Siblings: a Death Downplayed?

cartoon-kidsAfter an afternoon of talking with the bereaved, I returned the phone to its cradle and wondered . . .

What is the worst death to experience?

By the end of a typical week of work, I’ve contacted a lot of folks struggling with the death of a loved one. There were deceased spouses, children who are too young, children who are adults but were still too young, grandchildren, grandparents, cousins, best friends, mentors and colleagues, aunts and uncles, significant others, and the dearly departed that don’t fit a convenient category other than his or her death wrecked your heart.

Or does the worst death involve the circumstance? Is a sudden death from cancer worse than a lengthy dying from heart disease? Wouldn’t most prefer an accident (“He never saw the car that hit him and died in a split second.”) rather than the endless, incremental wasting away from dementia?

One of the earliest conversations I had with my boss after starting work as a Bereavement Support Specialist was about one particular relationship’s death that was often overlooked or downplayed.

What happens when an adult sister or brother dies?

(And by the way, did you notice I hadn’t listed “sibling” with the other relationships in the third paragraph from the top?)

When ranking the emotional severity of the death of a loved one—something we shouldn’t do, but do anyway—I wonder where most would place the death of an adult sibling? Low? High?

In that recent afternoon of contacting the bereaved, I had several conversations with siblings grieving the death of brothers and sisters. One, a brother with an apparently successful life, was raised with a couple of brothers and sisters. He now had a loving (and still living) wife. Based on brief comments about his adult children, he was clearly proud of their achievements.


And he was staggered by the death of his brother.

There were moments of silence on the phone. Tears too. At times, based on his responses, it was almost as if he were embarrassed at his reaction. Some part of him, like perhaps some part of many, had thought—as his brother was dying—that, well, it’s only my brother.

And then death came.

This was also his last sibling. Now he was the only one remaining in his family of origin. Parents had died long ago. One sister had died too young. Another brother died during a war. So the family had experienced tragedy and accident, and had gathered at too many funerals instead of reunions.

He wondered why he was so upset.

When I suggested that a sibling’s death could mean the end of telling and sharing certain family stories, he grew silent again.

Finally, he said, “You’re right. That’s so true, isn’t?”

Sisters and brothers, raised in the same family, can turn out as near opposites. One is liberal, the other conservative. One becomes rich and unhappy, while the other can barely make ends meet and yet always seems serene. One travels, one never leaves the neighborhood. One loves hunting, the other is vegetarian. Regardless of the differences, siblings share memories. They thrived in (or survived) childhood together. Whether they lived on the “wrong side of the tracks” or a mansion, siblings had hours and seasons and years together. They had first-ever experiences together: tasting ice cream, fireworks exploding in the sky, welcoming a puppy into the home . . . and so much more.

A time chock-full of wonder and mischief . . .

A time chock-full of wonder and mischief . . .

I’ll go to my grave knowing my older sister was my best buddy during elementary school years. We played Barbie doll games. We played cowboy games. Much of the most intimate time we had only spanned six or seven “childish” years, but they were chock-full of wonder and mischief. My other sister, eleven years younger, had her unique experiences . . . but she lived in the same home and neighborhood, attended the same schools, and loved (and was irritated by) the same parents. Both sisters can finish my sentences and roll their eyes at my exaggerations. My sisters are the only ones who laugh at certain family jokes. As adults, they are different than me . . . but we are family.

Siblings are memory and story. Siblings often know the very best and very worst of other siblings.

Novelist Jodi Picoult wrote, “If you have a sister and she dies, do you stop saying you have one? Or are you always a sister, even when the other half of the equation is gone?” I believe there’s a simple answer to Picoult’s wondering: regardless of age, attitude, a history of anger or love, in the same zip code or across the globe, alive or deceased, we are always brother, we are always sister.

A Vietnamese proverb states, “Brothers and sisters are as close as hands and feet.”

In my call with the grieving brother, he said they rarely saw each other. They shared an occasional holiday, wedding, or funeral. After all, they lived apart and had all the usual obligations. But even with their separation, they were forever, “as close as hands and feet.”

When a sibling dies, the memories of childhood, yesterday’s unresolved issues, tomorrow’s plans, and a literal piece of “you” are now gone.

I hope you remember the depth of this loss when supporting a friend after a brother or sister has died. And if you are the one grieving the death of your brother or sister . . . how can you not feel a profound sense of loss?

Siblings are memory and story. Siblings often know the very best and very worst of other siblings.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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  1. After losing both a brother and a sister a long time ago, after we were all adults with our own families, I have shared with others that while I loved them dearly, I would not have descrilbed our relationships as close. Your observation about losing part of the connection to my history through them was right on. It is as if one leg is now shorter than the other and I am forever off balance. I did not connect my loss to a why. Thank you.

    • Thanks for your response. Honest as always!!

      The sibling relationship has many ways to impact us. Even when not close as we grow older, we often retain a peculiar proximity to our siblings . . . and our shared (and different) paths.

  2. Larry,

    A thoughtful and helpful opening to a new avenue of exploration for me. My brother and I could be the poster kids for your description of siblings. Recently my brother told me he hoped to get 3-5 more years, he has liver cancer Something is happening to both of us. Not sure exactly what is happen but something shifted and continues. Strange I decided to read your column today.

    • I wish you well with your exploration. Your brother is facing a tough journey.

      If anything I wrote helps (in whatever form that help takes for you, and for you and your brother), I am glad.

      Take care!!!

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