The Other Half of the Equation

My little sister

Yeah, that’s me on the left, without my beard.

After an afternoon of talking with the bereaved, I returned the phone to its cradle and wondered: What is the worst death to experience?

During a typical week of work (which is less typical now since I’m sheltering-in-place at home), I’ll contact a lot of folks struggling with the death of a loved one. There are 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 an instant.”) 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 second 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? Or the safe answer of “it depends?” In that recent afternoon of contacting the bereaved, I had several conversations with siblings grieving the death of brothers and sisters. One was a brother with an apparently successful life. He also had a loving wife and was clearly proud of his adult children and their achievements.

But he was staggered by the death of his older brother. [Disclaimer]

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.

Then death came.

This was also his last sibling. Now he was the “sole survivor” in his family of origin. Parents had died long ago. One sister had died too young. Another brother died during a war. 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?”

Siblings, 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, they share common memories. Whether they lived on the “wrong side of the tracks” or a mansion, siblings had hours and seasons and years together. They joined in first-ever experiences: tasting ice cream, fireworks exploding in the sky, welcoming a puppy into the home . . . and so much more.

I’ll go to my grave knowing my older sister was my best buddy during elementary school years. We played with her Barbie dolls and battled over Monopoly. 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.

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, sharing 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?

(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. Well now I have a big ‘ol lump in my throat and am missing and grieving my sarcastic, funny, brilliant brother, whom I rarely saw, but loved dearly — we were indeed “as close as hands and feet.”

  2. Beautifully said, dear one. As close as hands and feet….I shall not look at mine the same way from now on.

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