Monday, March 31, 2014

Is Losing A Grandmother Easier than Losing A Sister?

[Reviewed and updated August 2, 2022]

Sisters are different flowers from the same garden. ~ Unknown

A reader writes: My sister died two months ago. She was only 35 years old. It still seems impossible. She is the baby out of ten of us and she also leaves behind 3 young children and her husband. She was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago. Every time I drive the Interstate I re-live the drive to the hospital when I got the call that she had been taken from home in an ambulance. I remember praying to God that she was OK. I remember feeling that she was already gone. When they told me she "had passed," I had to see for myself.
I keep her picture clearly visible in my bedroom to wipe the memory of the cold ER room and the tubes and bruises all over her body. I want to scream at the people who tell me I am lucky to have such a big family to fill the emptiness. We are still ten, but the last one is only sweet memories and nothing can fill the hole that has been left. I don't eat, I'm not hungry. I don't sleep very well and I have quit dreaming. I used to always remember my dreams. I don't know if my mind is blocking them out or if just don't dream anymore. At work I am a drone with no program to follow. I feel physically ill, tired and I ache. I have good days where I actually accomplish something, I have good moments where I am happy and then bad ones, like now. This week her husband told my mother he was moving back home, half-way across the country. My niece and nephews will be raised by strangers. They have lost their mother, their home, their school and all stability that remained. I know he is still in shock and denial, but I also know that he moved to get away from his family. How can he subject his own children to what he ran away from? All of my sister's belongings and her ashes will go with him. I feel like she is dying all over again. I am so full of emotion that I feel numb. To make matters worse, my 95-year-old grandmother is dying. She is ready to let go. She says she has danced and lived a very full life, but now she has decided to quit fighting and go dance in Heaven. I don’t understand why that feels so acceptable to me. Why is losing my grandmother easier than losing my sister?

My response: My dear friend, you ask why your sister's death affected you so deeply, whereas the thought of losing your grandmother seems so much more acceptable. As I'm sure you already know, in addition to the fact that one of these deaths has already happened and the other is yet to come, these are two very different losses for you. As close as you may be to your grandmother, and as much as you do not want to lose her, I'm sure a part of you recognizes and accepts the fact that, at the age of 95, the time she has remaining on this earth is limited. You've said yourself that she has "danced and lived a very full life, but now she has decided to quit fighting and go dance in Heaven." Thus as sad as her passing will be for you, it is likely that you will consider her death to be more in line with the natural order of things, and so it will not disrupt your basic assumptions about how things are supposed to happen in this world.

Not so with your sister's death. She was only 35—a young wife and mother in the prime of her life. This is so much harder to understand, and its effects on you are so much more profound! In addition, as the youngest of ten siblings, it is only natural for all the rest of you to expect that your baby sister would be the last to die—or at least, certainly not the first.

The death of a sibling puts us in touch with our own mortality (if it can happen to her, it can happen to me), and that stark reality can be very difficult to process. Be aware, too, of the likelihood that, prepared and as accepting as you may think you are for your grandmother's death, it is likely that the reality of her death will hit you harder than you may think it will, partly because her death will reawaken all the pain you felt (and continue to feel) over past losses—most especially that of losing your sister, because it is so recent and so much of it has not yet been processed. This is normal and to be expected—but still it can be frightening if you're not prepared for it.

It’s also important to acknowledge that sibling loss differs in some important ways from other kinds of loss. I don't know if you've spent any time reading some of the posts in our Loss of a Sibling or Twin forum on our online Grief Healing Discussion Groups site, but I hope that you will. Just reading through the experiences of others will persuade you that you are not alone in reacting as you are to this most painful loss. Begin with the paragraph that describes our Loss of a Sibling or Twin forum, which offers just a glimpse of why this is a particularly difficult kind of death:
Special issues arise when our brother or sister dies, no matter how old we are at the time. We may feel as if part of our own identity is lost. Whatever part our sibling would have played in our future is lost as well, casting a bittersweet shadow over everything that happens to us regardless of how wonderful it may be. Because our sibling is our peer, we're suddenly acutely aware of our own mortality, and we may be wondering how many years of living we have left. We may blame ourselves for our sibling's death, or even feel guilty for being the surviving child. We may suddenly feel totally alone in our responsibilities toward our parents as they grow older - or feel somehow obligated to set aside our own grief for our parents' sake, as well as for the other family members our sibling has left behind.
I encourage you to read as much as you can about the normal grief process, so you'll know what to expect and what you can do to manage your reactions. Make certain you visit the Death of a Sibling/Twin page on my Grief Healing Web site, where you’ll find additional resources to support you through this special kind of loss. I also recommend an excellent book by P. Gill White, Director of The Sibling Connection, entitled Sibling Grief: Healing after the Death of a Sister or Brother. The author is a bereaved sibling herself and works as a sibling grief counselor. She was 15 years old when her sister died of cancer. White and her family never talked about the loss until decades later when memories began to haunt her. Her book is a powerful mix of personal reflections and useful information.

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