Our Stories: My sister, Emily Burke Nichols

Empty Arms is highlighting our beautiful community members and their siblings. We're so grateful that they're sharing their stories with us! 

Tell us about you.
I’m Sarah, and I’ve had the honor of volunteering with Empty Arms for the past two years. I’m currently finishing my MFA in poetry at UMass Amherst, and prior to that I worked in reproductive healthcare for six years. I reached out to Carol after listening to a podcast featuring poet Arielle Greenberg speaking about the stillbirth of her son Day

Tell us about your sibling. What do you want people to know about them?
My twin sister Emily died almost three weeks after we were born. I don’t have any conscious memories of her, but her life and death greatly shaped both of my parents’ lives and my own. While all of us would give anything for her to have lived, I am so grateful for her brief physical presence and ongoing influence in my life. In one of my first conversations with Carol, she spoke about continuing to watch Charlotte’s purpose unfold, and how her work with Empty Arms is one of the many ways she mothers Charlotte. I love that framing, and also feel that working with Empty Arms has been a wonderful evolution of my relationship to Emily.

How did your sibling and your grief journey change you as a person?
Well, I’ve never known myself or my parents outside of the context of Emily’s death. My dad’s little brother Joe died at the age of 18 from leukemia, just a year and a half before Emily’s death, so the impact of these deaths was very present in my upbringing.

As a young adult, it sometimes felt as though the best of us were on the other side— not just the best of our family (not just Joe and Emily), but the best of our own selves too. Who would we be, if we’d been able to go on loving them with their physical bodies present? Without the leaden desire to hear their voices, how would we move through the world?

My parents didn’t have a community like Empty Arms in their lives. They attended one session of a support group for bereaved parents, but another parent in deep grief said “you couldn’t possibly understand our loss because you have a living baby at home.” My parents grieved in isolation, and I can only imagine the difference it would have made if they’d received the kind of unequivocal support Empty Arms provides.

While grief was an undercurrent of my childhood, it certainly wasn’t static, nor was it an exclusively negative influence. For instance, I started writing letters to Emily when I was nine. As I’ve grown older, I’ve continued this practice. Every so often when I’m wanting guidance, or to mark an important event or anniversary, I’ll write to her. I cherish this history of correspondence as an ongoing source of comfort and documentation of the evolution of my relationship to her.

Her death has also been foundational to my career in healthcare. Over the past eight years I've supported many patients grappling with the impact of illness and death-- from Ugandan maternity wards to family planning clinics in the U.S. This year I’ll be completing my prerequisites for Nurse Practitioner programs, and I feel so lucky to have the honor of accompanying people during some of the most difficult moments of their lives.

Is there a way that you can pinpoint a change in your healing and grief journey because of your relationship with Empty Arms?
In our initial conversation, I was blown away by Carol’s generosity, the breadth of her acknowledgement for all kinds of perinatal loss. Having worked in abortion care for several years, I often felt a desire for language and practice that allowed both for women’s autonomy over their bodies and parenting decisions, as well as an acknowledgement that many of our patients were grieving wanted pregnancies that had ended in miscarriage or were terminated for other medical reasons. To hear Carol speak with genuine care and inclusiveness of all kinds of bereaved parents was incredibly heart warming. In many ways, working with Empty Arms has felt like a homecoming. Even though Emily and Joe’s deaths had a profound impact on my parents, it was largely unspoken. We didn’t develop any rituals around grief, nor did we have contact with other families who had experienced something similar. With Empty Arms I feel like I’m contributing to supporting families in a myriad of ways I wish my own family had experienced, and that has been quite healing.

What was the most important way Empty Arms offered you support?
It’s been so lovely to meet, and be in community with, the families of Empty Arms. To see all of the different fierce, vulnerable, and thoughtful ways bereaved parents support each other. In some ways my family’s experience felt like a rupture that was rarely looked at. I am in awe of, and benefit greatly from witnessing, Empty Arms families in their looking and speaking aloud of their many different experiences. It allows me to ask for myself, how do I want to relate to Emily’s death, and to her ongoing presence in my life? It is such an honor to contribute to a vibrant community filled with different ways of living in this world and remembering those we carry with us.

In what way do you think your connection with Empty Arms and its members has reached outwards to impact other people in your network?
I’m in my late twenties, and the pregnancy announcements from friends are pouring in. With each one I’m breathless at the assumption of life parents feel, or make-believe, for their child. So far, each child has lived, under the most fragile spell of luck. I know this will not last, and even two weeks ago I heard from a friend that a close friend of hers was experiencing her second miscarriage. It was such a comfort to be able to send her information for Empty Arms Support Groups, and trust that she would be welcomed and supported to feel a little less alone. I have no doubt that Empty Arms will continue to have a tremendous positive impact for my friends, family, patients, and our broader community as a whole.

What else would you like to see Empty Arms accomplish? How do you envision the organization could make that happen?
Working on the Support Group Guide with Carol has been thrilling! I’m so excited to have more print and online resources for bereaved parents. I also hope we can expand our network to include support for families and providers at even more facilities regionally. What an amazing, strong community Empty Arms families have created! I can’t wait to see what’s next.