No woman makes it through life without a sister. In grieving the death of her baby sister, Nnenna alights on all the ways Black women experience sisterhood. Through faith, family, and struggle, we inhabit a deep solidarity that allows us to hold one another close, even at the very end.

This is episode two in our four-part season of Great Grief with Nnenna Freelon, "Wailing Women," exploring the profound beauty and irreparable losses we experience as Black women through story and song. Listen to all four episodes, touching on the shock of widowhood, the bittersweet of sisterhood, and the love-hate journeys many of us have with our hair. As we give voice to the wailing women within, we find more than tears.

Subscribe and listen to all four episodes of the first season of Great Grief: "Wailing Women," available now wherever you listen to podcasts:

Episode Transcript:

It's time.
It's time to be open to the cry of the "Wailing Sister" within.

Can you feel it?
River rising from the depths of the red clay.


♪ ♪
♪ Oh, Sister, ♪
♪ Sister of the dark sorrows, ♪
♪ teach us the songs ♪
♪ that open the skies ♪
♪ and let the rains come. ♪
♪ Oh, Sister. ♪
♪ ♪

(voices in the background)

Hey, there girl.
Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, what's going on, girl?
Yeah, hey, girl. You workin that fro!
Hey, soul sista, soul sista! You looking good, girl.
Hey, soul sista! Hey, soul sista.
Yeah, you look good, girl.

Hey, sister.
Oh, soul sista, soul sista, soul.

I'm remembering what it felt like to be called "Sista."

I came of age in the '70s. The Black power movement was in full swing. Expressions of Black pride and beauty began to emerge in clothing styles and especially in the way you wore your hair.

Naturally, naturally. I begged my mother to let me start wearing my hair naturally in an Afro style when I was about 15 years old. I also remember looks of disapproval from some old Black women who must have wondered why on earth would I want to wear my hair that way?

My hairstyle choice was also an introduction of sorts into a different kind of sisterhood, one which connected me to a community of ideas.

That's right.

"Hey, Soul Sista" — a calling out of beliefs.
"Right on, sista!" — an acknowledgment of Black beauty.
"You're a down sista." — Now this one could actually mean quite a few different things.
Sistering was a consciousness, an assumption by your bearing that you were down with the struggle for Black liberation. This sisterness, well it was new, and it felt so good to be called this way by friends and strangers alike.

I feel like this new Black consciousness sister was birthed or borrowed from an older church version. Both community-based and rooted in shared struggle and values.

Now in the church, sister was just what you called other women. Sister by virtue of race, status, love of Jesus. Yeah, all that. Yes, yes, yes. All these gospel church women were sisters marching on the road to Zion.

[Gentle music]

♪ Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, sister was ♪
♪ I'm gonna hold your hand ♪
♪ Sister was ♪
♪ Sister was ♪
♪ You know the better ♪
♪ Sister was ♪
♪ If you get there before I do ♪
♪ Tell all my friends I'm coming to ♪
♪ We gonna walk together ♪
♪ Side by side ♪

Yes, now this sisterness illuminated the invisible thread between women that held an echo of familial ties, but was at the same time more than that.

You can call on your sister to share your life burdens and your joys. Your sister holds your hands in your secrets, keeps you safe, prays for you, will watch your kids and let you borrow money or a cup of sugar.

And although unspoken, your sister definitely doesn't creep around with your man!

Well, that's the nice story anyway. The new '70s version of sister held for me a different kind of power and respect that resonated with my own awakening Black womanhood.

[Upbeat music]

♪ Oh, what a day ♪
♪ Did you do it ♪
♪ When I said the soul ♪
♪ Sister soul ♪
♪ Oh, sister soul ♪
♪ I see you walking ♪
♪ I see you talking soul ♪
♪ Sister soul ♪
♪ Ain't nobody like her ♪
♪ Yeah, so sister soul ♪
♪ Yeah ♪
♪ I see you talking ♪
♪ I see you walking ♪
♪ And talking ♪
♪ Oh, sister soul ♪
♪ Yeah, I remember that soul sister ♪

Now, y'all remember that song, "Respect,"
Queen Aretha.
Now, that's a song I associate with being called "Sister," and that fresh feeling of being seen.

[bell rings]
My grandmother, whose given name was Irene, was called "Sister" by everyone, a gesture of respect. I recently asked my 92-year-old aunt if she knew exactly why they called grandmother, her mother, "Sister." She said, "Down south, everyone was called "Sister this," or "Sister that."

