The Specific Qualities of Sibling Grief—How it Morphs & Marks Us.

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“Mom, Violet’s looking at my yearbook again,” my son whines, walking into the room with a stormy look on his face.

“Mom, Max is being sooooo mean to me!” my daughter huffs a few minutes later, her face crumpling.

It’s been one of those mornings. I’ve lost count of how many times the words, “Please be kind,” has slipped through my lips, as my own voice evolves from soft and patient to a sharp, irritated tone. I even broke out my lame little jingle: Be kind/To one another/To your sister/To your brother/Says your mother.

“I’m about to send you both to your rooms,” I finally threaten. The bickering is persistent and buzzing, a swarm of mosquitoes I keep slapping away, but who keep returning.

Five minutes later, Violet emits a high-pitched cry from the den. My son Max hollers, “Violet!” and darts to her as if she’s trapped in a burning building, and he’s prepared to drag her to safety. He hugs onto her, smoothing her hair as she explains she stubbed her toe.

They argue incessantly. And they love each other fiercely. In other words, they’re typical siblings.

They are two souls who were shuttled to the same family, who share DNA, knit together by my husband and me.

The connection between them is intense and sacred. They drive each other batty, but the relationship they have with each other is theirs alone; and while they might not realize it yet, their bond is something they won’t experience with anyone else, ever.

It’s a connection that I study closely: through it, I see what I lost.

When I was 24, my younger brother Will, my only sibling, died from drugs and alcohol.

After two decades of bellowing, “I’m telling Mom,” at each other, Will and I had finally settled into the beginning of what I assumed would be our adult relationship. We still annoyed each other and were keen to each others’ faults, but we were also friends who shared the same taste in movies and music, who enjoyed the same dark and smutty humor. We spoke in shorthand that can only be spoken with someone who knew what it was like to grow up in our particular family, with our particular parents, godparents, and grandparents.

The person I’d shared my childhood with was gone. The person I’d assumed I’d have another 50 or 60 years with was yanked from the planet. My brother’s death was the worst thing that had ever happened to me, the moment that would ever bisect my life into before and after.

And yet, I often felt as if my loss was invisible.

In those raw, early days of grief, I searched for books about losing a sibling. But I found only a handful of children’s books that explored the topic; nothing for someone like me, a young adult grieving the death of a brother or sister. There were more books on losing a pet than a sibling.

And then there was the immensity of my parents’ loss.

The death of a child is widely acknowledged as the worst thing. To have to plan a funeral for the person you bathed and fed and cradled shatters the natural order. My parents’ loss was unfathomable, and would last a lifetime. A parent myself now, it’s the thing I wish against every night: Just let them outlive me, I whisper into the air around their sleep-slackened faces each night—my fiercest prayer.

My grief seemed to pool in the shadow of my parents’ loss. People urged me, “Be strong for your parents.” Some even asked me to pass their condolences on to my mom and dad, ignoring the fact that I’d lost someone, too.

Grieving siblings are sometimes referred to by mental health professionals as forgotten or invisible mourners, which complicates the loss further. There was the terrible pain of my brother’s absence, of our erased, entwined future. And then there was the sense—because of peoples’ concern for my parents, and because of the lack of resources available—that maybe I didn’t have a right to feel so broken. That losing a brother wasn’t really that bad.

But it was that bad. Part of me knew it then, as every cell in my body felt pained.

Now, watching my children, I feel even more aware of what I lost.

Every day, there are hugs and spats. There are tender, cuddly moments and there are times when they bicker over absurd things, like who gets to play with the broken microphone that’s been sitting on the shelf for three years, ignored and left behind, and now, suddenly, feverishly, coveted by both.

By sharing so much time and space together, by sharing genetics and, occasionally, toys, they are deeply woven into one another. They are twinned and twined.

I read once that our bodies absorb the minerals native to the earth of our hometowns. We soak them up from the water and soil of the geographies we inhabit. Even if we move far away, our bodies remember, our cells still saturated with home.

In the same way, our brothers and sisters mark us, morph us. They alter and shape who we were, who we are, and who we will be.

My brother, gone almost two decades now—almost as long as he was here—will always be with me, just as his absence continues, the loss softer but still palpable, coursing through my cells, invisible and essential as blood. I carry him with me the same way I carry the contour of the mountain peaks of Alaska, the shining water, the rich rain forest soil. Losing my brother changed me forever, but so did loving him.

