Surviving the Death of a Sibling: Living Through Grief When an Adult Brother or Sister Dies
By T.J. Wray
My husband's birthday is just days away and the only thing left to buy is the card. All I want is a simple card with a heartfelt, loving message, but I'm having a difficult time finding one among the thousands of cards in the Hallmark store. The salesclerk, a tiny woman with rimless glasses, seems annoyed to have a lone customer frustrating her efforts to close at precisely 9:00 and makes a big show of locking one of the doors and noisily counting out change in the register. I get the hint, but I refuse to be bullied into buying a card I don't really want. After all, it's my husband's fortieth birthday; the card has to be just right.
As I move further down the aisle, reading and replacing the silly and overly sentimental cards, I accidentally pick up a birthday card that reads, "For my brother, on his special day." I freeze for a moment, feeling both startled and then strangely guilty, as if I Ye just been caught taking something that doesn't belong to me. I quickly return the brother card to its rightful place and steal a glance at the salesclerk, wondering if she saw me meddling in the brother-card section, where I no longer belong. I imagine her racing down the aisle, arms waving, ordering me out of the store. "Just what do you think you're doing?" she'd yell. "That section is for people who have brothers! Can't you read the sign?"
Then she'd point to the door. "Get out!" she'd say, trying to keep her voice under control. "And stay away from those brother cards! Everyone knows you don't even have a brother anymore."
I snap out of my ridiculous fantasy only to realize there are tears running down my cheeks. As I frantically search my pockets and purse for a tissue, the salesclerk appears from nowhere and matter-of-factly hands me a Kleenex. She smiles knowingly, as if this sort of thing happens all the time in her store. "Cry all you want, honey," she says as she touches a hand to my shoulder. "There's no one else in the store." Compassion, it seems, comes in many forms.
After a few minutes, I blow my nose, thank the saleslady for her kindness, and leave the store for the safety of my car. As I make the short drive home, I feel it coming-the familiar dark mood that visits me with great frequency these days. It hums around me at first, assessing my defenses-and then, like ink on blotter, it spreads quickly, spilling into my consciousness, until I'm enveloped in its immutable blackness.
In my grief journal, I write, "I feel as if I'm moving in slow-motion. I'm forgetful and short-tempered and everything seems meaningless; work, cleaning the house, shuttling the kids from one event to the next-it all seems so pointless. Why bother? I think I'm depressed." Although I use the word depressed to describe the awful, hopeless feeling I'm experiencing, I'm not quite sure if what I'm feeling is technically depression-at least, not in the clinical sense. Isn't it normal, after all, to feel depressed when someone you've loved all your life has died?
Stefani's [age 25] birthday came fire months after her death, and Christmas came a month after that. About a month later, I realized how depressed I had become. Never haring really experienced depression before, I didn't recognize it when it hit me. The most insidious part of it was that at first I couldn't identify Stefani's death as being the underlying cause of how terrible I felt. Prior to Stefani's death, I had always been self-confident, ambitious, and relatively happy. Hut in the depths of depression, every aspect of my life was inundated with sadness, despair, and feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. Friends and family asked me if I was feeling bad because of Stefani's death, and I thought, "Yes, but everything else in my life sucks, too." - DEAN, 30
By now, I've read scores of grief books, and I know that most grieving people experience some form of depression following the death of a sibling, but my experience of depression doesn't seem to fit the mold. Yes, I feel miserable and desolate sometimes, but these feelings can best be described as sudden and transient, usually triggered by some seemingly innocuous event, like turning the calendar to a new month or hearing a particular song on the radio. I'm fine one moment and tumbling headlong into despair the next. There are days when the depression is so bad that it takes every ounce of strength just to get out of bed and go to work. And, despite my busy and active life, Pm often lonely. I worry that I've become a burden to my husband, children, and friends, so I keep to myself when Pm feeling down-but this only contributes to my loneliness.
Edna Sr. Vincent Millay wrote, "The presence of that absence is everywhere." And it is. My brother's palpable absence lingers on the edge of every thought, every feeling, every action; it's always there. In many ways, the depression is always there, too, hovering along the sidelines. The only thing that keeps it at
But there are also good days now. Minutes and hours pass without a shadow of sadness, and sometimes I even forget I'm still mourning. These moments of joy are always tempered, however, by the now-familiar longing that stifles genuine contentment.