You didn't refer to women by their first names. It was rude and too familiar, disrespectful. So, I'm thinking to myself, then why not "Missus" or "Mis" as a way to give show some respect?

Hmm, anyway, I was thinking that. I didn't say it out loud. In the Southern world marked by segregation, Jim and Jane Crow-hardship for women of color, "Sister" was a far better container than "Mrs." or "Miss." Could it be that "Miss" sent coded messages tangled meanings of power and control?

Did somebody say "Miss," and?


♪Mama, mama, mama, mama, always told me♪
♪You better listen to me, child.♪
♪Separate your whites and colors,♪
♪put each in a separate pile.♪
♪Put each in, each one in a separate pile♪
♪—see we don't mix whites and colors.♪

No woman makes it through life without a sister. Through faith, family, and struggle, we inhabit a deep solidarity that allows us to hold one another close, even at the very end. In episode 2 of Great Grief, Nnenna Freelon walks us through her journey of losing her sister, Debbie. Listen and read along with the podcast transcript.
Nnenna Freelon and her sister, Debbie Pierce.

I was born a sister.
This isn't something that happens to everybody, but it was a part of how I arrived in the world from the very beginning.
It was on a Saturday, the 28th of July, 1956, and it was also my mother's birthday.

She wasn't due according to the doctors for some time, so I'm sure she didn't think of this day being anything else but her birthday. Maybe a cake was planned or I don't know, flowers from my father? Or perhaps they thought to do a small family celebration with my brother Melvin, who was himself just 18 months old.

I can't imagine he would have been interested in a little sister being born or anything at all about birthdays—except for perhaps the cake part. In my mind's eye, this might have been a normal Saturday, except for the fact that it was Mom's birthday. She would have been extra excited, I'm sure, to be pregnant again, especially since she'd lost her first child.

My mother was what they would call today a high-risk pregnancy.
Her first child, a son, lived for three days.
The way my mother recalls, they never tested her blood for RH factor, believing Negroes, as she was so identified on her medical chart, to be rarely if ever, RH negative. And besides, she later learned, RH disease is almost never a problem with the first pregnancy. RH disease: where the mother's antibodies attack the baby's blood, and if not treated with a transfusion, the baby could die.

Her full-term son, who she named Dennis, was born with hemolytic disease of the newborn, or RH disease. He died days later.

RH disease, the naming of the thing that cost her son's life, never offered solace to my mother, who insisted that he would not have died if it were not for systemic racism.


♪ They told her ♪
her antibodies attacked her baby's blood.
♪ They told her ♪
they tried a transfusion.
♪ They told her it was in her blood, her blood, they told her. ♪
♪ She'd never have another child. ♪
♪ They didn't let her see him. ♪
♪ They didn't let her see him. ♪
♪ They didn't let her see him until he died. ♪

She grieved this profound loss alone.

My father, he was away, overseas in the army serving his country. He never met his infant son. And for a million reasons, including distance, he was unable to cope with his loss or comfort the broken vessel of my mother's heart.

They carried forth this brokenness through the 38 years of their marriage and beyond.
Many, many years later, when my father was in his 80s, I was privileged to be at his bedside as he labored toward his own death. How interesting that he kept seeing visions of a bald-headed baby. Over and over he'd asked me, "Whose baby is that?"


♪ Dreams are babies. ♪
♪ Dreams are babies. ♪
♪ Dreams are all babies. ♪
♪ Don't you know? ♪
♪ They need tending and hearts that are bending. ♪
♪ Dreams are babies. ♪
♪ Don't you know? ♪

I imagine birthing is something like the dying process. I've been a witness to both. The veil between two worlds opens ever so slightly. And you can feel the push and pull of something that can only be described as the greatest mystery.

I don't remember my own birth, but they tell me that on July 28, 1956, in the evening, on my mother's birthday, I was born. Quite premature, in need of an immediate transfusion, specialized care. And at that very instant, I became a sister.

Being born, there are situations we're born into. They're a part of the setup as you're arranged into the family of puzzle pieces. The fit, sometimes sweet and glorious, and other times, uncomfortably raggedy. My life path was marked, first born daughter and sister.

My brother Melvin was no doubt introduced to me as such, "Here's your little sister, Melvin." Being 18 months old at the time, I'm certain he was unimpressed.It's so funny that you don't need to do anything other than be born to enter into this kind of sisterhood.