Each week, I get messages from people who’ve lost a brother or sister. They tell me they feel crushed, adrift, unseen. That they don’t know how to be there for their parents, that they don’t know how to move forward in a life they thought they’d have with their sister or brother. That it’s been weeks or years since their sibling died. They tell me, sometimes, that they feel unseen, shadowed, in their grief.

I see you, I write back. I watch my children. I run my fingers along my wounds, along the places where my brother was and still remains. I see you.

~

Author: Lynn Shattuck
Images: Annie Spratt/Unsplash
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy Editor: Travis May
Social Editor: Callie Rushton

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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.

Elizabeth van den Berg Sep 5, 2018 2:04pm

Today is the one year anniversary of my brother's death. I think I stumbled upon your article for a reason. His loss is still so palpable and fresh and raw even now, a year later. I think Labor Day Weekend, for our family, will forever be marked as the three days we had with him before he was gone. I will never forget my phone ringing at noon at work on Sept. 5th and picking up to hear my father's anguished voice saying, "Lizzie, I have to tell you that your brother, Noah, passed away this morning." And my own unbelieving demands of, "Who? Who?" because what he said made no logical sense to me. I had just seen him the day before. Noah and I had a complicated relationship. Best friends (or leader and follower) in childhood. Two very differently principled people through our teens and young adulthood. It was the birth of my son in 2005 that finally acted as the glue to work on forging a grownup relationship. But, that relationship was not without its trials. He could never understand my desire to be a (relatively) straight-laced, rule following attorney. And, I could never understand his need, desire or lack of fear in experimenting with substances and numbing his own internal pain for which I could comprehend no apparent source or trauma. Our growing up years were more small "d" dysfunctional than "DYSFUNCTIONAL." It was this life-long endeavor to feel good that robbed us all of my brother. It was a result of years of choices he made which none of us who loved him would have made on his behalf. So today, as fresh and new and raw as this wound I carry still is, I'm hoping, still, that some good will come of my brother's sudden death. That my son, who just turned 13, and idolized my brother (and still idolizes my living brother), will appreciate that experimenting on one's body and one's mind is a grave undertaking. In today's society where opioids and fentanyl are almost as available as aspirin and where herbs and nutraceuticals are touted as the next best thing and then debunked weekly. My hope is that the tragic accidental overdose of my brother in the early morning hours of September 5, 2017, will prevent another parent and family somewhere of enduring a similar loss.

Megz Helga Jane Jul 29, 2018 7:46pm

I lost my baby brother at age 8 years old. I was told to go to school & not discuss it as though it never happened. I cannot describe the pain & lonliness I felt as a child. It was a most surreal period of my life.

Davy Corrigan Nov 14, 2017 9:57am

So, so resonates. From the seismic shearing of time when I lost my big brother I've always considered that there are two distinct versions of me; the happy go lucky, carefree and naive me before and the more withdrawn and tentative version that's carried all the grief, loss and anger of being robbed of our shared future in a heavy, invisible backpack ever since. The before and after. The backpack has got a little lighter over the years, a little easier to carry, but it's always there, waiting to jar me into remembering, into a 'what if' train of thought and that never distant sense of loss. Thank you for articulating how it feels. May you find the peace we seek.

Nicki Myers Oct 29, 2017 6:21pm

I'm a bereaved mum to a 12 year who should've turned 18 today. Reading your article gave me a glimpse of the experience of his older brothers. I'm so sorry for your loss and thankful that you wrote this piece so I understand their my surviving sons' loss a little better xxx

Beverly Baughman Cravath Oct 29, 2017 2:55am

Thank you for this. My oldest daughter passed away 11 years ago I have three other children and I know they're hurting, but I can hardly handle my own grief much less theirs. It makes me feel even more lost.

