Monday, February 13, 2012

Monday Mourning -- Bereaved Siblings

Think back to your childhood for a few minutes.  Think about some of your fondest childhood memories.  How many of them involve your brothers and/or sisters?  It's hard for me to remember back to my early childhood growing up in the north woods of Wisconsin without my older brother being all around the fringes of my memories.  He teased me, annoyed me, picked on me, even occasionally beat on me, but he was always there for me, and we had a lot of fun as each other's playmates growing up together.  And then, when I was 12 years old, my younger brother was born, and I was thrilled to finally  have a sibling who couldn't beat me up!

It was this younger brother and his family who stayed with us for two weeks about a month ago.  They have the two sweetest, most unspoiled little girls ever ... a result of great parenting, certainly, but also attributable to growing up in Indonesia, unaffected by American-style materialism.  Here they are after a visit to Burger King a few weeks ago...

These little girls are exactly two years apart in age, and on March 26th, they will turn 5 and 3.  They are extraordinarily close sisters, and in many ways they remind me of my girls when they were little.

Julia, the older one, is a thinker and an observer.  She will hang back from a new situation and quietly observe with serious eyes before cautiously entering in.  Katie, on the other hand, will barrel into any situation, with little or no hesitation.  Julia serves as Katie's interpreter (even though Katie doesn't usually need one), and you can see her watching over her little sister with love and concern.  Katie is a ham, and Julia is completely content with handing over the spotlight to her sister, even drawing other's attention to what Katie is doing.  It's clear that she is proud of her little sister.  As for Katie, if you watch carefully, you can see how she admires her big sister and revels in her approval.

Hannah and Bethany's relationship growing up is mirrored in the above description of Julia and Katie.  Hannah was the serious-minded, cautious, over-thinking big sister, and Bethany was the fun-loving, impetuous, afraid-of-nothing little sister.  She served as Bethany's rudder, keeping her grounded and helping her make wise decisions in spite of her flightiness.  Hannah was always content to remain in the background, while allowing and even encouraging Bethany to take the spotlight.  Hannah was Bethany's biggest fan and cheerleader, and Bethany thrived on her big sister's approval and support.

But then, Hannah got sick.  Suddenly, the big sister who was always there for her was missing her ball games, spending time in the hospital, throwing up every morning, losing her hair, and growing weaker every day.  And then she was gone.

So what happens when a child loses a sibling?  I will be the first to say that I don't really know...I've never lost a sibling, so there is no possible way I can even come close to understanding that kind of loss. But I want to share a few things I've learned over the past few years.  These things are based on conversations I've had with Bethany and with other parents who are raising bereaved children.  I share them somewhat cautiously, knowing that I am no expert in this area.  I also know that all bereaved sibling situations are different...some kids lose an older sibling, some a younger one; some kids have other siblings, others become an instant only child; some kids lose their siblings suddenly, and others watch their sibling go through a long illness; and I'm sure that the age of the child at the time of loss can have a huge impact.  In fact, before I publish this post, I'm going to have Bethany read it, because if anyone can be an expert on this topic, she is.

So here we go....Things I've learned about struggles of bereaved siblings:

1.  Bereaved siblings feel very alone.  In our case, Bethany lost her closest friend and confidante.  None of her friends could even come close to understanding her loss.  As her parents, we couldn't even understand her loss.  She often said, "You and Dad have each other.  I don't have anybody."  And she was right.

2.  Bereaved siblings struggle spiritually.  So do bereaved parents, but at least we have the benefit of life experience, and many of us have walked with the Lord for years.  We've experienced His provision and His comfort during other difficult times in our lives.  We've seen Him carry others through times of loss, and we know deep down that we can trust Him, even when we don't understand what He's doing.  Our kids don't have those advantages.  All they know is that God has let them down...disappointed them in the biggest way imaginable.  For many of them, this is the first crisis of faith they've ever faced, and they often don't have any idea how to handle it.

3.  Bereaved siblings struggle academically.  Bereaved parents are often able to take a leave of absence from work following the death of their child.  And when we do return to work, we don't get grades on our performance.  Our bosses and co-workers at least attempt to be sensitive and understanding as we muddle through those early days of grief.  Siblings are expected to return to school and pick up where they left off...all while fending off insensitive questions from curious classmates and trying to avoid being sucked into the drama that naturally occurs when a young person dies.  It's not drama for them...It's their life.  And while they struggle to maintain focus and attention on schoolwork with a grief-clouded brain, they are being graded on their performance.

4.  Bereaved siblings struggle socially.  Many of them find themselves living in the shadow of their deceased sibling.  When a young person dies, the natural tendency is to put them on a pedestal, revering their good qualities and forgetting their flaws.  This puts the surviving sibling in the difficult position of trying to live up to an impossible standard, causing them to either live in perpetual frustration, or leading them to give up on that entirely and establish themselves as a unique individual, possibly even the opposite of their sibling.  They also often find themselves in awkward situations, such as when people ask them how many brothers and sisters they have.  If it's hard for us parents to answer the dreaded "How many children do you have" question, how much more difficult is it for our children?  Do they risk the shocked expression on the asker's face when they explain that their sibling died...or do they "betray" their sibling by replying, "None.  I'm an only child."  And then what do they say to their friends who constantly complain about their own siblings, saying things like, "I hate my sister", or "I wish I was an only child"?  How much do those kinds of comments add to their pain?

5.  Bereaved siblings lose their rudder.  Think about your own siblings.  How often have they given you advice or counsel that you might not accept from anyone else (including your parents)?  Our siblings keep us us stay on the right track...even keep us humble.  What happens when that grounding influence is gone?  The surviving sibling can lose his or her way in life...finding themselves floating through life without direction, often spinning out of control, without a rudder to keep them on track.  It's sometimes incredibly difficult for them to get their feet back under them.

5.  Bereaved siblings lose their parents.  What I mean is, just when a kid needs his parents the most, the parents may be completely unavailable to him.  Oh, they may be present physically, but may be totally absent emotionally.  A parent who loses a child may be so consumed with their own grief, they have nothing left for their surviving children.  They try...they try really hard to be the kind of parent they need to be...but it is incredibly difficult.  And by the time the parent has sufficiently recovered to truly turn their attention back to their child, that child may have already developed his own way of dealing with his grief, which may or may not be healthy.  And even then, they will never, ever be the same parent that their child has always known.

OK...I know this is by no means an exhaustive list, but I think it covers most of what I've learned, anyway.  I'm going to stop right here and let Bethany read what I've written.  Then I'll find out how much I've actually learned!


All right, Bethany has given her wholehearted approval to what I've written.  So I now have permission to publish this.

One final thing...I have really come to believe that siblings are the forgotten part of the bereaved family.  Case in point:  Nearly three years have passed since Hannah left us for Heaven, and I am just now writing this post.  Not that I have forgotten Bethany or been unaware of her pain, but I feel like I am just now beginning to understand all the complexities of what she's experienced.  Maybe because I am just now able to really see past my own nose, or maybe because a sibling's pain is so much deeper and more complex than I ever imagined.

If you are reading this and you have lost a sibling, or if you are parenting a child who has lost a sibling, I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences related to this topic.  Please post your comments below.  I am definitely open to learning all I can about it.  We believe that the Lord may be leading "While We're Waiting" to host a retreat for bereaved siblings at some point in the future, and this is a baby step in that direction.

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