Read an Excerpt
Why A Book About Adult Sibling Grief?
The year my brother died, I forgot how to breathe.
Often it would catch me unaware, that terrible feeling that was suffocating—at work, at home, sometimes at night, as I tried to sleep. As if I had drawn a breath but simply forgotten how to exhale. “I think there’s something wrong with me,” I confided one afternoon to a colleague who had also lost a sibling. “Sometimes, my chest aches,” I told her. “Like I’m holding my breath for too long. I feel light-headed and weak and I’m so tired. My eyes water and I have trouble thinking clearly and talking.” She was silent for a moment and then said quietly, “You’re okay; it’s just the grief.” But I wasn’t okay.
The year my brother died, I forgot how to breathe, and no one seemed to notice. Oh, they might have noticed a bit at first, but after a few weeks I could be walking around with my face turning blue and no one would say a word. After all, it was only my brother; I should get over it.
My brother. In the stillness of the early mornings when I have the house all to myself, I can recall his face and the sound of his voice so clearly that I’m often surprised, when I wake from my reverie, by his palpable absence. Even after five years, the shock of it all comes in bright, hot flashes and I blink back tears. I still hug my sides and rock back on my heels every now and then and ask, “Why?” Never expecting an answer. But most of all, I just miss him.
I miss our long conversations about religion and philosophy and how both can make people either enlightened or judgmental. I miss our deep belly laughs about our older sister Linda, and how as a skinny teenage she used to wear six slips under her skirt to make her butt look bigger. I miss making jokes about our mother’s latest hair color, with both of us then feeling the same slightly guilty surge of love for her that only siblings can share. I miss my brother’s honesty, and the way he could tell me that I was wrong without ever hurting my feelings simply because he knew me so well. I miss that familiar feeling that I have had all of my life: the comfort of simply knowing that he was in the world.
Memories of the early days and months following my brother’s death are a mixture of people, feelings, and indistinct events jumbled together in the general swirl of grief. There is often a surreal feeling attached to those early memories, as if they had happened to someone else. There are also painfully vivid and detailed memories that jump out of the haze, like little vignettes, in which I appear as a person merely playing myself in some bizarre, terrible drama. I look back on my grieving self with great sadness, wishing that I could step back in time and offer her comfort. But that grieving me did not feel entitled to her grief and almost certainly would have rejected any overture. Indeed, within days of my brother’s death I learned an important lesson. I learned that no matter how paralyzed with grief an sorrow I might have felt, society does not recognize the death of an adult brother or sister as a major loss. Comprehending this, I retreated into the shadows, a place where most other surviving brothers and sisters go to mourn, and waited for the sadness to pass.
My initial response to my brother’s death was to search for information that would help me make sense of it all. I was certain that with the explosion of the Internet and online resources like Amazon.com, I’d be able to find books specifically addressing my situation. I was wrong. I searched the Internet for hours at a time, hoping to find something—be it a book or an article—that might help me to better understand and cope with my grief. And I spent long afternoons prowling the stacks at our local library and the university library near my home. But those searches were always in vain.
For while I located countless books, articles, and self-help tapes intended to help the bereaved in coping with the death of a parent, a spouse, or a child (and, much to my surprise, even uncovered a wealth of information dealing with the subject of pet loss), I was amazed to find that there was virtually nothing written on the subject of adult sibling grief. How could this be? More than 2.5 million deaths occur in the United States each year, meaning that roughly 4.2 million adult siblings experience the death of a brother or a sister. Why, then, was there nothing written by the so-called grief experts to help all of those surviving siblings cope with such a difficult loss? Surely there must be others, I reasoned, who felt as I did—that the death of a brother or a sister was a major, life-changing event.
In view of this dearth of material, I felt a special need to connect with other surviving siblings who might understand my grief. I hoped that they could offer me some insight, some comfort, some practical advice that might help me through those first difficult weeks and months. How had they survived this? There must be some special formula, some secret that I didn’t know about. And so I investigated grief support groups; various special lectures for the newly bereaved offered by churches, funeral homes, and therapists; and online forums dealing with grief and loss. But none of these specifically addressed the subject of adult sibling grief. I recall one particularly painful phone call I made to a bereavement group I had read about in our local newspaper. “Is there anyone in the group who has lost a sibling?” I asked the elderly woman who took my phone call. “A sibling?” she asked. “No dear, this is an adult group.” I hung up the phone, strangely embarrassed and ashamed for acting so “childish.”
Indeed, the only information concerning sibling loss that I was able to unearth was geared almost exclusively toward young children. Not that those resources aren’t necessary and pertinent (losing a sibling at any age is a devastating even), but I recall asking myself, “Are we suddenly expected to stop caring for our siblings once we enter adulthood?” After all, the endless resources available to aid youngsters in dealing with the death of a sibling indicate the importance of the sibling relationship in shaping our lives. And why would this initial relationship lose any significance as it ripened into adulthood? Wouldn’t it render itself only more important (and certainly more complex) than it had been to start with?
The sad fact is this: When an adult loses a brother or a sister, society often fails to recognize the depth of such a loss. Witness what I call dismissive condolences, offered by well-intentioned but sorely misguided friends, acquaintances, family members, and coworkers: “Well, you lived in different states, so you probably weren’t very close.” Or “Thank goodness it wasn’t your husband or one of your children.” And “Your brother/sister died? How awful! How are your parents?” Intellectually, we may understand that people mean well; they’re attempting to be helpful and to offer comfort to us in our sorrow. Yet dismissive condolences have the opposite effect. They make our loss seem trivial, and they also make the surviving sibling feel as if his or her grief is somehow unwarranted.
I myself was the recipient of countless dismissive condolences from perfectly caring, well-intentioned folks, and while some acknowledgment was welcomed (at least they made an attempt to recognize my grief), I began to wonder if my grief response was perhaps inappropriate. Was I overreacting? After all, my brother and I did live in different states, I was thankful that my husband and children were alive, and my parents were completely unraveled by their loss. Maybe I wasn’t behaving as a grieving person should behave. But I had never lost anyone so close to me before. How long was I supposed to feel sad? Was my behavior abnormal? I had no idea.
I now realize that the reason I was so frustrated with my inability to “get over it” was due, in part, to my acceptance of the message sent to me by society and the grief experts. This message, conveyed by silence, apathy, or ignorance, was that my grief was somehow less important than others’. I now understand, however, that my feelings were normal, healthy reactions to the death of someone who had been part of my life since the day I was born. And I also know now that even though surviving adult siblings certainly share many of the grief reactions associated with other kinds of loss, there are some significant differences—differences rooted in the distinctive nature of a relationship, which, unlike any other relationship, begins in childhood and continues into old age.