How losing a sibling changed my life forever

This article first appeared on Sixty and Me and I was overwhelmed by the response from readers. I hope it resonates with Shallow Reflections readers as I share it on my own blog.

If you live to be over sixty, loss is inevitable. I anticipated the loss of my parents knowing the day was looming when they would pass on as part of the natural order of life.

What I didn’t prepare for was losing my sister, Linda. I suppose I should have since I am the youngest in the family and she was twelve years older than me. But I found myself in uncharted territory, not only experiencing profound loss but at a loss as to how to cope.

Initial grief

When my parents died people acknowledged it was a big deal for me, inquiring about how I was adjusting, offering sympathy well past the date of the ordeal.

When I lost an adult sibling I found myself swimming in a pool of grieving family members, relegated to the shallow end. Bystanders focused on those treading in deep water and life preservers were tossed in their direction like Frisbees. I found myself sloshing around in my grief without even those cute arm floaties to save me from submersion.

These were the questions on everyone’s mind: “How is Linda’s husband doing? How are her children coping?” And of course these are important questions and should be asked. I felt selfish but the question I needed to hear was, “How are you doing?”

I looked for a book to give me guidance as I maneuvered through the maze of my emotions. I found comfort and validation in the book, Surviving the Death of a Sibling: Living Through Grief When an Adult Brother or Sister Dies, by T. J. Wray.

Holidays

The last time I spent a holiday with my family of origin was Linda’s last Christmas. Now my siblings spend holidays with their own children and grandchildren and so do we. Even though this is a desirable and inevitable outcome, the fact remains that our original family unit has been shattered forever. My siblings and I make an effort to reunite as often as possible but it is not during the holidays.

I know that letting go of the past creates room for new traditions. But it is also a time to remember how things used to be, reflecting on the years when we were all together, marveling at the camaraderie and joy.

I also miss the conflicts and must find other ways to dig up a fresh crop of material for ongoing therapy sessions, not an easy task with a broken inner circle. I knew I could count on my loved ones to blurt out my shortcomings and past mistakes at the height of our holiday celebrations. And I was more than happy to reciprocate, in a loving way, of course.

Family events and milestones

Weddings, graduations, and family reunions continue to populate my calendar even though Linda is gone. She never wanted to miss anything and midst the joy of these events is an absence: her laughter, her enthusiasm, her presence.

It would be awkward at the height of festivities to make this announcement, “Wouldn’t my dead sister have loved this gathering?” So I keep it to myself imagining her response to the party and hearing the echo of her voice joining in the fun.

Later when the crowd has scattered I look for an opportunity to quietly comment to my sister or brother about how much I miss her and speculate about how much she would have enjoyed the event. And they can agree feeling free to share a story about her or shed a tear.

The next generation

My older grandson was born before Linda died but he was an infant and only met her through FaceTime. My younger grandson was born a year after she died. How can I convey who she was and how she fits into their family tree?

I have shown them photographs and told them stories about her and what she meant to me but I must make a deliberate effort to continue this practice. Years after I’m gone, I don’t want them to wonder who that woman was in the family portrait standing next to Grandma. I am assuming of course that they will remember Grandma.

Facing my own mortality

When you attend the funerals of your grandparents, and members of your parents’ age group you feel a false sense of insulation against mortality. But when one of ‘us kids’ takes flight, there is no denying your own impermanence even when you are the youngest like me.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, and I don’t dwell on death and dying constantly. What I do appreciate is how precious life is and the gift of each day.

Even when I wake up with a stiff neck on a cold morning, we are out of coffee, and sleet freezes on my windshield as I drive to work. Yes, even then.

Have you lost a sibling? How did you cope with this unique loss?