There are other kinds of sister-ness in the world though, and anyone who has or has had a sister knows that the sister-ly relationship is thick, rich, and often complicated.

I was 20 months old when my sister Debbie was born, and I, the little sister up until that point, now suddenly became a big sister, a title I much preferred.

We were "THE GIRLS," sharing a room and ultimately sharing our lives. And my poor brother Melvin, well, he was exiled on that island, the one called "the only boy."

My mother traded in miracles. Defying the odds, she birthed three children after her loss.
Mama was a manifesting woman. This was normal for her. After she lost her first child and was told there would be no more, she climbed the mountain of sorrow, and from that high mount declared with faith that she would be a mother.

Her very blood, B negative, carrying shame and loss also held transformative power.
She stood, my mother, in defiance to the doctor's prediction that she would never have children. And after birthing one for the Father, one for the Son, and one for the Holy Ghost, as she would say, she went on to become the beloved queen mother to her community in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

My sister's arrival was yet another pearl in the string of miraculous which adorned Mother's life. It was a praise report to be able to carry her pregnancy full term. She was full of hope for a strong and healthy baby.

On April 13, 1958, my sister, Debbie, was born. Mother was awake having insisted on a natural birth. It was commonplace in those days to whisk the baby away right after birth to be weighed and suctioned and warmed in the incubator. Yet, I'm sure there were questions lingering in the air.

"Is my baby okay? Can I see her?"

Mom must have sensed in the doctor's and nurse's body language, their worried faces, tense movements, that something just wasn't right.


♪ They told her ♪
Your baby has a birth defect.
♪They told her ♪
Your baby has a cleft lip and cleft palate.
♪ They told her baby can't nurse ♪
Has breathing problems, hearing problems.
♪ They, They They They told her. ♪
She'll need surgery. Many surgeries. Baby must stay.
♪ They told her baby, baby must stay in the hospital ♪
♪ baby must, baby must, baby must stay, ♪
♪ baby must stay. ♪

Mom told me that she took the bus and the train to the hospital to bring her newborn mother's milk. Milk that Debbie had to be fed while sitting up from a special bottle. Her head tilted just so to keep the milk from running right back out of the place where her lip would have been.

My mother remembers singing to her baby:

♪ Jesus loves me. This I know ♪
♪ for the Bible tells me so. ♪
♪ Little ones to him belong. ♪
♪ They are weak but he's strong ♪

And so are you, little baby!

♪ Yes, Jesus loves me. ♪
Yes, Jesus loves me. ♪
Be strong little baby. ♪
♪Yes, Jesus loves me. ♪
♪ for the Bible tells me so. ♪

Strong little baby.
Be strong, little baby.

Encouraging, loving, praying a mother's prayer. Prayer that her baby would live and thrive.

Fast forward 60 years, another time another place and I remember singing too. The melody wavering as it rose but something else, something else seemed very important. Something about where I was as I was singing that mattered.

Someone once asked me if I ever get stage fright. Did I ever have those tingling, dizzy heart pounding dry mouth can't breathe moments? The ones where you wished you could be anywhere else on the planet but right where you were.

"Ready to go on stage, Miss Freelon?" I answered, yes, well of course everybody gets nervous blah blah blah blah. But this was different. This time I was sitting on the banks of goodbye and the moment required a song.

And so—it could have easily been stage fright—all the symptoms were the same. Except this time, my little sister Debbie was dying, and I wasn't on stage.


♪ Deep, river, Lord. ♪
♪ My home is over Jordan. ♪
♪ Deep, river, Lord. ♪
♪ I want to cross over into camp ground. ♪

I hope she could hear me. We somehow lost her hearing aids in the shuffle between home and hospice. Nobody could remember the last time we saw them.

I was singing in her good ear I think, but now I'm not certain because the nurse was mumbling something, and at the same time, she was turning her towards me. But my sister didn't want to be turned that much was clear. That look on her face, I know that look.It says leave me alone!

If she had had the strength she'd have said it right out loud daring you to keep it up and see what happens. But at this moment she had little fight left in her frail body. Why was the nurse turning her now? Why disturb her in this way?

You never know what to keep and what to throw away your mind like a sifter. An old medical chart yellowed and stained was among the things destined for the shredder after Debbie died.

But as I looked, I realized it was her birth chart.

Baby: Pierce
Date and Time Born:
April 13, 1958, 3:36 am.

