This letter is to you, and just you. You are grieving as part of a family group, yes – but you have your own unique grief as a sibling, and you need your own letter.
I cannot say that I “welcome” you into this club that no one wants to join. But I want you to know that you are not alone. There are many of us, bereaved siblings, too many. We can be hard to find, and our status is not often obvious. Especially when we’ve lost our siblings as adults, when we no longer live day-to-day with them, the community doesn’t notice the absence of our sibling the way they would the more stark absence of a family member who lived in our homes – a young sibling, a child, a spouse.
As we learn of the death of your sibling, some of us may come out of the woodwork and reveal that we have lost a sibling as well. The stories we tell range from similar to yours to utterly different, but we have something in common: We carry this loss with us through life. Some have carried it long, others only a short time; some carry it openly, some quietly; some have processed it somewhat, others have not dealt with it much, if at all; some keep it in a pocket like a worn stone to contemplate daily, others put it in a box in the back of a closet and rarely take it out.
Living with the loss of a sibling may bring unique experiences. For example, you may find that people ask more often about your parents than they do about you – or that they ask about your parents first. Some may assume that the loss of a sibling is less painful than the loss of a spouse or child, and might even tell you that. The first time this happened to me, I couldn’t even find words, so I stayed silent. Now I prefer to say, in response, that my pain is not less; rather, it is different…it is other. It cannot be identified as a point on a scale. It has no quantity or relative value. It is my pain.
You may set your own grief aside in favor of supporting those around you – your parents, other siblings if you have them, your sibling’s family if there is one, your sibling’s friends if you know them. You may hold it together around others who are falling apart. You might worry about causing family members, especially your parents, any more grief than they already have. People may even say things like this to you: “Be safe, stay healthy, stay out of trouble, your parents can’t take any more heartbreak.” You may find yourself working hard to avoid meeting some horrible end and making your parents’ lives even tougher than they are now. “I’m ok,” you may say to yourself as you keep pushing on and helping others. And you might truly feel ok – but that doesn’t mean that you have less pain to process, less work to do. Grief will wait. Know this if you find you are prioritizing support for others’ grief over your own, and consider when you might make that same space, and time, for your own grief.
As for your own friends, they may react in different ways. Some may show up for you consistently (and it may surprise you who those friends are, sometimes they are not the ones you expected to show up). Others may support you enormously at first but then fade away. Still others may seem to disappear from the beginning. With all good intent, friends may say, “Let me know what you need.” However, you may not often know what you need, and for this reason, you may struggle to reach out for help. It’s hard to ask for support when you cannot think of anything that would make you feel better.
What can you do to manage this new and unwanted path? Knowledge will give you strength to choose each step; communication will give you power to keep moving; self-care will help you cope.
Knowledge. Know that whatever you are feeling, it is real, and it is ok. Know that your pain is not better or worse than anyone else’s. Know that your grief will not follow an established pattern, and may come and go in unexpected ways. Know that there is no “right way” to grieve the loss of your sibling, and that it’s never too late to grieve.
Communication. Communicate with your friends about what you need, if you can. If you need to keep talking about your sibling way past what they think is reasonable, tell them. If you need to be sad and stay home when they think you should get out and have fun, tell them. Communicate with your parents about how you are feeling. Chances are they want to help you even as they are challenged by their own grief. If parents and surviving children can express emotions and needs to one another, they have an opportunity to share the burden of grief rather than shouldering it alone.
Self-care. Take care of yourself as best you can. Retreat when you need to. Add fun into your life when it feels right. Find friends, family members, therapists, counselors to talk to when you need to get things out. Try to get the sleep, food, and exercise you need to stay well (and don’t beat yourself up when you cannot).
Finally, consider how you might like to keep your sibling present in your life. That discussion could be a whole different letter, actually. For now, I’ll just leave it there for you to think about; to be honest, I’m still thinking it over myself. Because my sibling is not with me in the way that I wanted and expected through my life, I'm working on finding other ways to keep him close by.
Bereaved sibling, you are doing your best every day. I commend you. I stand with you.