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26 thoughts on “How losing a sibling changed my life forever

  1. My sister was 2 years younger than me and I lost her in 2003, on my Dad’s birthday. She was in hospital, suffering with MS and had a pulmonary embolism that came out of the blue and wiped us all out. Mum & Dad, obviously, took it very hard and because I focused a lot on making sure they were okay, my grief kind of trundled along and the shock didn’t hit me for about a week (and then laid me out for an hour). Mum & Dad are still with us and coping, my other sister & I are coping and a lot of that – I think – is down to my son (born 2 years after she passed away) and my nieces (born several years later). We made sure they know who Auntie Tracy was (she was a huge Snoopy fan so I passed on her love of the books to my son) and we all talk of her often.

    Dealing with it doesn’t get easier to handle, it’s just that you become better able to handle it.

    • So sorry for your loss. It is a unique loss and no one understands it who has not experienced it. I’m so glad you are keeping her memory alive which is so important. Thank you so much for sharing your story with me. I have days when I cry and other days when I laugh remembering a funny story, but I miss her every day.

  2. I’m the youngest as well and there are 13 years between my closest sister and I. She’s my best friend, really. Losing her would be devastating. I’ve already lost one sister. She died when I was a teenager. This loss would be different, though. I’m so sorry for your loss, but so thankful you were able to write about it so eloquently. Thank you.

    • So sorry for your loss. Sisters are definitely unique and the best of friends so you understand the loss as no one else can. Enjoy your friendship with the sister you have in your life today, and thank you so much for sharing your story.

  3. This was a very interesting read Molly, thanks you so much. My husband lost his younger brother 2 years ago aged only 55, very suddenly. At the time I wrote a blog piece entitled Shock which let me put down my initial thoughts and feelings and it helped It has been hard for us in man ways and hard for his parents, sister, his wife and their two teenage children, our children, friends….. Everyone grieves differently and it can take a long time. One of the hard parts for us has been that some family connections have diminished, through no fault of us trying to maintain contact. Your piece summed it up very well and I will look out for the book you mentioned. Thanks again. Our sympathies to you and your family.

    • I will check out your blog post, Debbie. So sorry for your family’s loss. I think in my post I have left out the sibling-in-laws who also suffer a loss and are further relegated to second class grievers in the grieving spectrum. Family connections do change and that has been very difficult for me. Other family ties have strengthened as we are closer to some of my sister’s children and grandchildren than we were before she died. My older sister has taken on the role of substitute mother and grandmother for some of them as she lives closer. Of course she will never take Linda’s place but she has been a comfort and support nonetheless. Thank you for reading and leaving a comment.

  4. A tough read, although I have not lost a sibling. My hubby lost his oldest brother to sudden cardiac arrest. Even worse, is R lived in Chile and was only 59 when he passed. My hubby and his older brother traveled to Chile and with help of family there, were able to bring home his ashes after navigating a stubborn Chilean government. As we age, loss of family members will be all too frequent. My sympathies to you, Molly and to your family.

    • Losing a brother-in-law and watching his siblings suffer is no easy task, Terri. What a difficult experience that must have been, compounded by dealing with a foreign government after such a shock. My heart goes out to you and your husband as you adjust to life without his brother.

  5. Another moving and heartfelt piece. I hadn’t really thought about it, but now you mention it, I can see that actually sibling loss isn’t mentioned that much, is it? I guess from the point of view of what you mention – that focus falls to their spouses, children and, if they are quite young, the parents – I can see how that happens, but it is an unfortunate situation.

  6. I could SO relate to what you experienced, minus my being the adult. I was 14 and my only sibling, my brother turned 20 while unconscious in the hospital following an accident. My parents were obviously devastated, and although I had a host of familiar adults (like aunts and uncles to the point that they reported every bad choice I made), only one ever allowed or encouraged me to grieve. Had it not been for my mature-beyond-her-age best friend, and God, I wouldn’t have survived. And the dates of the accident, his birthday, the day he died, and the day of his funeral all show up on my calendar – every single year – for 40 years, with a punch in the face. I wrote on my own blog on those dates last fall, and finally felt some freedom from the grief. I would love to hear your thoughts if you care to read the series of “Painful Anniversaries” from September and October at http://www.journalmehealthy.com. May you find comfort and peace for your own loss as you continue to process.

