How Does Early Death of Sister Affect Adult Siblings?

Question from TK: My sister and I lost an infant sister in an accident when we were 2 and 5, respectively. Now, 40 years later, I’m struggling to understand how our sister’s death affected us. Outwardly, we are successful with loving spouses and children. Yet there is still a void. Sometimes I think it’s silly to wonder how an event that happened at the edge of our memories could affect our lives today – but when I think of how different our lives would be now if our sister hadn’t died, perhaps it’s a wonder it has not impacted our emotional lives more. As adults we have talked about it only once more than 15 years ago, and I don’t know if or how to talk about it with my sister and parents now. Can you help me understand all this? Thank you for your thoughts.

Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn, editor of www.opentohopesiblingloss.com, offers this response: Hi. I’m so sorry about your sister. I lost my 17-year-old brother when I was 14, and it took me nearly a decade to even begin to understand that his life and death had had a profound influence on shaping me, and even longer to understand just how.

A very wise therapist once told me that our siblings are like the water the goldfish doesn’t see — so much part of our environment, so pervasive, that we don’t really notice them all around us. For many of us, it takes the loss of a sibling to abruptly shift our focus and try to figure out what that water looks like. Not an easy task at any age, much less when you’re as young as you were. I think an early loss, like the one you experienced, can be like that water, too. It was probably so much a part of the fabric of your early life that you didn’t have the distance, not to mention the developmental ability, to make sense of what it meant in your family.

As an adult I, too, was overtly successful, but still suffering from the loss of my brother in ways I couldn’t articulate. My quest to understand led me to write a book, The Empty Room, which tells my story and that of many other bereft siblings. Ultimately, in my research, I interviewed 77 other people who had lost siblings at some point in their lives. I did interview several people who’d had losses as early as yours, and can say, without reservation, that it had a profound effect on them and their families. Among the themes:

-A pervasive sense of grief and mourning amid the family that could not be spoken of, and that permeated the household

-An unspoken knowledge that the lost sibling should not be talked about

-A sense that the parents, with the loss, had gone away and never really come back

-A lack of information, for the surviving siblings, about what had happened to the lost one, and even where they were buried

-A view of the surviving siblings not as mourners, or grief-stricken, because it was assumed they were too young to understand.

-A lack of ability to mourn, in surviving siblings, because they are not acknowledged as having had a loss

-A sense, in adulthood, of loss and of a void, maybe even a sense of depression

Here’s the conclusion I ultimately came to: Siblings are part of our identities, and every member of a family is part of the family identity. To lose one is an identity crisis — for the siblings and the family. Families don’t usually do a great job recovering from this loss. Mentally, I see it as a table that’s been stripped of one leg, while everyone sitting around it tries to pretend it’s not wobbling, that it’s just like it was before. Kids will comply with that scenario, if it’s required of them. But when they grow up, they start questioning it and needing to know what happened and, ultimately, to grieve.

It sounds like you’ve reached that point. In my understanding, the steps to finding your equilibrium, after a loss like this, go like this: Acknowledge, for yourself, at least, that you had a loss. Allow yourself to mourn what it meant in your family and your life. And spend some time thinking how it’s altered your identity. Because it did. At the least, you were the middle child, then the baby again. What does that mean?

I find that it’s not easy to get families who are accustomed to not talking about these things to talk again. Old habits die hard, as the saying goes. My guess is that it would be best to take it on a person-by-person basis, rather than, say, bringing it up at a family dinner. I’d start with your sister, who might be having some of the same thoughts you have, but didn’t know how to begin sharing them.

Please don’t think any of your thoughts or feelings about this are even remotely silly. They’re totally normal and even, sadly, common. Good luck!

Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn is the author of The Empty Room: Surviving Sibling Loss, a memoir and journalistic exploration of sibling loss. Her brother, Ted, suffered from a rare immune deficiency disorder and spent 8 ½  years in an isolation room behind a plastic curtain before he died. He was one of two boys upon whom the movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” was based. She is a contributing writer for More magazine, and has also written for Self, Discover, Psychology Today and Harper’s Bazaar, among other publications. Elizabeth is currently working on a new book, The Death of Cancer, with her father, Dr. Vincent T. DeVita. She lives in New York City with her husband, writer Paul Raeburn, and her son, Henry.  To learn more about Elizabeth and her work go to:  www.devitaraeburn.com or visit her blog: www.tedishere.blogspot.com

Elizabeth appeared on the radio show Healing the Grieving Heart” discussing the Death of a Sibling.  To hear her interviewed by Dr. Gloria & Dr. Heidi Horsley, click on the following link:

www.voiceamericapd.com/health/010157/horsley070705.mp3

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