Sibling Grief Is ...

At the age of sixteen, Lisa Christy survived a tragic car accident that took the lives of her brother and his girlfriend. After years of struggling with grief in unhealthy ways, she finally began to mourn in a positive way. The Coping Centre in Cambridge, Ontario was a safe and supportive place she could go to begin this journey. Now, many years later, Lisa volunteers as a grief facilitator at the centre with the desire to offer hope and support to many other young people who have experienced loss through death in their life. She shares what her experience has taught her.

Grief is complicated.

It is excruciating. It is helplessness. It is wilderness. In one moment I am slashing my way through a jungle with a machete in hand ready to battle. The next, crawling under the weight of a rock, unsure if I will ever walk again.

Grief is paradoxical.

We crave for the pain and crushing of our hearts to stop yet when it eases a little we cry all the more as our loved one’s smell, presence and closeness fades. If we start to raise our head and even smile awhile, guilt may attempt to pressure it down as if we should not ever experience joy again.

Grief is lonely.

No other relationship can replace the one lost. No one else knew me the same way or loved me the same way; my older brother who knew me from birth: I played silly games with, celebrated every birthday and Christmas with, shared discipline, taught me to drive, tattled on and idolized. Or in someone else’s case: a younger sibling perhaps you helped shape, held baby toys in front of their face, clapped when they first walked and praised other milestones as they grew. Maybe you were the one idolized.

I once believed I had to ‘redefine’ my life without that brother/sister relationship. I tried to figure out how to just be me and not a little sister in order to carry on. I thought I needed to re-identify myself. I have learned though, that I am and will always be a little sister. And I have learned that I like it that way. My brother is a part of who I am to the core of my being and I will never get away from that. He was an integral part of my early childhood development; years that are known to significantly shape a person for a lifetime. As I go through adulthood I feel that he is continuing to influence and walk along side of me. I can find comfort in that. I remind myself “I am not an only child”.

Grief is ebb and flow.

One day I am thankful for the 16 years I had with my brother, the next I may be sad that he missed my wedding. One day I laugh at the memories we had, the next, I can only think of the ones we never had. One day I am patient that I will see him again, the next, I feel I cannot wait any longer. One day, I am settled with the fact that his purpose was to only live 18 years, the next, I just want more. The days fly by into years yet the ebb and flow of grief continues, looking different at each wave; waves of strength, waves of weakness.

Can we ever have wellness amongst grief? Wellness means living with purpose and enjoyment. It is a deliberate choice to be personally responsible to improve and maintain your mental, physical, spiritual and emotional health (Hales and Lauzon, An Invitation to Health). When we face the wilderness of grief it seems impossible that we will ever find wellness again. However, much like old wooden furniture battered by enduring life and hardship, we too can be restored in time. We have been stripped down by our grief and may look differently now but with proper care we may be beautiful and functional again. Some deep scars may remain and we will need maintenance as life and grief attempts to batter us again. Perhaps now though, through growth and support we have an ‘extra coat of varnish’ so the nicks and scratches won’t reach the surface quite as quickly.

Grief is unique. It is as unique as the relationship we lost. Not one person has the same story or the same response to losing a significant person in their life. Families and friends can all feel the pain of loss but will independently move and process in their own way; a way that is neither right nor wrong, just theirs. The important thing is that we own our grief. It is of course a ‘package’ that we never wanted or asked for but nevertheless, it has been given to us. It is up to us to find it a place to exist in our hearts or ‘closet’. At first, I just held mine close, afraid to let it out of sight because that was what I needed. Now, it sits on the top shelf of my ‘heart closet’. I bring it down now and then to hold, open, and look through its contents. I laugh and I cry. When I feel I have sat with it awhile I replace it back to its spot where it will safely stay until I need to visit again.

Grief is about questions.

Why am I the one still here? Did they love him more than me? Why doesn’t anybody understand me? What is my purpose in all this? Is it my fault? How do I find meaning? Am I going crazy? When will the next bad thing happen? Some of these questions may not be answered until many, many years later. Yet others have no answer at all. Questions are a normal part of tragedy. Tragedy is never logical and we cannot attempt grief with logic.

Grief is work.

