“Every loss is unique. The truth is, the worst loss is the one that is happening to you, the one that has picked you up and thrown you down and left you struggling to put your life back together.”
Author, Elizabeth Devita-Raeburn
When I was 20 years old, I was awakened in the middle of the night to the terrible news that my 17-year-old brother Scott and cousin Matthew had been killed together in a car accident. It seemed inconceivable that my brother had died. My brother, who I had grown up with, shared a history with, and expected to grow old with, was suddenly gone forever from my life. Scott had unruly blond curls and bright green eyes. He was very athletic, devoured Twix candy bars, was a NY Jets fan and loved to play practical jokes. I envisioned us attending each others’ college graduations and weddings, raising our kids together and growing old together.
Scott’s death turned my world upside down and put everything I ever believed into question. We expect a natural order to the losses in our lives with our grandparents dying first, followed by our parents and then eventually our siblings. Our siblings share a childhood history and take this journey with us, as parallel travelers in our lives, wrote Elizabeth Devita-Raeburn in her book, The Empty Room: Understanding Sibling Loss. In fact, most siblings will spend 80-100% of their lifespans together (Packman, Horsley, Davies, & Kramer, 2006). However, all of us are not so fortunate, as two million people each year become bereaved siblings (Hogan & Desantis, 1992). Studies show that bereaved siblings grieve for not only their brothers or sisters, but for the loss of future plans together and the opportunity to grow old with someone who knew them at every developmental life stage (Horsley, 2003; Marshall, 2013). Many consider their sibling to be their best friend. When one dies the other feels the loss intensely. Lyn, whose sister Donna died at age 49 of breast cancer, remembers her sister this way, “Donna was my trusted confidant, my witness and my cheerleader. She was there for me and I for her. A glance into her eyes affirmed my joyous reality: She was both my sister and my best friend.”
As with Lyn’s story, my brother and I were also very close, and early on in my grief the pain was so great that not only did I not know how I would survive, I didn’t know if I wanted to. I honestly thought I would die of a broken heart. Many other siblings’ have felt the same way after the death of a brother or sister. In interviewing Lauren and Kerri Kiefer after the death of their brother (firefighter Michael Kiefer who died in the 9/11 tragedy), they described sibling grief this way: “It’s like you’re in a foreign country now and you were just dropped there. You have to learn to adapt to this new world and this new way of life and it’s not easy.”
Sibling loss changes us in countless ways, There are numerous stories of siblings, including myself, who have changed their career trajectories as a result of their sibling’s death. After my brother’s death, I changed my major to psychology, wrote my doctoral dissertation on the sudden death of a sibling and have devoted my career to helping others find hope after loss. Another person whose career was greatly influenced by sibling loss is social worker Andrew Tartler, whose sister died of a brain tumor when he was just 5 years old. As a result of her death, Andrew became an administrator of the Children’s Inn, a National Institutes of Health residence for families with a child who has cancer. He also founded Camp Fantastic, a summer camp for well siblings who have a brother or sister with cancer.
Meanwhile, Dr. Robert Gallo, who was just 13 when his 6-year-old sister Judy was diagnosed with leukemia, became the chief of the laboratory of tumor cell biology at the National Institutes of Health. One of his most significant discoveries to date has been isolating a retrovirus that causes leukemia, the very disease that killed his sister.
As difficult as sibling loss is, I am here today to tell you, that I did survive and eventually thrive. I have interviewed and worked with thousands of bereaved siblings who have gone on to thrive as well– and you can, too. Here are some tips and tools you can use to find hope again:
A sibling death often leaves surviving siblings feeling disempowered and victimized. Participation in memorial events, family gatherings and other activities meaningfully associated with the deceased sibling can be opportunities to focus, express emotions and feel empowered. Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn found during interviews for her book, that as siblings move toward an active style of coping with grief, they begin to heal. For example, Dr. Stephen Chanock, a pediatric oncologist at the National Institute of Health, devotes his life to trying to find a cure for cancer. Ironically (or not) Dr. Chanock has an office just 500 feet away from the intensive care unit where his brother died. Other examples of active coping may include seizing opportunities to talk about your deceased sibling. What are other examples of active coping? You may choose to volunteer in honor of deceased sibling, make a memorial toast during a holiday party, or plant a memory garden.
Finding any creative way to actively cope by honoring and memorializing your sibling can help you heal. After her sister Linda died of a rare form of childhood cancer, Pleasant Gill White founded a nonprofit organization, The Sibling Connection, whose mission is to provide resources for bereaved siblings. As Gill White points out, “They used to tell us that you had to let go of the person who died and now we understand that it’s all about going on with your life, remembering and staying connected to the person. If you don’t, you’re going to be blocking a part of your life and that can rob you of needed energy.”
