I’m standing in front of a hushed crowd of 250 people—some family, some strangers. Everyone looks at me, waiting. The words are on paper, but nothing will come out of my mouth.

I begin to cry.

And as I cry, the words pour out.

At 26, I have never felt pain like this before and have no idea how to react to it. The person I loved more than anything in this world is gone. My mom, Mary H. Rodriguez, is nothing but a body lying in her open white coffin behind me. Her makeup is immaculate—she wears her black Betty Boop T-shirt, blue jeans and red lipstick, the outfit she would wear to work at the Los Angeles Times.

My mom was a fighter. She raised four kids all by herself and never had much money, but she always managed to put food on the table. And she and I were close. We had our monthly movie dates in Hollywood and our TV shows that we watched together: Law & Order SVU, The Golden Girls, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and every Lifetime-network movie.

And she was always my biggest fan. When my boyfriend and I split up, it was my mom who told me never to give up on love or myself. I got back into dating and started focusing on myself.

Despite getting up every morning at 4:00 a.m., she always brimmed with energy. Then, in January of 2012, she began sleeping in every day. For over a week, she wasn’t eating or using the restroom. My middle sister, Deedee, took her to the hospital in Los Angeles, then called me on my cell phone in New York.

“Mom’s going to die. She has stage-four cancer.”

I fell to my knees. This isn’t real, I thought. I quit my job and took a plane back to Hollywood the next day. I cried during the whole flight.

The tears didn’t stop upon arrival. As I walked into the hospital room, my older sister, Stephanie, was standing there with her bright-red hair, radiant, as well as Deedee, who was wearing no makeup, her face filled with tears. Deedee called to my mom. Her eyes slowly opened. She realized I was by her side and burst into tears. She couldn’t speak because they’d put a tube in her mouth. I gave her a kiss and held her hand.

My mom survived four months longer than the initial prognosis. And I had the honor of being her caretaker for the last few months of her life. On Thursday, May 24, 2012, at 4:00 p.m., while listening to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” my mom died in my arms. Deedee, Stephanie and other close friends were in the room to say one last good-bye.

She was buried on June 4—her birthday.

I came into this world in her arms, and she left in mine. I watched the person who showed me how to love, how to walk, who called me 11 times a day just to make sure I had food to eat and who watched every season of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, die in my arms.

My life was different from then on.

Stephanie came over my house to pick up some photos of our mom. She picked up food on the way. We talked, laughed and discussed her upcoming birthday plans.

As she was heading out the door, she gave me a hug and a kiss and said, “Let’s go drinking when I get back from Vegas. I love you,” she said with a smile.

The next day, on July 4—one month after putting our mom to rest—my sister died. Stephanie, who always picked on me as sisters do, who had taken me to carnivals and helped me win my very first goldfish, was gone too.

Steph had been living with diabetes since she was a child and was on dialysis. Her heart gave out early that day. I had just left Deedee’s house and was getting ready to watch a movie with a few friends when I received the news from Stephanie’s girlfriend ... in a text. Not even a call.

“Steph passed away today,” the text read. My body fell to the ground.

I called Deedee screaming and in panic. Could this really be happening again? I thought. My friends pulled me up off the floor; I felt weak, in pain and blind from the tears. Deedee raced from her house to pick me up. As she pulled up, she lowered her car window. “This isn’t happening again,” she said.

At the hospital, we were escorted to a cold room to identify Steph’s body. I held Deedee’s hand as we walked into the morgue. A white sheet covered Steph’s body and face. All we could see was her bright-red hair sticking out. There was no doubt that it was our sister. It was Steph.

The doctor asked if we were ready before he pulled the sheet. We weren’t, but we had to see her for ourselves. There she was: lifeless on a cold table with a sheet covering her body. My sister, who had just told me she loved me the day before, wasn’t there. Deedee and I embraced as we cried over her body; we gave her a kiss on her forehead and said good-bye. She, too, was gone.

My sister lived a life of love, kindness and passion. She had a welcoming smile. She was warm to everyone she met and made friends right away. She was my dancing and drinking partner, my wingwoman every time we went out. She loved karaoke and always kicked my ass at it. She was strong and smart and had a way with others. There was nothing shy about her. She was sick for many years before her death, and though there were times when she couldn’t get out of bed, she was ready to go dancing with me the minute she recovered.

After losing my mom and my sister, I lost myself as well. The pain of losing someone you love is unbearable, but to experience two losses mere weeks apart is unthinkable.

I know a few people who have lost loved ones and turned to drugs and drinking. I didn’t want to take that road. I needed to feel the pain and the hurt so I could learn how to heal.

I wandered the streets of Hollywood alone, crying with every step. I came across our sushi restaurant; Steph and I had just been there a week before her death. I stood there and wept. You never get over someone you love dying—it’s something you think about every day. I had to do something positive with my pain; staying down was not an option. I have two nephews whom I had to stand for and show that this is all part of life—this thing called death. I wanted to inspire them to be strong in such a difficult time.  

I made it through the death of my mom and sister because of my inner voice. It was that voice inside of me that kept me going, even when I wanted to give up. I wanted to make my mom and sister proud; I had to make something of myself. I moved back to New York a year later to pursue my dream as a writer. Writing is what helped me heal, stay strong and what was—is— my motivation.

Time doesn’t heal the pain. I miss them every day and know—wherever they are—that they are still with me. Things happen to us that, at times, we don’t truly understand, and we don’t know what to do next, but it’s that darkness and pain that helps us all learn and grow. Though diseases took the light from my mom and sister, from me and the world, it didn’t take the love, memories, strength, dreams and inspiration that I learned from them.

Just because you lose yourself doesn’t mean you can’t find yourself again. Be broken. Feel it. In time, you’ll learn how to put yourself back together a little stronger. At the end of the day, the rain will stop, and the sun will break through that darkness. All the pain and sorrow you have within you is a seed to help you grow.