When a Sibling Dies: The Loss of a Lifetime.

Via Lynn Shattuck
on Feb 19, 2014
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I write a lot about my brother Will’s death at 21. The day when the phone rang and I heard my mom say dark, foreign words like coroner, needle, heroin, autopsy, was the most impactful day of my life.

Putting my story out there means I sometimes get emails from readers who share that they have also lost a brother or sister. They talk about not knowing how to move on, the immensity of their grief, and the pain of watching their parents suffer. I instantly feel a connection with the person writing to me. It brings me back to the first months and years after my brother died, to the freshness of being without the person I was supposed to walk through a lifetime with.

“Be strong for your parents,” said blurs of people at Will’s memorial service. I nodded, but inside me, something twisted. I was 24, and in a daze as people streamed by, offering their awkward words and hugs. Be strong for your parents? I thought.

I am barely breathing. I am barely standing here. Strong is the last thing I feel.

In the early months after Will’s death at 21, I existed in a heavy fog. Nothing was as I knew it. I’d abandoned the little life I’d started in Maine and landed back in Alaska where my parents were, where my brother and I had grown up. My friends were living their lives– going to college, working, falling in and out of love and lust. Meanwhile, my life had stopped.

My childhood home was filled with the cloying scent of flowers just starting to die. It struck me then how terrible it was that we send flowers to the grieving—here you go, another reminder that nothing is permanent, that everything lovely will be lost.

My brother’s absence was heavy in the house. Though he had died in Seattle, his room was scattered with relics; the bed he had slept in for so many years, his big flannel shirts hanging like shadows in the closets, a handful of videos and books. Memories pinned to each corner.

Having always taken comfort in words, I scoured the internet for a book for someone like me—an adult whose (barely) adult brother had died. What I found was unimpressive: there were more books on losing a pet than losing a brother or sister. A few books existed for surviving children after a death in the family, but they were for small children. One memoir documented a sister’s grief following her brother’s death, but it was out of print.

What did it mean that there were no handbooks for me? That people asked me to be strong in the face of the biggest loss I’d ever experienced or imagined? At times I felt like I didn’t deserve to feel so shattered, especially in the shadow of my parents’ immense grief.

A few months later, I started attending a local grief group. I sat in a circle with a few widows and widowers, a woman whose daughter had died, and a woman whose mother had died. I was younger than any of them by at least thirty years, but I could relate to their shares: “I feel like I’m going crazy.” “I’m so damned angry right now.” “I can’t sleep at night.”

Though the losses were different, the feelings were the same.

So much was lost.

My parents, who would never be the same. Their pain was almost visible, as if a piece of their bodies had been cut out. I had lost myself, too, or at least the version of me that was unscathed by tragedy: an innocent version, who walked around in some parallel universe where her brother was still alive, ignorant to the incredible fortune of an intact family.
My brother, my past. Will’s big blue eyes. His loud laugh. He was the co-keeper of my childhood. The person who was supposed to walk with me longer than anyone else in this life. The only other person who knew what it was like to grow up with our particular parents, in our particular home.

The future. I cried for the nephews and nieces I would never have. I cried for my own faceless potential children who would never know my brother. How would I explain him? How would I ensure that his essence wasn’t lost, that he wasn’t just a figure in old photographs, a handful of stories? And I had to have children someday, right? I was the only person who could make my parents the grandparents they always assumed they’d be.

And all the hard times ahead when my brother wouldn’t be by my side. When my parents began to age. When my grandparents died. There would be no one to share these dark milestones.

I felt like our family had been a four-legged table, and one leg had suddenly been torn off. The remaining three of us wobbled and teetered. We felt the missing leg like an amputee, each morning waking to the horrible fact that Will was gone.

I wrote letters to my brother in those early months and years. At first, memories blazed through my head and I used the letters to capture them before they flitted away, gone forever: my brother walking towards me when he visited me in Maine, the sun splattering his cheeks, turning him golden. The time I taught him to make snow angels in the front yard of our childhood home, our bulkily clad limbs sliding in synchronicity under icy stars. My tiny hand on my mom’s belly, feeling my brother kick.

Later, I wrote the letters when I needed to cry—when the grief sat coiled and waiting in my chest, needing to be let out, released. I couldn’t find the words of other bereaved sisters or brothers to bring me comfort, so I created my own.

One day, when I was lost in my sadness, my mom said, “You won’t always feel like this. You’ll have a family of your own. You’ll move on.” This seemed impossible in my 24-year- old skin. I couldn’t imagine this potential future my mom spoke of, this invisible, imagined family.

But very, very slowly, I began putting my life back together. I finished college. I made the difficult decision to leave home again and move back to Maine. I met my husband and after several years, we had two children. Our son has my brother’s big blue eyes and his love of music. Our daughter possesses the lighthearted spirit my brother had at the same age. The sibling love between them is palpable; they spat and giggle, they dance and huddle. I pray that they remain close as they grow, and that they get a lifetime together.

It’s been fifteen years now since Will died. The sharp shock and grief I felt in those early months and years are gone. It took years for the pain to fade, for the words “your brother is dead” to stop pounding in my head—but they did. Will’s absence is mostly a dull hurt, the ghost of an old broken bone that aches when it rains. I feel it more on holidays and anniversaries, when someone close to me dies, or when I hear of a death similar to his.