    • Thank you for sharing your story, Vicky. I am definitely going to check out your blog posts. How sad for you to lose your brother so young. And sad that even as a teen you felt like a ‘second class griever’ in the midst of the tragedy. So glad you have written about it and found some relief. Writing does help but the wound will never completely heal.

  7. Thank you , Molly, for being so open about your loss, and how it’s affected you. WE all need reminders to appreciate every day. And Thank God for who we still have in our lives. I’m glad you comment to your siblings’ about Linda’s loss. Keep talking about her!!

  8. Molly, the book you reference is the same one I read when my husband’s brother died just over a year ago – the first of our siblings to do so. It was very helpful to me. Not sure if it’s a “guy thing,” but he would not read it. The best that happened was that I shared with him what I was learning.

    All of the things you mentioned in your post are exactly what we’ve gone through. Thanksgiving 2016 was really hard, because our sister-in-law hosted at her home, just like usual. Except that HE wasn’t there. He always cooked the turkey. Now his adult son cooked it, but his dad hadn’t yet passed on the skill. Yes, it was turkey, and it was good, but it wasn’t the way HE had made it, and we realize that the way HE made it will be lost to the rest of the family.

    My husband carved the turkey in his brother’s absence. Every year, we took photos of HIM carving the turkey. Nobody took a picture this year. It was still too painful. In fact, tears are flowing as I write this!

    I wanted to talk about him, but my husband said not to. Near the end of the evening, before we left, I gave his wife a hug and told her that we had been thinking about HIM. And then the dam holding back her tears broke. Honestly, I don’t know how she held it together throughout the whole day.

    Between the two of us, my husband and I have three other siblings. Our parents are gone. We are the oldest generation now It may be a reality of life, but it is one that we still have not come to terms with.

    • You have given great examples, Crystal, of how different life is without a sibling, and how painful. I wish people could break the silence at holidays to remember them, but it seems like everyone is trying to ‘protect’ each other. I’m sure the motives are good, but it makes it so difficult. It is tough to be the older generation, and you are much too young to be in that position. Some day we will have victory over death, but until that day we must cope the best we can. I am glad the book was helpful to you. There isn’t much that has been written about this unique loss.

    • You are so right, Suzette. Time is precious and it is so easy to take people for granted. I am happy that you have reconciled with your sister before it was too late. Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment.

  9. Molly,
    Whether the loss is a parent, a sibling, a friend, or a beloved pet–Love is Love.
    There is a sad, silent reminder every day of death’s permanence.
    Thank you for bringing to light the importance of searching out joy each day.
    Wishing you peace and solace.

    • Yes indeed, Sharon. Without being morbid I try to remember how temporary life is and recognize that death can send our lives into upheaval at any moment. Life is precious and there is joy to be found in something every day. Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment.

  10. A very heartfelt piece – you raise aspects of a siblings death I had not considered because I have not experienced one yet. I have one sister so it will happen for one of us at some point. It must be so hard when you are left floundering in the water of grief because you aren’t an ‘A lister’ in the pecking order of the family. I never thought of it that way. Even though they are ‘ours’ before they are anyone else’s (apart from our parents), we do get pushed down the ranks when husbands and children come along – I can see that from reading this. Thanks for sharing your experience – if it happens to me, I will at least be aware of what happens and maybe be able to cope better than I might have.

    • I’m so glad you have not experienced this loss yet, Gilly. It is indeed a unique experience and I like what you said about them being ‘ours’ before they are anyone else’s (apart from our parents). Some people have told me losing a sibling was harder than losing a parent as they anticipated losing parents but were shocked to lose a sibling. Even though you have not experienced this loss, you can lend sympathy to other who have with fresh eyes and increased understanding of what they are going through. Thank you for your thoughtful response to the post.

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