, didn’t want to witness his grief as my stepmother broke the news that his only son was dead. She was only fifteen. She came over to our house instead and sat with me while we waited. For what we didn’t know.

The sun was still shining relentlessly but our lives were now in darkness.

When the coroner’s report arrived we were even more shocked. We’d expected a drugs overdose, but David had died of “natural causes.” It seemed his heart had just given up in his sleep.

In those first awful hours and in the days, weeks and years that followed, where I’d wake up breathless and sweating, terrified that I too would die in my sleep, I was grateful that I had my sister.

In those first awful hours and in the days, weeks and years that followed, where I’d wake up breathless and sweating, terrified that I too would die in my sleep, I was grateful that I had my sister. We held onto each other at the funeral, rallied each other when we saw his coffin and didn’t know if we could face going into the church; cheered each other up with funny anecdotes about our childhood and David’s escapades when we were struggling with grief; reassured each other when the guilt we felt at surviving when he had died threatened to engulf us.

We have both admitted we’ll never get over David’s death, but we’ve learnt to live with it; it’s part of who we are now. It’s influenced my writing; my first novel is all about siblings and loss, grief and guilt.

Going through this experience has meant that I never think of my sister as “just a half.” She is whole, she is special, she is the only person I can talk to of our childhood, of our memories of our brother, the laughs we had, the things we got up to that our parents didn’t know about. The bond we all shared.

She made those dark days that little bit brighter, and I hope I did the same for her.

Claire Douglas is the author of The Sisters , out from HarperCollins on May 31.