Three months after my brother died, I bumped into a friend I hadn’t seen in about six weeks. When she asked how I was doing, I naturally assumed she was concerned about how I was handling the grief. (This particular friend sent me a lovely condolence letter a few days after my brother’s death.) When I told her that I was “doing as well as could be expected, considering the circumstances,” she looked confused. “What ‘circumstances’?” she asked. Feeling somewhat confused myself, I reminded her that my brother died just three months ago. She squeezed my arm and said, “Don’t you think it’s time to let go of all that stuff and get on with your life?” Having my grief reduced to a pile of “stuff” by someone I thought was a friend was almost more than I could bear; sadly, most grieving people are able to relate similar stories of insensitivity. This lack of compassion for the bereaved is especially commonplace in America, where our attitudes about death, dying, and grief mirror our hurry-up, drive-through-window culture.
There seems to be a preconceived timetable of grief in this country that tolerates mourning for about six weeks. After that, the message is clear: It’s time to move on. But my friend’s thoughtless comment actually points to a more complex reality: Not only are we allotted a specific time period for grieving, but there also seems to be an unwritten pecking order of mourners. For example, the death of children, parents, or spouses, are generally considered to be “major losses” (and they surely are!) while the deaths of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and pets are often relegated to the minor leagues by non-grievers. I want to believe that this unspoken ranking system is unconscious, but experience has taught me otherwise. The truth is, all losses are relative to the mourner. For example, for one person the loss of a treasured grandparent may be more traumatic than the loss of a parent. The depth of our grief is directly proportional to the relationship and love we had for the deceased.
In the case of adult sibling grief, a split occurs. The death of a brother or sister in childhood brings condolence, support groups, and books in great abundance. The death of a brother or sister in adulthood, however, is a different story entirely. When an adult sibling dies, surviving siblings are usually cast into the role of caregiver rather than legitimate mourner. Condolences are reserved for the parents, spouse, and surviving children (if there are any), while surviving siblings are instead often assigned tasks. In lieu of sympathies, others admonish us to take care of our parents or to look after our deceased sibling’s spouse or children. And, when a condolence is given, it’s usually in the form of an inquiry about so-called “legitimate grievers”: “Your brother/sister died? How awful! How are your parents?” Few condolers seem to recognize the fact that we’ve experienced a profound loss, too.
The sibling relationship is more complex than nearly any other, a mixture of affection and ambivalence, camaraderie and competition. Aside from our parents, there is no one else on earth who knows us better, because like our parents, our brothers and sisters have been beside us from the very beginning. Unlike our parents, however, our siblings are people we assume will be part of our lives for the rest of our lives. In terms of the span of time, the intimacy, and the shared experience of childhood, no other relationship rivals the connection we have with our adult brothers or sisters. From schoolyard bullies to teenage broken hearts, from careers to marriage to dreams unfulfilled, our siblings have been there through it all—life partners in our journey through time. They are the keepers of secrets, perennial rivals for our parents’ affections, and a secure and familiar constant in an often precarious and uncertain world. Why, then, are surviving siblings often passed over and even ignored in the grief process, not only by condolers, but also by some (but certainly not all) of the so-called grief professionals?
As I began to speak more openly about this topic, I found that there were countless cases of unresolved grief among other surviving siblings. As one bereaved sibling put it, “How could I go into mourning when I had my brother’s wife and children to take care of, not to mention my parents? I can’t recall anyone ever asking me how I felt during that time.” I soon reached the conclusion that adult sibling bereavement is what psychologists call a disenfranchised loss, which, in simple terms, means that society fails to classify our mourning as a legitimate loss.
Since the publication of my book “Surviving the Death of a Sibling: Living Through Grief When an Adult Brother or Sister Dies,” I have been honored to speak with thousands of bereaved brothers and sisters who have helped me to both understand and articulate this often-neglected type of grief. In many ways, I feel as if I have been drafted into a club no one would ever voluntarily join. My fellow club members—my brothers and sisters in grief—travel beside me down a path riddled with potholes and pitfalls. Some navigate the path better than others, for their path is well worn. And there are those who embark more tentatively, afraid and uncertain where their journey may take them. I have observed an odd solace and comfort in the company of the “liked bereaved,” because we understand each other, often without saying a word. Surviving siblings continue to encourage my efforts to draw attention to this unique type of loss, and they have taught me to keep moving forward, even when I am weary from the effort. Indeed, in the midst of their own sorrow, they often take the time to send me a note to share their stories with me or to just say thanks. But more than anything, my kindred siblings have taught me that we, when we reach out to others, not only keep the memories of our precious siblings alive, but we also heal a little, too.