Progress notes, April 18, 1958:

Baby has a complete right cleft lip which is one of the most difficult to repair in the unilateral class. There is almost an absence of pallet and I doubt if we'll be able to close the pallet anteriorly. But this can be determined as the baby grows older. Please make an appointment in the plastic clinic for a Friday in the morning when the baby is at 4 weeks. — B.F. Brooks.

Less than a week old and plans are being made for the first of several surgeries. She's being described in terms of what could be done to fix the problem of her. Even at this very tender age, I felt in that moment that I was bearing witness to a huge trauma. A trauma that marked her entire life.This early grief, raw, inarticulate, lacking clear memory or words, of bewildered, angry, crying baby in pain, who at times embodied my adult sister Debbie—Now this was the version I never ever understood.


It was hard for her to breathe. I could feel her erratic heart beating so fast, her eyes widening, she was scared. I was trying not to be. I held her, hugged her to my breast and hummed, deep river, as much to her heart as my own. And then she died.

I kept singing, the song wasn't finished. There were two more verses that I know of and perhaps more. You can't die, not before the song is over. You can't die, not now.
And leave me and the song half finished.

♪ I want to cross over ♪
♪ cross over. ♪

Was I singing deep river or was I chest deep in the muddy bosom of goodbye?
Now it was my turn to struggle for breath, my wobbly heart, unsure of its rhythm, now that my little sister Debbie—gone. The push and pull of our relationship—gone. The sweet, sweet tether to being one half of "The Girls"—gone.

We shared a bedroom until I was 13 and Debbie was 12. We used to get mad at each other all the time and we'd put a piece of tape on the floor dividing our room in half. You can imagine how well that worked.

When mom and dad decided to renovate our home, adding a garage, opening up and rearranging the spaces in our Cape Cod style house, we were both thrilled, me and Debbie.

Now we could finally have our own spaces to call our own. A home!

No more fights over just about everything. No more resorting to the use of masking tape to divide our shared space and strict rules about not crossing the tape line unless you were leaving the room.

Debbie could be free to indulge in her hyper organizational order fantasies, folding and refolding, nipping and tucking everything in sight. And I, queen of the unmade bed, who despite having a cluttered space, knew where everything was—Well, sort of.

All we truly cared about was separate rooms for The Girls. All we truly cared about was a place to call home.


Months before she died, she made very clear her wishes. She wanted to die at home. She didn't want to be alone. And she didn't want to be in pain.

You see, you see, you see my sister was an internal medicine physician with a hospice and palliative care specialty. How many times had she helped us her patients and their families through the rough terrain of their limited choices? How many times had her compassionate voice offered encouragement to those weary of trying yet a new treatment protocol and to those who wondered what else is possible to bring ease and comfort?But now it was different. The tables were turned, and she was the patient, my little sister Debbie.

We were able to fulfill most of her wishes. Her desires seemed so sensible, so concrete, written in her perfect handwriting, unlike the proverbial chicken scratch of a doctor. Her letters were petite, evenly spaced, pretty. She valued things being just so. Letters that danced on the page.

She was a fabulous nitter. She made some beautiful, beautiful things. And I'd watch as she'd take out half a knitting project if there was the itsy bittyist tiniest mistake.

♪ Each stitch, a link in a chain, a link in a chain. ♪

Her hands, mind and heart, all in sync and in perfect order.

Being in pain is to be as out of order as one can imagine. Toward the end, my sister's pain became a wild animal. It stalked the halls of her body like a raging beast. It had a mind of its own, refusing to be quieted by prescription medications.

And so, we decided to move her to hospice, just to get her pain under control and then the plan, the plan, the plan, ahh plan, was to return home to die. Who knew that her desires might ultimately come into conflict with each other? Everything she'd written down seemed doable.

Stay at home: check.
Pain control: check.
Never alone: check, check.

I mean, it wasn't as if she'd asked for the dream of a miracle cure that would make this entire cancer nightmare disappear. No, no. She'd made peace with the certainty of death and asked only for a few crumbs of the experience on her own terms.

Well, if home is less a place, a familiar address and more a vibe of belonging— an idea—then maybe she was able to die at home after all.

"You need to take care of your sister."

♪ You need to take care of your sister. ♪

This was one of the last things my mother said to me. "Take care of each other," she rasped, but she said it to me. Her words equal part plea and command.

