When I was 14, my brother and only sibling, Ted, died. One of my more memorable experiences from that time is of standing next to his grave, watching, devastated, as they lowered his casket into the ground. A woman separated herself from the crowd, leaned down, took me by the arm, and leaned in, close enough so that I could see the lipstick on her teeth and smell her perfume. “You’ll have to be very good now,” she said, somberly. “Your parents are going through a lot.”
I wrote about that scene in my book–apologies to those of you who have read it, for repeating it. I tell that story a lot, in fact, when I’m trying to convey to someone what it’s like to lose a sibling. That story is kind of iconic, because most bereft siblings I’ve ever spoken to have one—usually more than one—like it. It’s as if siblings haven’t experienced a loss—or rather, not a loss that compares with that experienced by parents.
This phenomenon has a name: disenfranchised grief. Grief expert Ken Doka coined it to describe the experience of divorced spouses mourning the loss of ex-partners. They often weren’t considered “legitimate” mourners, and felt shut down and shut out of the loss.
But before long, Doka relealized that the phrase fit a lot of other situations and relationships, too. Cousins. Friends. Gay partners. There are lots of types of losses (miscarriage, for example) and relationships (cousins, friends, grandparents) aren’t deemed legit, enough, somehow to earn the right to mourn.
Siblings, despite the fact that they are, by definition, part of the nuclear family, often fall into this group, too. “The sibling relationship, wherever it is in the life cycle, is just very easy to neglect,” said Doka, when I interviewed him.
And hence the problem for many bereft siblings—because we aren’t seen as real mourners, and given permission to mourn, because we are seen primarily as the caretaker of others…we don’t mourn.
That was certainly my story. Anyone else?Tags: grief, hope