The Sibling Experience – by Kelsey Herrmann, a Project Grace participant, for the Connections Newsletter from the Family Partners Program, an Initiative of the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Palliative Care Program

December 9, 2012

In my experience I have found that the loss of a sibling, especially at a young age, is one of the single most, if not the biggest, deciding factors in my personality and my approach to the world. I am not an expert and I certainly am not an authority on sibling loss. I can’t relate to every individual who has lost a sibling, just like I can’t relate to every person with brown hair or who was raised by a single parent or who had to suffer middle school with braces, but I do have something to say – and maybe it will help or maybe not, but either way you will hear me and I will get to tell you about how I miss my brother. I have found that the loss of a sibling is not about your age, gender, character, race, whatever; it is all about your NEW status in your family. I was one of two and now I am one. I was a team and now I am alone. I hate it. I am sure it is the same with whatever the “new” happens to be.

Like me, maybe now you’re the only one, or maybe now you’re the youngest; now you’re the oldest, now you’re the only girl, now you’re the only boy, now there are only two or three or four or whatever number is missing one. Maybe they were your twin or they were your favorite. Maybe they were your least favorite but you miss them anyway. Maybe it was sudden or maybe it was long and consuming. Whatever the new is, it is terrible. My biggest hang-up is not solely missing Pat, my brother, but that now I am the only one. I got left behind. We were a team, not neat or efficient but perfect. One could not be whole without the other. And now I am alone; incomplete, unsure, and uncomfortable.

I have to say for the record that becoming an only child is excruciating. Who knew that the playful banter between siblings would be the hardest thing to witness? Loving families are my demise: seeing the loving pride between siblings can cause such pain, all-consuming and unrelenting. And siblings are EVERYWHERE. People always talk about their siblings. Most families have more than one child, and so most people have a sibling of some sort. It is an easy way to connect instantly with another person in conversation; it is such a safe and easy topic, so it is one of the go-to ones. It kills me every time. I always freeze up. One word “brother” and I am reeling; even “sister” sends me down the rabbit hole and I never even had a sister. It is the bond, the sharing, the connection down to the DNA level that dictates your life even when you don’t realize it. I didn’t see it then, not really, but it is all I see now. It doesn’t matter now that sometimes I wanted to kill him, that sometimes, well most of the time, he was the most annoying person on the planet. I miss him; I wish he could annoy me again because he was a pro. TV, books, movies, random loud overheard conversations in restaurants, annoying kids running around, exasperated sighs from parents: it is all around you all the time and no one picks up on how much it hurts. My awareness is so keen to sibling relationships now and I have to remind myself that most people don’t think about it; they take it for granted. Not me. Not those of us who have lost a sibling.

I was lucky that I got to spend 20 years with my brother; I know many people didn’t get that long. There was just the two of us and we were only two years apart, so we were close, even though I was younger and he was annoying. We had an established rapport, especially when dealing with my parents. Aside from my only-child hang-ups, I spend a lot of my time worrying about my parents. They are broken worse than I, if that is even possible. My brother had cancer so his death was drawn out, and often I think how I just had to watch my sibling die, and now I am watching my parents die. They fight it and work with it, but the grief is always there, just like for me. Even though my parents are doing ok now, they will never be the same and I will always worry that I am not enough to keep them afloat. We have been our little incomplete family for four years now; some days it feels brand new and smothering and some days it feels okay, but it doesn’t go away. Sometimes it is fresh and sometimes it feels like I have been living with it forever, but it is always there. I know children worry about their parents; it is the natural order of things if you had a good relationship, or any relationship, really, but a grieving parent is a monster that I was not taught how to deal with. I am making it up as I go, but mostly I find it is a lot of listening and a lot accepting that you are the, or one of the, connections to the missing one. I get a lot of gifts that my brother would have liked even though zombies aren’t my things and I actually don’t like really dark beer. But whatever it was made my mom or dad or aunt or uncle think of him and so they bought it and gave it to me because I have become part of him or the conduit to him. I have taken on parts of his personality and tastes he had that I thought were awful but I now have a fondness for. I sometimes have to remind myself that five years ago I hated this, but today I love it, whatever it is. It’s weird, but it helps me cope and it is some way to convince myself that I am helping my parents. Worrying is dreadful but I know my parents worry about me in return – and that is just another sign that we are still alive and we still care. Sometimes feeling something, even something uncomfortable, is better than the numbness that comes with grieving, at least for me.

I am lucky that the differences in grief that each of my family members live with have not caused any major strains on us as a unit. My mom wears it loud and proud most of the time and for that I admire her but it can also be intensely painful and draining to see it in her eyes all the time. But I understand that this is what she needs and how she needs to be. My dad is quiet about it. He talks about Pat and laughs and cries along with us but he wrestles with it mostly in himself. I am a mix between the two though on the introspective side. I am quiet and don’t wear my emotions for the world to see but sometimes the grief is too big to hide in my heart. Sometimes my mom nags me about getting a therapist and sometimes she just listens; sometimes I feel like I have to downplay or hide my grief so I don’t further my parents’ pain or burden them with mine. I know not to talk with my dad about my grief or the extent of my pain; it is just too much for him to bear. We can talk about Pat, but we can’t talk about grief. It is a dance. We get frustrated with each other and impatient with ourselves yet we know that survival for us all as individuals and as a family depends on being able to bend and sway and orbit each other to offer support or distraction when needed.

I wish I had some wisdom to share or a witty or profound sentence to end with but I just am not that eloquent. I could say you are not alone and it gets easier and both are true to some extent but they aren’t that helpful. I haven’t personally met anyone who has lost their only sibling, but I have met other people who understand at least a piece of my loss. The hole is there, never getting smaller – but some days it doesn’t feel like it will swallow me. What it really comes down to is everyone grieves differently, just like everyone lives differently. For those of us who have lost a sibling, I think the bottom line is that our siblings were here, and we need to hold onto that. They were here and they lived – whether it was two minutes or 20 years. Our relationships with them helped make us who we are and will continue to shape us, just by having been in our lives for the short time that they were. And that is good. I live with that knowledge. They are special not because they are gone but because they were your sibling. You are special because you were theirs. You are different now because you miss them and you will always miss them because they were here. They lived – now you go live, too, not for them, but for you.

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