A sibling relationship should be a lifelong friendship, but for those losing a brother or sister who served in the military, the pain and sorrow can be overwhelming. Adult siblings left behind must contend with their own grief and shock, adjust to an altered family structure and assume new responsibilities.
To help brothers and sisters cope, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, TAPS held its first weekend retreat for siblings in 2008. The retreat was modeled after the organization’s regional seminars, which help surviving family members process their grief reactions, develop coping skills, and establish support networks.
“Siblings often experience what is known as disenfranchised grief,” said Stephanie Frogge, director of peer support programs for TAPS. “Everyone asks how their parents are doing, but no one asks how they are coping with their loss. This heightens their feelings of isolation and grief.”
Peer support programs, like the one TAPS provides, often play a critical role in healing from the traumatic loss of a loved one. Jenny Claiborn, 24, of Wister, Okla., told a reporter from the San Antonio Express-News that she struggled to grieve after her brother, Buddy Hughie, died in Afghanistan. “As soon as I got home, the questions I got were, are they (her parents) OK? Are you making sure they’re eating? I answered the phones. I arranged the funeral. I don’t feel I ever had time to sit down and grieve the way I should have.”
All of the retreat’s attendees lost a brother or sister in Iraq or Afghanistan, and are part of the TAPS Sibling Support Network, a virtual online support community. Membership in the network has swelled, doubling in size from 45 members in August to more than 90 by February 2008. In April 2009, the network had 140+ members. Participants share their feelings and concerns through a confidential email listserve and participate in monthly chat room dialogues on the TAPS website at www.taps.org.
About a third of the network’s members attended the 2008 retreat. For many, it was their first opportunity to meet face-to-face with people they have interacted with online.
Those still fresh in their grief and loss, turned to others for advice. Casey Umbrell, 24, of Savannah, Ga., lost her brother, Colby Umbrell, in 2007 and saw her fiancé deployed to Iraq only a week after Colby’s death.
She told the San Antonio News-Express that talking with other brothers and sisters through the network and at the retreat is helping her cope. She noted that you never “get over it” and said, “It doesn’t get easier, it gets different.”
Debra Shirley, 38, of Mount Sterling, Ohio, lost her brother Nathan Shirley twelve years ago in a helicopter crash has a more long term view. “It never goes away but you do incorporate it into your daily living. It’s like a scar – not readily apparent to others but you’re aware of it. As I get older Nathan’s death means different things to me. He and I were going to help my parents make decisions when they got older and now it’s just me.”
Membership in the TAPS sibling support network is free and designed for individuals who have lost a brother or sister serving in the Armed Forces. To sign-up go to the TAPS website at www.taps.org or call 800.959.TAPS (8277). A second retreat is planned for September 2009.
“How grief is experienced is mirrored by the relationships affected,” said Bonnie Carroll, who founded TAPS in 1994 with other surviving military families, following a National Guard plane crash that took the lives of 8 soldiers, including her husband, Brigadier General Tom Carroll. “If you are a big brother and you lose your younger sibling, your identity is impacted. Your parents are now grieving the loss of a child and that also affects family relationships. There is a caring community within TAPS to help siblings.”