I don't remember a time when I wasn't cast in the role of being big sister, taking care of Debbie. When she was first learning how to talk, I understood her. I knew exactly what she wanted and so I became her unofficial interpreter.

Certain words were harder for her to say, any word that called for pressing the tongue against the roof of the mouth, words like the "D" in"Donut", which she loved. And I was happy to oblige by reporting that she wanted a donut and by the way, so did I.

♪ You need to take care of your little sister. ♪

I was so invested in my big sister role that my parents were cautioned by the speech therapist, not to allow me to speak constantly for Debbie. They set the bar very low for my parents' expectations about what Debbie would and would not be able to say and do. The undercurrent being, a colored girl with a cleft palate. "Don't push her too hard," they'd advise, "some things may just be impossible given the extent of the cleft deformity."

♪ She will never speak ♪
without some impediment.
♪ She will always bear ♪
the scar from her surgeries.

Her permanent teeth will not develop properly, some degree of hearing loss breathing problems on and on and on.

But you just had to know my mother and grandmother. They were both honor graduates of the Ain't-Nothing-Too-Hard-For-God school.

♪ Ooh, ain't nothin' no, no, no, no, no ♪
♪ Ain't nothin' no, no, no, no, no ♪
♪ Ain't nothin' too hard, nothin' too hard, nothin' too hard for my God ♪
♪ Can't nobody, nobody, no, no ♪
♪ Can't nobody, no, no, no ♪
♪ Ain't nobody to do the things that He can't do ♪
♪ Ain't nothing to offer my God ♪
♪ Ain't nothing, nothing, nothing to hard ♪
♪ Nothing, nothing, nothing, no hard ♪
♪ Ain't nothing to hard ♪
♪ Nothing, nothing to hard, nothing to hard ♪
♪ For my, my God ♪

Yeah, yeah. Now, I tell you when Debbie graduated from Texas College of osteopathic Medicine. My, my, my, that was a time. There were moments on her medical school journey where she met all types of resistance, rooms she entered where she was not wanted or respected, but that girl, that girl, that girl, she pressed on!

The prayers of my mother and the mighty, mighty ancestors hold in her What a time, what a time, what a time of Jubilee, that graduation day! My sister, beloved, she could now dawn that white coat and join the ranks of the healers Dr. Deborah Irene Pierce!
Mmm, mmm, mmm, that sounds, so, so good.

Multiple surgeries to repair her lip and palate before she was three years old, dental reconstructions, metal braces, speech therapy, frequent visits to the children's hospital in Boston, and my tough little sister emerged willful and strong.

She carried her sword through her entire life, pronouncing her life and all her words with absolute clarity and focus. Not a hint of impediment in her speech or achievements

The last surgery of her life was on her birthday, April 13th, 2018. Yes, she was turning 60 in the hospital, hoping, hoping, hoping for a birthday present that would halt the wrecking ball of cancer. You see, being a doctor, she had just a little too much information. And oh, I'm still marveling at the strangely beautiful order in our relationship

Our sisterhood held so many, many gifts. We were after all The Girls.

♪ But she wins the prize, she wins the prize. ♪
♪ She wins the prize for creating order out of chaos. ♪

'Cause you see, you see, you see— She was born April 13th, 1958, making me 20 months old when I became her big sister. And our sister walk—the final one from her surgery to our last hug—20 months.

Ah, Debbie, sweet sister, I love you.


♪ Not quite two years, but walking and learning ♪
♪ Not quite two years, the power of words ♪
♪ Needing maps and knowing your name ♪
♪ But unable to speak it ♪

♪ Enjoying food, especially sweets ♪
♪ Syrup is called love nowadays ♪
♪ Stumble walking, getting used to falling ♪
♪ It's not so bad compared to the joy of getting where you want to be ♪

♪ 20 months ♪

♪ Crying for mother, calling for daddy ♪
♪ Wanting to fly ♪
♪ Towards that breathless wonder, ♪
♪ 20 full months ♪
♪ Swallowed whole, not quite two years ♪
♪ But a precious plenty for this journey ♪
♪ 20 months ♪


Scalawag knows that for many of us, our grief is simultaneously never news and the only news.
Listen to the latest season of Great Grief with Nnenna Freelon, available now on all podcast platforms.

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Nnenna Freelon, the host/creator of Great Grief, is a Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist, music educator, arts advocate, producer and arranger who has achieved international acclaim in both recording and live performance. Follow her latest updates at: