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Sibling Chivalry in Grief

My 9-year-old son Kelly James died of cancer in 1987. That event changed my life forever, but many do not know of the other familial losses that preceded his. It seems life is a puzzle in progress; our losses and gains that we piece together through a lifetime ultimately forms our destiny. We have cognitive choices that influence that destiny, but as children, for the most part, those choices are made for us. We grieve by proxy through our parents and subjugated by societal infuence to the extent that we may even marginalize our own pain. You are young; you are resilient; kids bounce back.

It is indeed true that countless children have survived unimaginable horrors and have grown to become a remarkable force in the world. They have proved to be highly resilient individuals. Resiliency can only be obtained through a state of vulnerability; innocence to the unknown; an innocence that can be transformational; for better or for worse it’s the risk and worth of vulnerability; it’s about being all in. It’s about taking emotional risks.

In 1969, my father died when I was only 15 years old. My mother’s words of wisdom to me were: dead is dead; buck up and get on with your life; you are the man of the family now; you need to take care of the farm and your sisters. I guess it was the chivalrous thing to do…and expected. I tucked my grief away, manned up and took on my new role as the alpha of the family. The youngest of seven, my older sibs were married and out of the house; it was just my twin sister and my 18-year-old sister at home. I took on the role of the man of the family; I did not cry, I did not grieve.

In 1984, my twin sister, at age 29, was killed with her two young sons in an auto accident. It rocked my family and sibs, but my mother reacted the same way, “What is done is done son. We have to put it behind us”. I struggled to bury my grief away, and then less than two years later my son was diagnosed with cancer. I had to fight the fight to save my son and put my sibling grief on hold for a long, long time; I was getting good at it.

So many times the losses of children are marginalized. Whether they lose a parent or a sibling they are expected to get over it quickly and encouraged to be strong. If under five years old, their grief is hardly addressed; after that they are encouraged by society to move on. Many siblings marginalize their own loss and bury their emotions to be strong for mom and dad and other siblings. We learn at an early age to hide our feelings and/or compensate for a family loss and make everyone happy. It may take years before we fully process our losses. We may still harbor resentment for having to put our life on hold and being forced to grow up so fast.

Conversely, we may enjoy the new family dynamics of having less sibling rivalry in our daily life. We may experience a positive personal transformation of personal growth and expanded horizons. We may benefit from the loss and now get the big bedroom, more attention and sit in the front seat of the car. The caveat with this, although, is that we may experience guilt for feeling good, or benefitting from our sibling’s death in some way. To add insult to injury, we may have experience anxiety with our own trepidation of not being able to ll our sibling’s shoes. Too high of expectations of our own and from others can yield resentment, anger and fear. Be honest with family, be honest with yourself, and be honest with your expectations. Be your authentic self. Use your strengths. Ask for help.

We have choices on our path to survival; chivalry may be one of them.

Chivalry: the combination of qualities expected of an ideal knight, especially courage, honor, justice, and a readiness to help the weak.

Although the word chivalry has fallen out of use in today’s vernacular, the mechanism by which it operates (false bravado) is still intact and often use as a coping skill. It’s not just a man thing either, but practiced by women and children as well. It’s not a bad thing, it can be a courageous thing and it has its own merits; the knight in shining armor to save the day. Just be mindful when you are doing it. Chivalry may appear noble and gallant on the outside, as in keeping the English stiff upper lip, but unexpressed emotions of grief roiling beneath the surface is further fueled by the stress hormone cortisol to maintain this gallant behavior. Chivalry is an act of heroism, but long-term healing does not come from bravado but from resiliency, vulnerability, authenticity and an openness to share. Nosce Te Ipsum (know yourself). Be yourself, not a victim of circumstance. Listen not to the imposed mores of society but to the dictates of your own heart.

Whatever your loss may be, there is no putting it behind you. You coexist with it. It is now part of the fabric of your destiny. If you are a sibling who has experienced the death of your brother/ sister at any age, recognize it, take it out of the closet; talk about the journey with pride, not shame, bitterness or embarrassment. Express your pain, yield to your heart and not to your head.

Remember your parents are changed forever and may still be falling apart inside, forgive them their shortcomings; they are bereaved parents. Bring your sibling back to the dinner table; keep them in your life and in the conversation with your parents, sibs, and your friends. Dead is not gone and we do not have to let go; we do not get over loss, we learn to live with it, it is part of us. Knowing that, not only can we survive, we can one day thrive.

Find other bereaved siblings that are close to your own age and/or have similar losses that can validate your feelings about what you are experiencing. Talk to older adults who are seasoned bereaved siblings and enlist their advice. Leave chivalry to the knights in shining armor, process your loss without false bravado. Put chivalry to bed. It’s a bedtime story. Strive to be vulnerable to all the ramifications of your loss. at is resiliency that is taking control of your life; that is surviving; that is honoring your sibling with your life. Turn your loss to legacy not, with chivalry but authenticity. Process your grief openly without compunction through a lens of self compassion. Be yourself. Be good to yourself. Be here now.

Peace, love n light

Mitch Carmody

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Comments (1)

  • This was very nice; we lost our son last year and daughter seems to be dealing with it well.
    But not really sure.

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