It is a lonely road for most when a sibling dies. Sibling loss is different than other deaths. When your brother or sister dies it means the loss of lifelong expectations. You grew up with this person anticipating that some day when your parents will need care decisions or worse when they cross over the rainbow bridge that your sibling will be there to share the experience with you. Your shared history bonds you together and you can grieve together like no one else because others can’t laugh with you at the funny things that happened when you were growing up…or tear up with you when recalling the sad times such as when your pet parakeet or beloved cat or dog died and you held a funeral in the backyard. You more than likely shared the death of grandparents, aunts, uncles and even cousins. This is all part of the natural order of things. Losing your sibling before your parents throws everything off kilter. My husband became an only child after his younger sister died. It was so hard for him. He still had me and the girls but we don’t have that knowledge of their childhood history. Sure we had heard their stories over dinner or while opening Christmas gifts but it isn’t the same. Steve felt lost without Annie. His parents were grieving themselves and checked in with him periodically but the natural order had been disrupted. It took my husband a few years to come to terms with Annie’s death.
Grief is hard enough for adults so, can you imagine what that is like for a child whose sibling died? I watched my own daughter Brie’s reaction. She was six years old when Cory her brave protective older brother died. Her sense of safety died with him. She put on a brave front and to this day acts tough and sassy but it is a cover up for her fear. The world is not a safe place when you learn at such a young age that kids die too and that even going to the hospital and doctors for years doesn’t mean that you will survive diseases such as cancer. During treatments for long term illnesses siblings get lost in the shuffle of parents trying to cope with a sick child a huge medical machine and all of the emotional financial and physical burdens thrust upon them. No one ignores the siblings on purpose it just happens. I’ve met so many families split apart by a diagnosis especially if the mother and sick child are flown to another location for treatment while the father and siblings are usually left at home trying to cope on their own while scared out of their wits and go to school or continue working etc. I have seen siblings hurt themselves just to get attention. So, when a child dies the young children can be left with one or two barely functioning grieving parents who are so caught up in their own well of sadness that again, the other children are left to sort things out alone.
When I was in my late 20s my cousin Earl who was the same age as me, died unexpectedly. I will never forget when his mom called me to tell me and then she asked if I could come to help them. She said that my uncle wasn’t doing well with the death. Earl’s older brother Jr. flew up to be with his parents who were inconsolable. They were in such shock that he was left out a bit. He shared with me later how sad he felt that day and how only one person had asked him how he was doing with the loss of his younger brother. I am embarrassed to tell you that it wasn’t me who had asked him but he said it was okay because he appreciated that I was busy trying to help his parents get through the preparations for the funeral and reception afterwards.
When two of my cousins died they both lived very far away. I was not able to attend their funerals and as I look back now, I feel as if I wasn’t very supportive of either one’s sisters. Sorry Susie and Gail. I wish I had been better at this grief support stuff back then. It takes practice.
Just last week, several of my dear friends were faced with the death of their older sisters–in the same week. I made a point of contacting each of them and I plan to follow up with both. My friend Barb lost her sister unexpectedly and she describes to me regularly the same emotions that I witnessed with my husband Steve. So whether you have more than one brother or sister when a sibling dies from a long-term illness a short diagnosis or an accident you may be forced to navigate that lonely road that has peaks and valleys or no shoulders on your own… without one of the people who knows you best. It isn’t easy and most times it is really hard but enjoy him or her while you can so that you at least won’t have regrets.
If you are struggling down this sad lonely road called grief, please seek support from a good listener or a grief professional.