A sister’s story

words: Dr Bill Webster
woman releasing balloons

I was recently reminded once again of how the loss of a sibling can so often be minimised in our society.

Jackie, whose family I have known since she was a young child, asked if I could assist her with a research paper for a university course towards her master’s degree in counselling. But our meeting turned out to be a much more significant conversation about the loss of her younger sister, Heather.

I asked her permission to share our conversation as she told her story, and I offer some of her own insights (in italics) with just a few comments from my own perspective.

When I lost my sister, I lost my best friend. I lost my history. Heather was my family connection to that time in my life, because she shared everything with me. Siblings share things on a different level than with friends and other family members. Losing a sibling changes one’s identity and one’s attitude about life and family.

Heather was killed in a motorcycle accident while vacationing in Thailand. She was just 28 years of age, one year younger than her sister.

More often than not in the weeks and months that followed, I was asked, “How is your mum?” or “How is your dad?” It was as if I didn’t experience a great loss. Outsiders assigned me with the role of informant about my parents’ wellbeing. They just didn’t seem to understand that I was grieving too, and that the loss of my sister seemed like the worst thing that could have happened. They just didn’t seem to get the fact that I had also experienced a major loss the day my sister tragically died.

This is one of the reasons why adult sibling loss often falls into the category of ‘disenfranchised grief’. When adults lose a sibling, they often feel abandoned by society. The sympathy goes to their parents, but brothers and sisters are supposed to ‘get over it’ quickly so they can comfort the parents or replace the lost sibling.

I have lost my future with my sister and the family dynamics are forever changed. I’ll never forget my father saying to me, “You started at the top of the list,” meaning that the loss of Heather was as bad as it could get for me. He acknowledged my grief with that statement, and my mother acknowledged it in other ways. My parents were hurting so much that I couldn’t look to them for support. Also, I did not want to talk to them about my grief very much because it meant I would have to help them with theirs. I wanted to yell at them, “Get help somewhere else! I can’t do this now.” Of course I love them and want them to heal, but sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the responsibility of being the only living child with parents who continue to suffer. I try to help, but I am powerless to change the situation. Feelings of powerlessness are abundant and are accompanied by feelings of anger.

It would be three weeks before her sister’s body would be returned home.

The time between the death and the funeral gave us time to plan the funeral. I wanted a celebration of her life, but absolutely nothing preachy. Prayer was fine with me, as I tried to respect the needs of my grandparents who wanted the traditional religious ceremony. But I was so angry when the minister who conducted the ceremony preached at us. I didn’t need to hear about the grace of God right then. I was thinking, how could a graceful God take my sister from me?

Do people even hear words when they’re grieving? I remember the feelings of anger, but I don’t remember a word that was spoken by that minister. I remember who spoke at my sister’s funeral about her life and about the impact she had on theirs, but the words about God’s plan did nothing for me.

I wasn’t the only one who felt no sense of relief from the funeral service. My father also lacked closure. It was recommended by a counsellor that we have a second funeral service with a funeral facilitator, so Dad and I spent an afternoon with Colin, who asked many questions about Heather: who she was in our lives and how we were coping with her death. The second ceremony provided the closure I needed. Colin got it. He didn’t preach, he just told stories about Heather that validated our feelings.

Balloons were a memorable part of the visit to the cemetery following that ceremony. Each person who attended was given the opportunity to write a message to Heather on a slip of paper tied to a ribbon on a helium-filled balloon. When everyone had finished writing their message, we released the balloons into the sky all at once. Looking up into the sun-filled sky gave us a sense of hope, and writing our messages was a cathartic act of closure. We got to write what we didn’t get to say. Closure can be achieved at any time in many ways. The traditional methods do not work for everyone.

Jackie found that reading about death and grief helped her enormously.

I knew intuitively that lending intellectual meaning to an incomprehensible occurrence was just what I needed. Reading can be very difficult for people for some time after suffering a loss. However, reading about death actually sped up my process to reinvest in life. I didn’t feel alone in the grief process.

Yet in spite of this new-found understanding that bad things happen to good people, the anger persists. I had a dental appointment a few months after Heather died. The dental hygienist asked me how it felt to be an “only child now”. How insensitive! Only I can determine the level of connection

I feel to my sister. So, yes, I guess that anger continues. Mainly I am angered by expectations from people close to me about how I should grieve or move on.

Another real emotion as a result of losing Heather is fear. While I have been touched by death, I am not afraid of my own death. In fact, this is a significant change since losing Heather. Now, I fear the death of others I love, especially my husband. Therefore, I express my love for people more often. This was the first lesson I learned from losing my sister: let those you care about know you care. You don’t know when you will have those opportunities taken from you. Losing someone tragically in an accident often denies surviving family and friends the opportunity to say goodbye.

Because Heather’s accident took place while she was away on holiday, we all got to say “goodbye”. I took Heather to the airport. We shared our final dinner and bottle of wine together. If I knew that would have been our last meal together, I would have consented to getting the red wine, which was her preference. What an odd thing to regret – choosing white over red. The last thing I said to my sister, as we embraced, was, “I love you. Have a great trip.” For this, I feel that I have a sense of peace. Express your feelings of love at every appropriate opportunity.

When Heather died, I grieved most for what was lost to us both – our future together. I’m sad about the things that will be missed in the future, the things that don’t and won’t happen. I grieve for my sister’s loss of life and for my loss of my life with her.

Jackie used the word “connection” frequently in our conversation. Bereaved siblings experience and maintain a connection with their brother or sister in several ways: thinking about them, talking about them (usually easier when shared with other bereaved siblings), participating in activities once shared with them, taking up the deceased sibling’s interests and creating memorials.

Jackie accomplished this by collecting the greeting cards her sister had given her over the years and putting them in a memory box with some photos and other souvenirs of her life. She also arranged to donate an award in Heather’s memory to a charity that supports work for the preservation of the environment, which was very important to her.

I work at not feeling guilty for surviving my younger sister, and I have learned to reinvest in life with a greater appreciation for the love in my life from my family and my friends, for my good fortune, and for fun. While it has been a tremendous loss, Heather’s death taught me to live more fully. I grieve the loss of my sister in the physical sense but Heather lives on in my memories, my thoughts, my values, and our shared mannerisms. And she has permanent residence in my heart.

And why not? After all, the relationship between siblings is potentially the longest relationship of our lives.

Dr Bill Webster is the Director of the Centre for the Grief Journey, and can be reached at www.GriefJourney.co.uk, and on Twitter @drbillwebster