I’ll always wish he was still here. I’ll always wonder what he would look like and what he’d be doing if he was still alive—at 36. At 50. At 75.

I move on and through. Perhaps I am even strong, like those well-meaning mourners at my brother’s memorial asked me to be. But my brother’s loss will remain with me for my whole life—just like he was supposed to.


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Editor: Jenna Penielle Lyons

Photo: Courtesy of the author


About Lynn Shattuck

Lynn Shattuck lives in Portland, Maine with her husband and two young children. She blogs about parenting, imperfection, spirit and truth telling—you can connect with her through her website or find her on Facebook.


18 Responses to “When a Sibling Dies: The Loss of a Lifetime.”

  1. Chuck says:

    Thanks for sharing.

    This http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/dougleyda

    is my younger brother Doug. We did everything together. In the space of a year we lost him and Dad to cancer. They were diagnosed the same weekend. There's no one to take the white flag, no terms of surrender so you keep rolling on I guess.

    I saw video of his wedding the other day. It's amazing really how some days it seems like yesterday and others days it seems like they've been gone so long. I realize how precious moments are now. I don't want to waste them. I made my living as a musician when I was younger. I'm going to try that again.

    I'd trade any "realization" I've made since Doug's passing for a chance to have another Guinness with him but that bargain isn't offered so you try to make the best of it that you can.

    Anyhow thanks for writing and my best to you 🙂

  2. lynnola says:

    Hi Chuck, thanks so much for writing. I'm so sorry for the loss of your brother Doug. I know what you mean about the mysterious quality of time– sometimes it feeling like it's been forever, and other times feeling like it just happened.

    My best to you as your pursue music again. That sounds like a great tribute to your brother.

    Take good care.

  3. sabine says:

    Oh Lynn, I feel so sad reading this. I feel so bad for you, but no long distance hugs will make this better, I know (but I'm sending one anyway).
    My loss is of a different sort. My older sister, who I have always lagged and tagged behind in every life instance (by 5 years and longer periods of times it seems) has decided to cut all ties with me entirely. I've lost my sister and I don't even know what I did or said to do so. She's lost to me and I feel guilty and sad with no explanation as to why. She won't answer any direct questions as to why – no phone calls – no e-mails, no texts. I know, you probably think I'm a "toxic" person and I deserve it, but I don't think so. I've tried to be kind, loving, understanding, yogic, philosophic, forgiving, accepting….nothing is doing it.
    So, I've had to release her to preserve my own life. So I can breathe in this ocean of pain.
    Please know that you're not alone in your pain and although everyone's pain of loss is different, it's all the same.

  4. Jenn Douglas says:

    Thank you so much for this piece, Lynn!

    My older brother and I lost our mom suddenly when I was 17. My father was never in the picture so it was just him & I for awhile trying to mend after such a huge loss. We were all very close.

    Just a few years later I lost my brother suddenly to the same disease. Then it was just me.

    Like I said, we three were very close and I was a mama's girl. I never knew such visceral pain like that until I was told my mother was dead. However loosing my brother was like loosing a part of myself, loosing a part of my heart. It has been the most painful grief I have ever experienced. He passed 14 years ago and it has gotten a lot easier but I still feel the void of his physical company in this world.

    I felt like you put into words my exact feelings. He was truly the co-keeper of my heart.
    "My brother, my past. Will’s big blue eyes. His loud laugh. He was the co-keeper of my childhood. The person who was supposed to walk with me longer than anyone else in this life. The only other person who knew what it was like to grow up with our particular parents, in our particular home."

    Now I an a nurse and see death daily. I walk with some tools in my pocket that only life experience can give you. I would like to think that surviving my heart being broken open so much has not only create space for a deeper love but also come to help others facing their own passing as well as the ones left behind. These are daily gifts I hold dear that only a deep love and loss could have bestowed in me.

    Thank you for this piece and thank you for sharing your strength. Will was so lucky to have your love and companionship for the time he was here.

    Many blessings to you,
    Jenn Douglas

  5. Ang * ) says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I have often felt the same way–all alone with the loss of my sister. http://bageerah.wordpress.com/2010/04/12/pictures

  6. lynnola says:

    Sabine, I'm sorry for your estrangement with your sister. That must be so painful. There are many ways to lose people, it's true, and the hurt is equally powerful. My best to you.

  7. lynnola says:

    Dear Jenn,

    Thank you so much for your heartfelt words. I am so, so sorry for the huge losses of your mom and your brother.

    I love what you wrote about " I walk with some tools in my pocket that only life experience can give you." This is the blessing that comes from loss. The connection to human suffering, the kinship that it brings. I'm sure your patients are lucky to have your presence.

    Thank you again, Jenn~ I am so touched by your words.

  8. lynnola says:

    Ang, so sorry for your loss. Thanks for reading. My best to you.

