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Because family life matters

Life after my brother’s death

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Nicki tells us how she has coped.

It was a Sunday in mid-January 2002. I can tell you most of what I was doing that day: planning all my teaching for the week, going to the gym and then round to my boyfriend’s house for a Chinese take-away. Nothing remarkable. Everything was OK.

In fact, everything was far from OK – I just didn’t know it yet. My life had changed forever. My younger brother Stuart, who lived in California, had died in a car accident. I found out about six hours after his death; six hours in which I had gone about my life, thinking that everything was fine.

The early days

The following days were a blur. But whilst they were devastating, fraught with emotion and extremely hard, what came as a shock was having to get back to ‘normal’ life after a couple of weeks off work. Life wasn’t normal.

Whilst people around were supportive and kind, no one really understood the depth of my loss, so, where I could, I escaped to other places to spend time with my closest friends.

We supported each other, but we also needed support individually

As a family, we supported each other, especially through the many ‘firsts’ and significant events in the coming years, but we also needed support individually outside of the immediate family. I was at a stage of life where I was becoming increasingly independent. I didn’t want to be reliant on my family, but at the same time I desperately needed them.

“That’s probably exactly what I need”

A few months after Stuart died, my mum handed me a flyer about a weekend for bereaved siblings run by Care for the Family. I took it and, although I didn’t say much to her at the time, I remember thinking “That’s probably exactly what I need.” I booked a place, put the date in the diary and forgot about it. As it got closer, I had a feeling of dread but was determined that I should go. I didn’t know what to expect. Not being a naturally outgoing person, the last thing I felt like doing, whilst feeling so vulnerable, was to meet a whole load of new people and make small talk – or, worse, share my deepest feelings with them! I did find the weekend difficult and emotionally draining, but it got easier as we went along. Meeting other people who had lost a brother or sister and hearing them say that it was tough, really tough, helped me to realise that what I was feeling was normal (if there is such a thing as normal!).

Moving forward

Moving forward in life hasn’t always been easy. When Stuart died I was two years into a relationship. My boyfriend took a lot of the strain and really looked after me in the weeks and months afterwards. Stuart had met him a couple of times and had said something along the lines of “He seems like a nice bloke.” My clinging onto that comment, combined with the fact that I wasn’t emotionally strong enough for a break-up, resulted in us staying together longer than we might have otherwise. Our relationship did end eventually, and in 2006 I went on to marry my wonderful husband Anthony. I still find it difficult that he never met Stuart and, likewise, that my children never met their uncle.

Becoming a parent

Over the following years, I really struggled with anxiety but was able to find ways to manage it: for example, by insisting that Anthony let me know if he was going to be back later than expected, or by offering to drive so I didn’t have to travel as a passenger. I did reach a point where I became a lot calmer about many things, but becoming a parent has brought new anxieties. I am determined not to limit what my children do, or inadvertently let my worries rub off on them, but that determination comes at a price. Not to wrap them up in cotton wool means opening myself up to the element of risk. This can flood my thoughts with ‘What ifs …?’ and fighting these off can be emotionally exhausting. I know that with the children aged just three and six, the worries and fears of parenthood are only just starting and there will be many more challenges as they become more independent.

In 2004, two years after Stuart’s death, my dad wrote: “Do we batten down the hatches; try to clip the wings of our remaining children – or do we leave them free and risk the consequences?” I’m grateful that my parents chose the latter, and I want to do the same.

Do’s and don’ts for bereaved siblings (PDF)

You may find this helpful, it’s written by siblings for siblings.

Dealing with my brother’s death | Allow yourself that space to grieve