Author: Heidi Horsley
In the United States today, there is a natural, assumed order to the deaths we will experience in our lives. We believe that our grandparents will die first, then our parents, then our brothers and sisters, and then our children. However, that is not how it happens for thousands of people each year, and that is not how it happened for me. When my brother Scott and cousin Matthew were just 17 years old they died together in a fiery car accident.
In a sense, our siblings are parallel travelers in life; we have a shared history. We expect this to be the longest relationship we will ever have. Our siblings are part of our past and part of our present. We expect to grow old with them, and it’s devastating to lose them before their time.
People ask, “Do you have closure?” I remind them that closure is for bank accounts, not love accounts. I really don’t even understand the concept of closure. Growing up with a brother made me the person I am today; if he had never been in my life I would be a very different person. We never get over the person that died. What we get over is the intense pain. When our sibling dies, we lose the relationship we once had but we don’t sever those bonds. We continue to have a relationship. My brother continues to be an important part of my life, and he always will be.
The majority of siblings in the United States today will spend 80-100% of their lifetimes with each other in some capacity. Our siblings serve as our protectors, confidants, rivals, and role models. Growing up we spend 33% of our time with our siblings…more time than we spend with parents, friends, or teachers. So it is ironic that bereaved siblings are often the forgotten ones in the aftermath of death.
Siblings tend to experience their loss being unacknowledged or minimized as they try to support their parents through their grief. When a bereaved sibling discloses that they’ve had a sibling die, a common response is “that must have been really hard on your parents,” or “you need to be strong for your parents.” There is often little or no acknowledgement of our loss. However, we have not only lost a sibling, we have lost the future we thought we were going to have.
It is important to avoid clichés when speaking with those who have had a sibling die; “they’re in a better place, time heals all wounds, cherish the memories, God doesn’t give you anymore then you can handle.” These clichés don’t help; they only serve to minimize our loss. Before my brother Scott died, when someone had a death I would send a condolence card, now I send myself.
I, along with countless others, have learned how to eventually find a new normal and create a new relationship with those who are no longer with us. We lean on others’ hopes until we find our own. The reality is that we don’t forget, move on, or find closure, but rather we honor, remember, and incorporate our deceased family members into our lives in a new way. In fact, keeping memories of your loved one alive in your mind and heart is an important part of your healing journey. Thankfully, our deceased loved ones are a continuing presence in our lives and always will be.
Remember, you don’t have to walk this path alone. If you’ve experienced a loss, there are many groups and organizations, such as the Open to Hope Foundation and TAPS, that can help you. I wish you peace, joy, and love on your journey, and may your ongoing connections with those you’ve loved sustain you even during your darkest hours.
By Heidi Horsley, PsyD, MSW, MS: Dr. Heidi Horsley is a licensed psychologist and social worker and is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Open to Hope Foundation. She is an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University and in private practice in Manhattan. An internationally known grief expert, author, and bereaved sibling, Heidi co-hosts the syndicated internet radio show, Open to Hope. She serves on the National Board of Directors for The Compassionate Friends and on the Advisory Board for TAPS.