  9. Musings by Jacqueline says:

    Thanks for sharing. I nursed my sister through Leukemia for 10 months thinking no God would make anyone go through this without surviving. In the end I was wrong. My sister died at 53 – 6 years my elder. A month later my mom got cancer. A few months after that my 56 year old brother died. And shortly after that, my mom died. It's just me – the baby of the family and my brother the oldest left. It's so difficult. I'm finally able to see some light. The one thing that never came back after the darkness is my sense of time. I often wrote the year as 2010. And I can't recall if events – any events – happened 2 months ago or a year ago. It's so weird.
    As much as I want healing, I like the dull pain. It helps me feel connected.


  10. lynnola says:

    Oh Jacqueline. I'm so sorry for all that loss. It seems far too much for anyone to bear. I can totally relate to the morphed sense of time. I experience that too. Peace to you, and thank you for writing.

  11. Shani Ferguson says:

    Thank you so much for this. Your writing really struck a chord with me, as it is so similar to what I experienced when I lost my brother (I was 21, he was 20). It’s been over 20 years now, and I still stumble when people ask if I’m an only child. Because I’m not, not really, even though I am the only one left. And to have lost the one person who held shared custody of my childhood is very lonely, indeed.

    His death made my parents want to hold me closer, but that somehow compounded my grief, because there was so clearly someone missing from our family group when the three of us were together. My brother’s absence was as palpable as a presence.

    I have two sons of my own now, and I am so sorry they don’t have their uncle around. I’m sorry for us all.

  12. lynnola says:

    Thanks, Shani. I'm sorry for your loss, too. I can relate to everything you wrote. I loathe that question, "Do you have brothers or sisters?" It's an innocent question, but it always stabs me. <3 to you.

  13. Lynn says:

    Lynn, thank you for writing these pieces. I too am a Lynn and I too have lost my brother at an early age to heroin. Unfortunately, I am not alone, but I also take comfort in being able to relate to someone. I have break downs to this day, even though it's been 12 years. I really try to do it behind closed doors, so no one sees it, but it makes me feel even more alone with this heavy heart at times. Thanks again.

  14. Lynn says:

    Dear Lynn, thank you for your comment. I take comfort in knowing how many of us there are with this loss, and yet of course it is sad, too. I too have the occasional times when I am devastated all over again, and I know what you mean about the loneliness of it. My best to you.

  15. Sarah says:

    Lynn – thank you for writing about this painful subject. I lost my older sister Maureen to suicide 15 years ago. Like you my heart breaks a little every day. I'm sure like me you have days where you are genuinely happy and free. Others where heartbreak surfaces easily. On Saturday I did a peace walk with a community of Buddhist monks and nuns. A tiny Buddhist nun took my hand and we walked together. She held firm – she must have felt me slipping away – I was missing my sister. I was overcome with so much emotion. Sadness. Joy. We are a community. We are not alone. I've got your hand – you won't slip away. Xoxox Sarah

  16. Dan says:

    Lynn, I am sorry for your loss, what you wrote was wonderful though I don’t doubt the topic is still painful for you even after so many years. I too have lost my brother, he was murdered in 2006, in his own home, after serving a tour in Kuwait and having bullets fly past him all the time, my family and I always thought if he was going to die young, it would be in service to our country, not by some coward with a gun while he was on leave.

    Even after all this time I still remember the call I got at around 2 in the morning while I was getting ready to start a class in college telling me my brother was dead, I thought I was being pranked, I didn’t know how to react at first, but once the reality set in I was a mess for a long time, I started to struggle in college both academically and socially, and my relationship with my family has been sorely taxed.

    Growing up my brother and I were inseparable. Due to not having a safe or healthy family unit (mostly due to an abusive step father), he took up the role of being more than just my brother, but also my best friend, a role model, a protector, and the only person I could turn to when all else seemed lost. When he was killed, I felt like my entire world had collapsed. It took a lot of time to be able to adjust to the reality of everything, and in time some things did get easier as I was forced to become stronger in order to move on and deal with the pain.

    Now after a several years of trying to adapt and deal with the loss, I have a family of my own, and all the time I see my brother in my son, in how he acts and how he treats things. It almost seems like my brother’s personality or soul or whatever term or thought might be used was passed onto my son. If anything the loss has made me more protective than I would have otherwise been, it also makes me appreciate ever moment I get with my wife and son because of the reality that we never know when we are going to lose someone close to us.

    The pain never truly goes away, as you said we learn to rebuild, but the hole in our lives never mends, family functions never seem the same. but we keep on going as it is all we can do.

    Any ways thank you for you time in writing this piece and again I am sorry for you loss, I know how hard it is and wish you all the best.

  17. Heather says:

    My brother was killed in a car accident in 1981, he was 17 and I was 12. When I read that you were told to 'be strong for your parents' I remembered the adults that said it to me. I felt as you did. Back then I don't think they had support groups for kids. Today, I know they do. I don't know what pulled me through back then….what I do remember is the strength of the community surrounding my family. Today, I work with kids as a School Counselor, I have no doubt in my mind that I became a counselor to help kids who need support. I think about my brother often and still miss him. Thank you

  18. My sibling is in heaven. I've been fighting for justice for him all of my adult life… https://www.facebook.com/notes/charles-jehu-steck