Siblings are often referred to as 'the forgotten mourners' as their grief can be overshadowed by the grief of other family members. Here, Georgie shares how she made time to process her own grief, while supporting her family after the death of her sister.
It was March 2017. I was away on a church ladies’ weekend. My sister had recently had a baby and had been feeling unwell. Earlier that day, she had been on her way to hospital to get checked over. It was now the evening and neither she nor my parents were answering my texts requesting updates. Phone signal at the retreat centre was poor.
At last, my phone pinged. It was my Mum. My sister’s cancer was back and it had spread.
It is impossible to convey in so few words the direction our lives took from that night, for the next six months, whilst my sister underwent immunotherapy, designed only to ‘prolong her life and make her comfortable.’ There were so many practical and medical needs – hospital appointments, relapses, emergencies, and so much helping her to try to hold on to the life she was trying to live, as a mother to a tiny, baby boy and a five-year old girl. In the last month, there were also hospital visits and, later, visits to the hospice.
In the early hours of the morning of the 24 September 2017, I sat with her and my brother-in-law, holding her hand, as she finally slipped from this life. It was the hardest thing I have ever done. She was 35 and left two very young children behind.
Mine was the kind of story I didn’t want to read, when I was walking the path with my sister, hoping and praying for a healing that didn’t come. Yet here I was.
Siblings are often called ‘the forgotten mourners.’ It can be easy to get sucked into a whirlwind of practical help for others (parents, widowed spouses), instead of taking the time we, as siblings, need to grieve.
In the early days, it helped me to get signed off work for two months; policies for grief in the workplace in the western world are simply horrifying. Anyone who thinks a week is long enough to take to grieve a close relative has clearly never had to. In the time I had off, it was helpful to spend time with family but also to be alone. I am a writer, so expressing my thoughts on paper helped me to process and stop them from ricocheting around my brain. I wrote and delivered the eulogy for my sister’s funeral and found some favourite photographs to share on my blog. Later, it helped me write more and process the different stages on my grief journey. Others read these blogs and said they resonated, which also helped. Counselling and prayer, too, were essential elements of my journey to feeling more whole and less broken.
As a bereaved sibling, there are many things on the grief journey that trip you up, often unexpectedly. As my sister had children, milestones they reach are double edged – to be celebrated proudly, but also mourned that my sister is missing each one. Anniversaries and birthdays are obvious ones that are going to be hard. But, as I am now an only child, I hadn’t anticipated the heartbreak of wanting to share simple things with my sister, and no longer being able to: the comedic antics of ageing parents, the frustrations of parenting similar-age children, or a memory that no-one but me can remember and she is not here to validate. Looking through old photographs and knowing there will never be any fresh ones to share, can be devastating.
I was involved with Care for the Family and followed them on Facebook and, about nine months after my sister’s death, noticed an advertisement for a Bereaved Parents and Siblings Weekend. It took me several weeks and the encouragement from a friend in a similar situation, to pluck up the courage to sign up. I arrived at the hotel on my birthday, a year and a week after my sister had died. It was life-giving. Together with other delegates, we shared our tragic stories of loss and our memories of the brilliant people our siblings were. There were tears, but hope flourished too, as we were given tools for our grief journey and we left on the Sunday feeling less alone. It was a ‘club’ none of us would wish on our worst enemy, but, finding ourselves in it together, gave us strength and solidarity to keep walking the hard road we were on.
Almost five years on, I am now part of the team that helps deliver these online support days and, soon, our first post-Covid, in-person event. Although the days are emotionally costly, as I talk more about my sister and hear others’ stories of unspeakable loss, they somehow give me hope too. I like to think that, as others gave me companionship and tools for my journey, I can do the same for others.
I will never move on from my sister, but I will move forward. I hope to show others that, with time and support, painful wounds of grief and loss can heal. Our lives will always bear the scars, but life can become worth living again and our siblings’ legacies live on, through us.
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