The Empty Chair: Seven Lessons Gained in Sibling Loss  

I never meant to become any sort of expert in sibling loss. That’s not a path anyone would willingly choose for themselves. Back in high school, I remember standing in the funeral home at my friend’s wake. After hugging his mom and sister, I stood there thinking to myself, how will they live through this?

A few years later, I learned the hard way. I was living on the other side of the world when I got a phone call from my mom on Mother’s Day telling me that my brother Warren died. It was unexpected, tragic, and I was all alone. I couldn’t get a flight out of Tokyo until the next day and in those grueling, confusing and lonely moments I realized that the truth is, you just do. You just live through it.

In the days and years that followed it was a crash course in living life without my brother. I quickly learned that there were no books, no articles, no nothing. Nothing that could help me learn how to cope, know how to feel, or what to expect. No one really talked about the “leftover kid.”

The truth is, when my brother first passed away I felt like it was all about my parents. Often I found myself and others focusing on the sadness and grief that my mom and dad must have been feeling. Sibling grief wasn’t a thing, or at least that’s what Google and the self-help section of the bookstore told me at the time. I was so wrong.

Our brothers and sisters are the first real relationships we have outside of our parents. He was my big brother—my first friend and the first person I learned to play with, share with, and laugh with. He was the first person who picked on me, fought with me and taught me forgiveness. A life without him was never in sight. And I think that’s the hardest thing to get over.

It’s been ten years now, and I have learned a lot during those years. Ten years is a pretty long haul for someone who never thought they’d make it past day one as a freshly deemed 21-year-old only child. Since then I’ve been lucky enough to develop beautiful friendships with a few dear friends who also lost their siblings. They feel pretty lost and alone sometimes too. Why doesn’t anyone talk about this?

Somehow I made it this far. Maybe not easily, perhaps not always graciously, but I am here. And if you’re reading this, you are here too. It’s my hope that these lessons I’ve learned can help in your darkest days to find the silver lining. Even if it’s just a small glimmering glimpse of hope, you can find comfort knowing that those we love continue to be our life’s teacher long after they’re gone.

You don’t have to be the super kid. For some reason, especially in the beginning, you feel like you have to take on everything and suddenly save the world. Your world is your family, and you feel like you have to save your parents. I have learned that you can’t save them; they are living and breathing just like you and me, and there is no saving. There is only being. The best thing you can do for your family is to be you, do things that make you feel alive and be present. Find happiness and help others. That’s what they hope to pass on to you, and that’s the fire in you. The best thing you can be will always be you.

Parents are human. We spend our whole lives putting our parents on a pedestal. But as we get older and go through our own hardships, we come to see our parents as human. Coping with losing a child is something I hope I never experience in my lifetime, and when I look back on what my parents went through I remember the ups and downs of it all. There were times I could see they were grieving and coping in their own way, then grieving together, and now being stronger than I’ve seen them in years. I think losing a child can make or break a marriage, and I’m so grateful that my parents have pushed through all of this and have gained a deeper respect for each other in the process. They are my strength, my rock, and my inspiration.

Life goes on. Sometimes it feels tragic to think about, but life really does go on. It’s hard to imagine life without the people we love and how wrong it is that he or she will not be on the sidelines cheering for us as we move through life. My brother didn’t get to see me graduate college, he never knew the career I built for myself, and he’ll never be at my wedding or see me have kids. I’ll never be Aunt Amanda to his children, he won’t be there to comfort me when the day comes that I have to say goodbye to my parents. This choose-your-own-adventure of missed milestones can be heartbreakingly overwhelming at times. But life does go on.

I have friends that never knew him. I have a boyfriend who never met him. I’ve lived in one of the world’s biggest cities; I’ve lived in a teeny tiny cabin in the woods. I wonder what he’d be like, what he’d be doing, where he’d be living. I wonder what he’d think of me. I carry this sense of wonder with me in everything I do, but it’s my way of keeping him with me while living a life I know he’d be proud of.

There is no such thing as closure. The empty chair will always be there. In our family, we are reminded of it every time we have dinner at the kitchen table and every time the three of us go out to dinner and get seated at a table for four. Something and someone is always missing. But now I look at that chair and think to myself all I’ve learned, all I’ve gained, and how far we’ve all come. You will always be stronger than you think.

Be vulnerable and live your truth. We need each other. In a time where we are carefully curating our life one filter at a time, it’s easy to forgo our authentic self for the one we think the world wants to see. But it’s our true authentic self who can make a real connection and impact others. That’s the stuff that matters.

Being vulnerable is scary, sure. But want to know what’s scarier? Sacrificing our story for the doubters and critics. We are our experiences, and every piece of us was born from something that happened to us along the way. Tucking away the gifts we have to share in exchange for a false self is no way to live. The best relationships I’ve developed were cultivated in openness, sharing the good, the bad and the ugly. This vulnerability makes us human and reminds us that we are not alone in our journey. We all have a story to share.

Make time for the people who matter. Every one of us has the same 24 hours in a day, the same seven days a week, the same 365 days a year. It’s up to us how we spend this currency of our lives. We can either feel sorry for ourselves or feel grateful for all the people in our life. We can keep feeding quarters into the meter of our false selves or spend it on the things that matter. The people that love you love you. They love the real you, the you you’ve always been, the you that you’re continuously improving, and the you that you will become. Spend your time wisely.

Anything can happen, anything happens all of the time. Life is short, life is scary, and life is beautiful. Through loss, we are shown firsthand how all of it can go away in a split second. Perhaps the greatest gift and struggle I’ve dealt with is wanting to live every second. It’s beautiful and paralyzing all at the same time. Sometimes this gift of knowing how delicate life is can start to feel too real. It makes you feel stuck, anxious, and scared of losing everyone you love. Sometimes I hold on too tight and worry too much. Afraid to pick up the phone at times, fearful of bad news on the other end. I’ve even found myself trying to beat this game of life, to somehow solve it all and keep the people I love around me forever.

But in the end, you choose to live and beautiful things begin to happen. Every morning we wake up is a gift, every step we take outside, every breath we take, every smile we share with a stranger, every time we catch up with an old friend. Beauty is all around us.

Vulnerability, kindness, and sharing our story is so necessary. Being you is the best gift you can give to yourself and the people you love, and as time goes on, you’ll realize that the superness was inside of you all along.



Amanda Wormann

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Comments (2)

  • This article was very helpful! I have two siblings who died, my younger brother and my oldest sister. I am the second born of 5. So now my youngest brother and youngest are pretty close. We consciously make time to check in with each other and have time to hear each other, and that is very good. My sister has been dead 10 years and my brother 3 years. They both loved people. Sometimes I see people who will tell me how much their lives were impacted by them, that is really neat!

  • This is the first article I have found that hits home to me. I am the youngest of 10 children. I lost a sister to breast/brain cancer in 2000, another sister to breast cancer/lung cancer in 2002, my oldest brother to congestive heart failure in 2009, another brother of a stroke in 2014, another brother due to failure to thrive due to Alzheimer’s in 2017, another brother just 2 weeks ago from lung cancer/heart failure. We have another brother that we have been unable to locate for over 10 years. We lost our Mom in 2004 and Dad in 2012. There are only 3 of us remaining and are struggling to cope with that.

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