If you live to be over 60, loss is inevitable. I anticipated the loss of my parents, knowing the day was looming when they would pass on as part of the natural order of life.
What I didn’t prepare for was losing my sister, Linda. I suppose I should have since I am the youngest in the family, and she was 12 years older than me. But I found myself in uncharted territory, not only experiencing profound loss but being at a loss as to how to cope.
When my parents died, people acknowledged it was a big deal for me. They inquired about how I was adjusting, offering sympathy well past the date of the ordeal.
When I lost an adult sibling, I found myself swimming in a pool of grieving family members, relegated to the shallow end. Bystanders focused on those treading in deep water and life preservers were tossed in their direction like Frisbees.
I found myself sloshing around in my grief without even those cute arm floaties to save me from submersion.
These were the questions on everyone’s mind: “How is Linda’s husband doing? How are her children coping?” And of course these are important questions and should be asked. I felt selfish that another question I needed to hear was, “How are you doing?”
I looked for a book to give me guidance as I maneuvered through the maze of my emotions. I found comfort and validation in the book, Surviving the Death of a Sibling: Living Through Grief When an Adult Brother or Sister Dies, by T. J. Wray.
The last time I spent a holiday with my family of origin was Linda’s last Christmas. Now my siblings spend holidays with their own children and grandchildren and so do we. Even though this is a desirable and inevitable outcome, the fact remains that our original family unit has been shattered forever. My siblings and I make an effort to reunite as often as possible but it is not during the holidays.
I know that letting go of the past creates room for new traditions. But it is also a time to remember how things used to be, reflecting on the years when we were all together, marveling at the camaraderie and joy.
I also miss the conflicts and must find other ways to dig up a fresh crop of material for ongoing therapy sessions, not an easy task with a broken inner circle. I knew I could count on my loved ones to blurt out my shortcomings and past mistakes at the height of our holiday celebrations. And I was more than happy to reciprocate, in a loving way, of course.
Weddings, graduations, and family reunions continue to populate my calendar even though Linda is gone. She never wanted to miss anything and amidst the joy of these events is an absence: her laughter, her enthusiasm, her presence.
It would be awkward at the height of festivities to make this announcement, “Wouldn’t my dead sister have loved this gathering?” So, I keep it to myself, imagining her response to the party and hearing the echo of her voice joining in the fun.
Later, when the crowd has scattered, I look for an opportunity to quietly comment to my living sister or brother about how much I miss Linda and speculate about how much she would have enjoyed the event. And they can agree, feeling free to share a story about her or shed a tear.
My older grandson was born before Linda died but he was an infant and only met her through FaceTime. My younger grandson was born a year after she died. How can I convey who she was and how she fits into their family tree?
I have shown them photographs and told them stories about her and what she meant to me but I must make a deliberate effort to continue this practice. Years after I’m gone, I don’t want them to wonder who that woman was in the family portrait standing next to Grandma.
When you attend the funerals of your grandparents, and members of your parents’ age group you feel a false sense of insulation against mortality. But when one of “us kids” takes flight, there is no denying your own impermanence even when you are the youngest like me.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, and I don’t dwell on death and dying constantly. What I do appreciate is how precious life is and the gift of each day.
Even when I wake up with a stiff neck on a cold morning. Or when sleet freezes on my windshield as I drive to work, and I dodge oncoming drivers who haven’t noticed that roads are slippery. Even then.
Have you lost a sibling? How did you cope with this unique loss? How was it different from other losses? Let’s start a conversation.