“Be strong for your parents.”
I was 24, and my 21-year-old brother Will had just died. An awful electric current had pulsed through my body since I’d heard the news. I could barely eat—and it takes a lot to suppress my hearty appetite. My brain played the same short blip on repeat: your brother is dead, your brother is dead, your brother is dead. My friend, my rival, the co-keeper of my childhood was gone forever. And yet the message I received, over and over at my brother’s memorial service, was that I was supposed to buck up and be strong for my parents.
After Will died in 1999, I spent hours combing Amazon for literature on sibling loss. I found almost nothing. There were far more books on pet loss than on losing an adult brother or sister. I love my pets, but there’s a huge difference between pets and siblings—when we adopt a pet, we expect to outlive them. Heartbreak is part of the package. This is not the case with our brothers or sisters.
The dearth of resources reinforced the message I’d received at my brother’s service: Your loss just isn’t that big of a deal—especially compared to your parents’ loss.
So why did it feel like such a big deal?
The Forgotten Mourners—Hey, We’re Over Here!
Bereaved siblings, when we’re addressed at all, are sometimes referred to as the “invisible” or “forgotten” mourners. The main reason, in my experience, that sibling loss remains hazy and under-examined is because it’s so widely acknowledged that losing a child of any age is the absolute worst. Parents should not have to bury a child. It’s such an awful, hulking loss that it can cast a shadow over all the other losses.
But sisters should not have to bury their brothers, either.
I thought—I assumed—I’d have a lifetime with my brother. We were only just beginning our adult relationship, one we were building on our shared love of movies, music, cheese and a pitch-black sense of humor. Will was supposed to be there for every future milestone, from helping supply the nieces and nephews I’d someday spoil to standing by my side for the inevitable losses of our grandparents. And, sometime way down the road, our parents.
When a brother or sister dies, we lose more than a sibling. We lose our family as we knew and understood it and expected it to be. We lose the versions of our parents that weren’t heartbroken.
In the early years after my brother’s death, I lost my independence. I’d moved back home, from Maine to Alaska, to be near them. At first, it was for my own wellbeing; I’d struggled with depression and anxiety in the past, and I knew my brother’s death would be hard to navigate so far from home. I owed it to my parents, I believed, to stay close, to stay safe. But after a year of days stacked up, and then two, the tug to reclaim my life became more urgent. Peeling myself away from my parents felt like pulling off a giant, Gorilla-glued bandage—slow, painful and scary.
Let’s Call It What It Is
While siblings still qualify for the nickname of the forgotten or invisible mourner, I’d like to suggest a reframe.
I call the loss of a brother or sister the loss of a lifetime. Because who else do we plan and expect to spend an entire lifetime alongside? Not our parents or spouses or children. Maybe, if we’re lucky, a close friend from childhood. But mostly, the only people we get to spend our entire lives alongside is our sisters, our brothers.
When a sister or brother dies, we lose our strongest link to the past, as well as the future we thought we’d have.
We don’t get over losing a sibling. The pain softens with time, but it also swells up again throughout our entire lifetimes: when we graduate from college, when we welcome our first child, when we lose a parent.
Advice from the Future to My Younger, Newly Grieving Self
More than 20 years have passed since my brother’s death; he has been gone now for longer than he was alive. I have created a life from the scorched earth of his death. It’s a lovely life, one that was unfathomable to me in the early months after losing him.
And, I continue to miss my brother. I still think of him every day. Though as I grow older and he remains trapped in time, he sometimes seems impossibly distant. I’ve morphed and shifted and gone through years of therapy—I am not the same version of myself as I was when he was here. Sometimes, I squint and try to imagine what he’d be like if he’d lived. Would he have children? Would he be sober? Would we be as close as I imagine we’d be?
Perhaps that’s why I continue to write about sibling loss— because examining the unique pain of losing a brother is one way of hovering close to Will.
And to the version of me that existed just after he died, young and fragile and shattered. If I could go back in time, this is what I’d tell her: “You don’t have to be strong. This will hurt forever, but it won’t always feel like it does right now. Your loss will have its own life force. It will stretch and shift and swell as you move through life—just like your love for Will.”