Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Sibling Grief: A New Book

I’ve been trying to understand the unfathomable depth of blood ties that rose up in me and my family members when Jim and Dan died. In looking closer at the sibling relationship, I realized that siblings, who have the same mother and father, are closer biologically than any other relationship. The only way to be closer is to be a twin. ~ From The Jim and Dan Stories

When I lost my 2 brothers in 2001, I was overwhelmed with grief. I might have wondered if the degree and length of it was normal if it wasn’t for the fact that I had 6 other siblings who were obviously as stricken as I was.

Losing a parent is painful, but it’s something we expect to eventually have to deal with. Losing a child is unthinkable, and every one understands the heartbreak of losing a mate. Why did losing my adult brothers, who didn’t even live in the same state as I did, feel like an amputation, as though I had literally lost a part of me? I suspected that there was more to sibling loss than our culture lets on.

In my search to better understand the unique aspects of sibling grief, I found “The Sibling Connection,” an online site hosted by Pleasant Gill White, Ph.D. Ms. Gill is not only a counselor who specializes in grief and loss, she is also a survivor of sibling loss herself. When she was 15 years old she lost her 13 year old sister.

Within minutes of reading the information shared on The Sibling Connection, I better understood the magnitude of the sibling bond and felt supported in my grief: When someone has been a part of your life since birth, your identity is based on having them there. They form a part of the field or background from which you live your life, and as such, they are essential. They make up part of the unbroken wholeness that defines who you are. This relates to the concept of birth order. When the first child is born, he or she develops certain characteristics and talents. Other siblings will most likely choose other characteristics to develop in order to differentiate themselves from each other ... siblings actually loan each other their strengths …

The Sibling Connection provided me with my first introduction into “bibliotherapy,” using books on grief to access one’s own feelings. Because the site included a list of grief and loss books, I emailed Ms. White and then sent her a copy of the book I wrote about losing my brothers, “The Jim and Dan Stories.” She reviewed the book for her January 2004 online newsletter and listed it on her site.

Last week I received this in an email: Do you remember me? I am Pleasant Gill White from the Sibling Connection. I wanted you to know that your book inspired me to write one of my own. It is called Sibling Grief: Healing after the Death of a Sister or Brother ...

After we re-established our connection, she sent me a copy of her new book, which arrived today. Not many books can cause me to cry on the first page of the introduction, but this one did: My sister did not know that she was dying and we were not supposed to tell her. But one dark night, as I sat in a chair, leaning on her hospital bed, I thought she was asleep. Out of the silence, she began to speak. “Promise me you will keep on singing,” she said quietly. “Promise me you will go to college,” Ms. White wrote.

And this insight on page two is worth the price of admission: In some ways our siblings never age. If they die when we are adults, we feel the loss of the child they once were. If they die when we are children, we grow up and feel the loss of the adult they would have become. It’s true that when my emotions about Jim and Dan surface, I’m often grieving the loss of our childhood together and them as the children I remember so well.

After they died, I was profoundly changed, but I didn’t look any different to others. I experienced not only an identity crisis, but a sense of alienation in my own community because no one in my immediate surroundings, apart from my husband and sons, knew my brothers. Here’s what Ms. White has to say about the feelings of alienation that may come with the loss of a sibling: 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. This is one of the reasons why adult sibling loss falls into the category of "disenfranchised grief". Bereaved individuals are encouraged to feel guilty for grieving too long.

A large component of Ms. White’s book deals with using creativity as means of healing. Although I never related to the standard stages of grief that I read in other books, I resonated with Ms. White’s “Five Healing Tasks,” which are: 1. Learning about sibling loss and the grief process. 2. Allowing yourself to grieve. 3. Connecting to other bereaved siblings. 4. Telling your story. 5. Finding meaning in the loss.

A sampling of intriguing headings found in the book include: Bridging the two worlds, My scrapbook Life, How children grieve, Sibling rivalry beyond death, Seeking a new identity, The energy of grief, and The best gift.

Drawing on hours of research, counseling others, and personal experience, Ms. White’s contribution to sibling loss is a valuable and insightful life’s work. Like her online site, her book offers a wide range of resources, personal stories, and even poetry. I highly recommend it for anyone who has lost a sibling, and I thank her for writing it.

~ Originally posted on Loose Leaf Notes on July 17, 2006.

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