From the shadows we come, the surviving siblings. We are all ages: younger, older, twins and subsequent children. We have our own story to tell, one that is often brushed aside in the concern for our parents, the spouse, and even the children of our sibling. We are grieving, experiencing the same intensity of pain, but not always acknowledged by others. When a child dies, a future is lost; when a parent dies, it is the past which is buried. The death of a sibling is the death of a friend, a rival, an antagonist, a confidant, and perhaps a co-conspirator. It is important to help give siblings a voice as we struggle in the shadows, searching to find light in the darkness.
My mother would tell you that when my brother, Big A died, “the world went dark and silent. No longer did life seem worth living. e sun grew cold and the music died. ere were no happy sounds in our house anymore and the sun cast only shadows of sadness.” When Austin died, we all thought the sun had le forever. But much to our dismay, the sun kept coming up and we had to keep going, even though we didn’t always know where we were going! My mom used to tell people that the only reason she got up after my brother died was because I needed cereal. There is a little more to the story.
It is true, I was hungry. But what she didn’t tell you is that at first, she moved the cereal down to a lower cabinet, to make it easier for me to reach. And then she put the milk in a smaller container so I didn’t need help pouring it. Then the TV was moved to a shorter shelf so I could turn on my own cartoons. By now, all the possible accommodations had been made for me to be “self-sufficient,” — mind you, I was 4. But every day I came back, needing something else. Finally, my mom, exhausted and looking to grieve in peace, asked me what more could I possibly need?
I told her that I needed my brother back. We cried together while she explained patiently to her 4-year-old daughter for the thousandth time that he could not come back. Then I asked her when our family would be fixed, “unbroken.” I didn’t have the words then that I do now, to say that I was hungry for more than cereal. I had lost my brother…and we were at risk of losing so much more…
It was then, in the early hours of a Saturday morning, that we came to realize that in our own unique struggles to find a way to breathe in those early days, we had lost each other. We didn’t lose my brother, he died. But we were at risk of losing the support of our little family. This was the spark for us, the start of our commitment to find a way to reach through our differences in our losses to find some common ground.
Our story is not unique. One of the most difficult parts of being a bereaved sibling is the loss of the family we knew. Our parents are consumed by their own grief and while we certainly understand why our experience is that none of our supports are the same. Siblings are the people who have known us and our family the longest. Our friends may not know how to help and may shy away. Extended family is primarily concerned with our parents, and the family that we knew is shattered seemingly beyond repair.
How can you help a bereaved sibling?
Acknowledge that Sibling loss is devastating − often sibs feel we are the “Forgotten Mourners.” We may be asked how their parents are handling the loss. Many times, we feel that our loss is not given as much weight by supportive others. Take the time to ask surviving siblings how we are doing.
Encourage us to seek and accept emotional support for ourselves − sometimes we feel driven to support our parents. Many siblings report putting their own grief on hold to care for parents or out of fear that their grieving will make things worse for their grieving parents who “have enough to deal with.” is can result in siblings feeling isolated and alone within their own families. We may need reminders and permission to grieve and to accept our own support.
Allow us to grapple with our guilt – the truth is that all sibling relationships are not perfect and even great ones come with some not-so-hot moments of rivalry or ugly words. Grief has a unique quality of playing back newsreels of the worst moments between us and our siblings when we are feeling down. Remind us of memories where we were kind to our sibling. Help us put into perspective our normal sibling relationships. It would be weird if every moment we had with them was actually perfect. We may need you to help us to remember this.
We are surviving siblings. We face many challenges, sometimes alone. But with support and a lot of grief work, we can emerge from the shadows. We can claim our roles, and live the legacies we have chosen of our loved ones with pride (colored with sadness).
Am I Still a Sister? You bet I am! And just as my little family learned in the wee hours of a Saturday morning, crying over breakfast cereal, I hope our TCF family can find that we are all bereaved, we are all hurting, we are many things, BUT WE ARE NOT ALONE. Together we can become a family circle, broken by death, but mended by love.
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