Losing someone important in our life, like a sibling is not something one ‘gets over’ after completing a textbook set of steps or stages. It is a process that we should allow to unfold with trust and patience. We can give ourselves permission to feel each emotion so that we may eventually find a sense of meaning and purpose that makes moving forward worth the enormous effort it requires. Dr. Alan Wolfelt (Grief Counsellor and Educator at the Centre for Loss, Colorado) once said “if all we can do initially is breathe in and breathe out, it is a start.” With patience, a determination to be healthy will come again when the ‘expert’, the one grieving, is ready.

Grief is mean.

Grief tempts me to feel that it is my job to ease my parent’s pain or somehow protect them. It attempts to burden me with my parent’s grief like a heavy knap-sack strapped on my back. Being the only child left, I feel at times like I am responsible for providing them with so much joy that the pain of their past fades away. As families we should strive to honour and respect each other’s personal loss and work together to participate in the process of mourning so that we can maintain support and interdependence. We need each other but a grief reality is this: We cannot take away another’s journey through pain.

Grief is lingering; from childhood into adulthood.

The process of mourning means bringing our grief public: from the inside out. We eventually must mourn our loss by allowing all the feelings that grief bombards at us to come out into the open. Being able to verbalize these thoughts publicly is a crucial part of mourning the death and gives us the ability to gain control over our grief. Even if we have done a significant amount of grief work some behaviour or coping mechanisms will still linger. For example, grief, especially in young people can greatly affect self-esteem. She or he may be left needing constant validation from others if they struggle with guilt or lack of purpose for their life. Grief expands to add new elements as we go through different life stages: “he would be twenty now,” “she would probably be married with children and I would be an aunt”, “what would he be doing as an occupation?” Each life stage brings about its continued losses as we carry on without that person.

Grief is turmoil in relationships.

To lessen misunderstandings wouldn’t it be easier if we just laid it out on the table and said “this is my stuff; have a look at it, ask me questions about it, see the work I have done on it, examine how it influences my life”? Using outside resources (support groups, counsellors, clergy) can help set up a new relationship for success. If your partner has never experienced loss in their life, how then could we expect him or her to understand the complicated role grief plays in our life? I believe an ideal way to start pre-marriage counselling, along with the usual ‘men are from mars, woman are from venus’ discussion, would be an in-depth look at the experienced losses in each person’s life before they embark on a life together. We cannot ignore such crucial parts of the past.

Grief is uncomfortable.

Some people don’t like to look it in the eye at all, others may stare straight at it but attempt to de-value it by saying such things as “It’s been a year, you should be fine” or “I completely understand what you’re going through”. A normal result of compassion is to want to relieve another’s suffering; to say things that will make them feel better. While these comments have good intentions, often those grieving just need someone to simply be with them. People just don’t know what to say when they don’t understand or when they haven’t had their eyes opened to the wilderness like those muddling our way through it. We can’t hold them responsible nor do we need the added weight of bitterness. We can however, surround ourselves with supportive groups that can relate. It took seven years for me to finally surrender to the support group that I desperately needed and it wasn’t too late. The people and the process there changed the way I looked at how I was handling the biggest challenge of my life. When I began to talk and heal I not only honoured my brother who lived, I honoured myself who lives.

Grief is photographic memory.

I have learned that I will replay the events of my brother’s death and the days before the accident over and over again. It is my mind’s way of letting these events and associated feelings process. I am thankful that my brain has remembered these events. Though they are painful, they are the cherished last times.

Grief is regrets.

“I wish I had told him I loved him more often”, “I wish I didn’t call him stupid yesterday”, “I wish we never went out that night”, “I wish I could have spoken at his funeral”. Situations influenced by shock, trauma, loss or grief always look clearer in hindsight. While we cannot change the past, we can do very meaningful and honourable things in the present. Regretting that I was not able to speak at his funeral could not be changed, but I could send out an email to friends and family many years later to voice how I felt about him. At first, I hesitated, thinking that many people had probably forgotten and would think it was strange. The reality was that everyone graciously reflected on his amazing life and sent beautiful responses back. We have also had a birthday party for him. We gathered old memory boxes, old tape recordings and videos, and all of those emails and we spent hours just being ‘with’ him. It is never too late to honour a life.

Grief is a new way of looking at life.

It opens the door of understanding to the preciousness of humanity. It has caused me to look closer at the everyday miracles that we so often take for granted. For it is getting through the jungle and out into the open that allows my soul to embrace the sunlight, love my family, friends, and those around me, invest time and effort into relationships, and not waste time on judgement and harshness. I want to live while I am still living with a deep sense of gratitude for my life and my memories.

Dedicated to my big brother Scott