A few weeks after my brother died, I cast my line disconsolately into the watery depths of grief counseling. I thought I could talk it through with a group. I’ll scream into a pillow while other surviving siblings nod and pat me on the back, all of us in one big circle of loving empathy. I’ll connect, find new friends at the bottom of this black and murky pool. They’ve been there; they’ll want me to talk. They’ll pass a tissue without my even asking, because they know. Ahhhh. My efforts to connect with others were in vain—until I ran a Google search.
It was only after a few combinations of words adult sibling death, loss of a sibling, death of a brother/sister—that I finally came to the dusty rose-hued website, Adult Sibling Grief. There, the site’s author, TJ Wray, a professor of religious studies at Rhode Island’s Salve Regina University, introduced herself and her mission to readers, in which she sought to provide a virtual support community for surviving siblings in response to the absolute dearth of real ones. She writes:
Although the subjects of death, dying, and grief are more widely discussed now than in years past, the subject of adult sibling grief has been largely ignored by the grief support community, leaving surviving adult siblings to endure their grief in silence.
Her site, I would later find out, served as a sort of codicil to the book she was working on, Surviving the Death of a Sibling: Living Through Grief When an Adult Brother or Sister Dies, published in May by Three Rivers Press.
The title says it all. It is an intelligent, sensitively written hybrid memoir/reference guide that Wray began writing in the wake of the loss of her own brother, who at 43 died after a bout of the flu, his immune system compromised by HIV. She—like me, like countless others before and after—had come up empty in her search for support. “I recall one particularly painful phone call I made to a bereavement group,” she writes in the book. “‘Is there anyone in the group who has lost a sibling?’ I asked the elderly woman who answered my phone call. ‘A sibling?’ She asked. ‘No dear, this is an adult group.’”
Yeh, that’s about right—The Surviving Siblings—a pointedly misunderstood and heartbroken group with no clubhouse. But how can that be? “In terms of the span of time, the intimacy, and the shared experience of childhood, no other relationship rivals the connection we have with our adult brothers or sisters,” Wray stated in our recent email conversation. “Only our brothers and sisters know first hand what it was like to grow up as a child in your particular family. . . Given this historical relationship, surviving siblings are more likely to feel as though they’ve lost not only their present and future relationship with their sibling, but that they’ve lost a connection to their past.”
Barring such seminal publications as Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s On Death and Dying, grief literature, like most of the American self-help market, is a decidedly non-literary world. And it’s hard to preserve your intellectual dignity when the book store aisle you’ve been sent to by the information desk attendant is stocked with the entire James Van Praagh Heaven series. Few contemporary resources matche Wray’s tone in all its refreshing honesty and anger. In her book, she lays it rather bare, shares her bitterness as she rages against both cruel fate and misguided well-wishers (to wit: moldy variations of “your brother is with God now/ in a better place” are best to be avoided).
Wray further captures with an impressively understated and poetic tone her own grief’s attendant sense of disorientation:
I walk into the family room, turn on the television, and stand in front of it for a few moments. Distracted, I wander into the kitchen, leaving Regis and Kathie Lee to yammer on about the newest spring fashions without me. I go purposely down the stairs into the basement laundry and stand for a long time, trying to remember why I was there in the first place. Then I start to cry. Again. What am I supposed to do? I seem to vacillate between numbness and hysteria, bewildered and lost in my own home . . . My mind is devoid of all thought; there is only a faint hum whirling around the place where my thoughts used to be. The numbness is punctuated every so often by a sudden surge of grief, a spasm really, that strikes without warning, bursting forth from the same blackness that mutes my thoughts.
Surviving is a collaborative effort. To illustrate her chapter points, Wray has pulled together dozens of stories from fellow surviving siblings. “Collecting and editing the stories of other surviving siblings was first and foremost, an honor,” she said. “Working with the material was also a healing and affirming process. Healing in that I felt comforted in my own loss because I knew that I was not alone (although it often felt that way), and affirming in that my hunch about adult sibling grief as a ‘disenfranchised loss’ was confirmed.”
Many of the survivors profiled by Wray express this “disenfranchised loss.” It starts, generally, with the aforementioned inability to find relevant resources, to being asked by well-meaning sorts, “How are your parents?” who somehow fail to ask how YOU, the brother or sister, are doing. Consequently, surviving siblings are left to feel like the lowest members in the hierarchy of sorrow—below parents, spouses and children, the lot of whom “suffer a more socially recognized type of loss.”
Siblings may unwittingly help to propagate their own second-citizenship in the grief process. “There’s an overwhelming tendency on the part of the surviving siblings to . . .discount or even deny the depth of their own loss because it feels somehow disloyal to their parents who have, after all, lost a child.” But Wray is quick to add, “The death of a sibling is a family tragedy, not just a parent’s personal loss.”
We seek out books to console and reassure us. We want to know someone relates to our pain or joy and we want, in some small way, to have our actions validated. How true, I thought, as I recalled a recent conversation. “I’m so sorry for you, mom,” I had blurted out, echoing oddly the foot-shuffling condolences of well-wishers in our orbit. To which my mother responded, “Well . . . I’m just so sorry for all of us.”
Wray’s book is a start in the right direction for those seeking trying to come to grips with the devastating loss of a sibling.