Explore Internet Sites
The internet can be a valuable resource and virtual online community 24/7 for individuals dealing with sibling loss. In on-line virtual communities, grieving siblings’ can come together as a community and grieve online anytime, so they feel less alone. Social networking sites such as The Compassionate Friends Sounds of the Siblings, Facebook page, offers a place where bereaved siblings’ can express condolences, find grief support and get advice from others. Facebook also hosts thousands of memorial pages, where friends and family can post pictures, videos, and memories about those who have died, and provides a place where bereaved siblings can gain support from others.
I co-founded The Open to Hope Foundation, www.opentohope.com to help support people after loss. Today, Open to Hope is one of the most visited grief support sites on the internet. Open to Hope provides thousands of articles, hundreds of radio shows, cable T.V. shows, webinars, and youtube videos devoted to finding hope after loss. Much of the content on Open to Hope is specific to sibling loss. Chantal, wrote to Open to Hope saying: “I lost my sister six months ago today. I’m 25 and none of my friends know what I’m going through because their siblings are still alive. But it’s a relief to know others are out there who have survived and understand my pain.”
Attend Support Groups
Bereaved siblings often benefit from talking with others who have experienced a similar loss. This can help them feel less alone in their grief, and show them how others have coped. Currently in the United States, there are more than 300 grief centers and over 150 peer support programs. The largest peer support program for bereaved families is The Compassionate Friends, www.compassionatefriends.org with over 700 chapters Internationally. This organization offers ongoing programs and peer support groups that can be an opportunity to connect and receive support from other bereaved siblings.
Foster Expressions of Continuing Bonds
When a sibling dies, we lose the relationship we once had, but we don’t sever our connections with our siblings. We continue those bonds in new and different ways. Bereaved siblings often report praying to their deceased brother or sister or having imaginary conversations with them. They continue to think about their sibling, particularly during anniversary dates, such as graduations, weddings, birthdays, holidays and other milestones. These events can be used as a way to honor the life of their sibling.
In fact, research has shown that maintaining a connection with our deceased loved ones is not only adaptive, it is an integral part of healthy adjustment (Packman et al., 2006). Sarah, 21, whose brother Bruce died last year after a long battle with cancer, had his favorite NY Jets sweatshirt made into a teddy bear that she sleeps with at night. Others carry their brother or sister’s picture with them, wear their clothes, or listen to music that reminds them of their sibling.
Devita-Raeburn found that as bereaved siblings grow older, their wish to stay connected with their deceased sibling grows even stronger. For example, Meredith’s brother Jon loved running marathons. After he died of neuroblastoma cancer, she began running marathons and donating the money she raises to cancer research. Running has given Meredith a way to keep Jon with her as she moves into the terrain of her own future, one that she looks to more willingly now. She has invented a new relationship with her brother, one that acknowledges that he is both gone from her life and present too. Running has helped Meredith to redefine life after loss.
In Conclusion: Positive Growth
Although the death of a sibling is a difficult life event, research has shown that bereaved siblings also experience positive growth. In one study, siblings’ from 40 families who had lost a brother or sister to cancer were interviewed. These bereaved siblings’ reported increased maturity, greater compassion, and more motivation as a result of the sibling death compared to normative samples (Foster, et al., 2012). Forward & Garlie (2003) discovered that positive changes reported by bereaved adolescents included (a) less risk taking, (b) more displays of affection, (c) a deeper appreciation of life, (d) more maturity, (e) a greater life purpose. Bereaved adult siblings also had greater empathy and were more likely to support others who had experienced a death (Davies, 1991).
Bereaved siblings may not always look like they’re grieving, but the wounds within them run deep. Nevertheless, many bereaved siblings eventually learn how to find a new normal and create a new relationship with their deceased siblings. They don’t forget, move on and have closure, but rather they honor, remember, and incorporate deceased siblings into their lives in new ways and continue bonds.
With time and support, you will go on to transform your life and create a new normal. I have found meaning, hope, and joy again, and met many wonderful and caring people through organizations such as The Compassionate Friends (www.compassionatefriends.org), the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Foundation (www.ekrfoundation.org) and the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (www.taps.org). Today I keep my brother’s memory alive through the stories I share with others. Our siblings continue to live forever in our hearts. They are our guiding lights and will always play an important role in our lives. If you’ve lost hope, please lean on mine, until you find your own.
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