Hmmm. Where to start. Well my Mom, Nancy Coleman, passed away nearly a year ago. She left behind 4 kids: me (29), my younger brother Jake (27), my younger sister Nikki (25), and my younger half-sister Faleena who is now 16. Her husband at the time of her death passed away 6 months later of a brain tumor. Faleena’s biological father also passed when he tragically committed murder-suicide back in 2006. All of this leading to my sister Nikki now being Faleena’s guardian. A sibling raising a sibling. (For a more in depth account of my family history and other thoughts on all this you can check out my blog post The Top Ten Things I Learned from my Mother’s Death.)
First and foremost I get to acknowledge my sisters.
Faleena has faced more before she can even get her driver’s license than most people experience in a lifetime. She has been presented with an enormous amount of uninvited change, and despite it all is growing into a miraculous young woman. I am both extremely proud of her and excited for what her future holds.
And then there’s Nikki. My hero. Part of my struggle since my mom passed has been finding ways to convey the depth of my gratitude and admiration to Nikki. For a quick backstory, Nikki had a one-way ticket to Portugal the week after my Mom passed. Nikki had been planning and saving for years travel the world while WWOOFing (living/working on organic farms). She had sold most of her possessions, put the rest in storage and was ready gallivant across the globe for a year. And then all of a sudden my Mom was in the hospital and in 10 days she was gone. Since then Nikki has postponed her trip, moved to Colorado (she was living in Portland), dealt with the catastrofuck of a mess my Mom left (including but not limited to six figures of debt, 300 cubic yards of junk, tax liens, and no fewer than 7 dead goats in various freezers around the ranch), worked more than full time jobs as a chef, and most importantly been the primary caretaker of Faleena. With Nikki at the helm, Faleena has started public school (she had been homeschooling her entire life), had six teeth removed, gotten caught up on her general health, begun learning to drive, all the while finding time to take care of their two dogs and two horses.
I am in awe of both of them. Their level of commitment, their love for each other, and the ability to always find a way to infuse humor into any situation.
What I Have Learned: The Importance of Support
It’s been a roller coaster since my Mom died (well, the previous decade was quite a roller coaster as well). I’ve learned a lot. A particular challenge has been figuring out how to support my sisters in Colorado while I live in Los Angeles. Early on I briefly considered the idea of moving back to Colorado. The truth is I didn’t want to. I love LA and have built an incredible life for myself here. I also know that I couldn’t pursue my dreams (I’m an actor) were I to move. Part of me still wonders about the decision. And the other part wants to be sure that I’m setting an example for Faleena that it is absolutely possible to make your dreams a reality. That being a good person and working really hard over time is the key to success. It would be hypocritical of me to tell Faleena that she can go and do anything she wants, but I gave up on my dreams for her. That said, there are still moments when I wonder if I’m doing enough for my family. And I am grateful every day for Nikki’s role in making sure Faleena is taken care of.
I’m also beginning to learn where the phrase “it takes a village” comes from. It’s clear to me that each member of our family—as well as our friends and extended network—has played an imperative role in making sure that not only is Faleena taken care of, but that everyone else gets to continue living a full life as well. I also know that sometimes the “smallest” things can make a huge difference: Making sure that I prioritize answering any call from my family, texting my sisters just to say I love them, being present when they’re in town visiting, hiring a cleaning lady for them to lighten the load, taking Faleena on a trip or to Disneyland for her first roller coaster, or a simple card to say “I love you.” There are certainly some financial ways I’ve been able to support, but I think the biggest impact I have is when I ensure that I’m asking myself the question how can I make their life just a little bit easier today?
I believe that really isn’t a “right” way to do any of this. It’s a process. A dance. Sometimes a klutzy one. What has worked for my siblings and me is that we are in constant communication, and if someone needs something they ask for it. If something isn’t working then we address it. Sometimes the conversations are difficult, but every time we have the courage to have one of those challenging discussions we save stress in the long run and come out better for it on the other side.
If you are a sibling raising a sibling—or someone supporting those siblings—no matter what’s going on, please know that what you’re doing does matter. In fact, it’s heroic. And even if you can’t see it now, there is a reason why it all happened this way. And even when you feel alone you aren’t. People want to support you, sometimes you just get to give them the chance.
Thank you to Ben Whitehair for sharing your sibs raising sibs experience.