Amanda Holcomb Johnson Oct 28, 2017 4:15pm

So true. When my brother died suddenly at 47 I went into caretaker role making sure everyone was ok - his family, my mom, my sister and even his friends. Year 2 I found myself broken and lonely. Year 3 I finally got help for myself and am finding a new normal smiling about him as much as I weep for him. He is never far away. But it absolutely true that it is an invisible pain in some ways. I once told someone I couldn't imagine losing a child and that is devastating...yet parents have fewer years left on earth to feel that pain than siblings. Feels guilty even now to express that in words but it is true. I have decades left to grieve and miss him. :(

Mollie Gregory Oct 28, 2017 2:53am

Thank you for helping to acknowledge my grief when, at age 20, I lost my only brother, his wife, and their unborn child in a car wreck, forever changing me and my life. Watching my parents grieve and feeling inadequate to help them was difficult. But I wondered, as so many told me I had to be strong for my parents, who was going to be strong for me. They meant well. Then I felt selfish. I still miss my brother and picture what our lives would be like now, 46 years later.

Kristy Herndon Whaley Oct 27, 2017 10:28pm

Thank you for speaking for my daughter. She lost her 25 yr old brother, her only sibling just 6 weeks ago to a heroin overdose. As her Mother, she's in a different place than I'll ever be. I've had almost 43 years with my brother. Her role as an only child just seems so lonely

Faustina James Oct 27, 2017 7:08pm

Thankyou for sharing

Desiree Paige Booth-Mhoon Oct 27, 2017 5:33pm

It's been 6 yrs, Nov 24, that I lost my brother. Some days it feels like yesterday and others days I keep myself so busy that I make it through the day. When I use to break down infront of someone, they would ask me why... The invisible mourner is a great title for us.

Faith Dandois Oct 25, 2017 1:56am

Yes. I remember hordes of relatives came to offer their sympathies to my parents during and after my sister's funeral. I could hardly bear to watch my parents' suffering. I had no way to comfort them. I felt like a ghost wandering through the house....surreal, stunned, lost, unable to cry. We were nine and then we were eight....and the loss of her left a gaping hole that has never healed. And I wonder what we would be now if she were still here.

RB Suzan Oct 24, 2017 1:59am

Thank you for writing this. Its been 2 years since i lost my little sister. The pain never goes away.

Audrey Clark Natale Aug 9, 2017 4:39am

Thank you for this. 10 years this month

Kimberly Anne Aug 6, 2017 2:00am

Thank you for writing this. I lost my younger brother also and relate so much to what you've written. I wish there were more resources out there regarding sibling loss.

Kayla Cohen Aug 5, 2017 4:42am

Thank you for another insightful article. I relate to this deeply as I also lost my younger brother and only sibling suddenly, when he was 25 and I was 29. It has now been 4 years without him (4 years of "after"), his 29th birthday would have been tomorrow. My husband and I are expecting our first baby any day now which brings a bittersweetness - we are so excited to bring a baby into our lives but I feel so much sadness that my brother will never meet my children. I'm so sorry for your loss and truly appreciate all your articles.

JasonJessica Dagel Jul 3, 2017 9:30pm

Thank you for your writings on sibling grief. I lost my sister to cancer almost 20 years ago & feel grief most acutely in talking to my daughter about her & what she was like. It truly is the grief of the past, present, & future.

Lynn Shattuck Jul 1, 2017 12:04pm

I'm sorry, Andy. Hugs to you.

Andy Bowker Jul 1, 2017 12:47am

I lost my younger brother in November 2014. It's a strange one, and everyone who has been through this kind of thing has their way of dealing with it. Hugs x

Lynn Shattuck Jun 29, 2017 5:29pm

Yes, the before and after is so visceral. Hugs to you.

Lynn Shattuck Jun 29, 2017 5:29pm

So sorry for your loss, Sharnell. <3

Christine McElroy Jun 27, 2017 10:22pm

My only brother passed Dec 2014. It's is like a part of me is missing. I have two sisters. He was the oldest and I'm the youngest. People do NOT understand sibling grief. "Isn't she done grieving yet? They had issues - why is she so upset" I can imagine people saying. You don't understand until it happens to you. My life is now Before and After Mike Died.

Sharnell Shade Thiardt Jun 27, 2017 6:15pm

Thank you for these words , ive never been able to explain my feelings after i lost my sister and this explained ot perfectly , 9yrs with out her and when i look at my daughter i see remnants of her and it brings me comfort �

Lynn Shattuck Jun 27, 2017 2:03pm

<3

Lynn Shattuck Jun 27, 2017 2:03pm

Beth, I'm so sorry for your loss. Yes, watching family members grieve so intensely just magnifies the loss for everyone. So hard. <3

Lynn Shattuck Jun 27, 2017 2:02pm

I'm so sorry Cathy, for your loss. Hugs to you.