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Forgotten Mourners - Sibling Grief

Bereaved siblings have often been called the forgotten mourners, because in the aftermath of a terrible loss they are often the ones whose grief is overlooked. But the sibling relationship is profound, it’s part of how we are formed and who we are, and that loss can be shattering. 

Rachael is one of the longest serving sibling volunteers with TCF having lost her sister to suicide in 1987 as a teenager. Her family drew tremendous support from meeting other parents similarly bereaved through TCF, while Rachael became friends with another bereaved sibling at school. 

When Rachael’s brother died, some 16 years later, she attended a TCF weekend and was enormously comforted by the presence of a handful of other siblings. Having the opportunity to talk together was so precious that she decided siblings needed a retreat of their own. 

With TCF’s support, the first retreat for bereaved siblings was held in 2007, and has gradually become an annual fixture. TCF now also runs online quarterly support groups for bereaved siblings, facilitated by siblings for siblings. Gradually a wonderful team of sibling volunteers has emerged. Rachael says: “We’re not forgotten mourners any more.” 

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This is the transcript of a talk given by bereaved sibling, Rachael Claye, at a Compassionate Friends retreat weekend for bereaved parents, siblings and grandparents held in early 2024. 

Hello. I’m Rachael.

I’m the youngest of three children. I lost both my siblings. My sister died when we were teenagers, by suicide. My brother died aged 32 from a sudden illness just after I turned 30.

From being the youngest, I have become the oldest. It’s not a position I ever wanted.

I’m going to tell you a bit about my story. Then we can open it up and we can talk, because I know parents worry about their surviving children. I can let you into a little secret, because we’re all friends here: we worry about you too.

I’m going to start with my grief as a child, because grief is different for children. Because it has happened to me twice, I understand that now.

I was 14 when Nikki died. She was 19. The key thing to say about grief and children, from my experience, is that it’s frightening.

Everything you think is certain, disappears. Your parents change overnight, which is perhaps the most frightening thing.

Your family changes shape. Your position and your role in the family change. You don’t quite know who you are or who you’re supposed to be.

Because for brothers and sisters, our siblings have almost always existed. They are the world, and for us, always or almost always have been. Take part of that away, and it is like someone removing a continent. It’s like Africa goes missing in the middle of the night. You wake up, and the planet has fundamentally changed.

And the weird thing is, that nobody outside your family notices. That’s very disorientating.

It is also very isolating. And that can be lonely. I found it very lonely, even though I had been quite a happy-go-lucky kid.

But I was still going to school, and other people were still talking about hobbies and homework and friendship groups.

And I wanted to do all that, and sometimes did, but I wasn’t carefree any more, which my friends could maybe see, but couldn’t understand, or didn’t know how to help.

I actually have my diary from when I was 14. Before Nikki died, the voice of the person writing is a fairly cheery kid. And that’s true even though I knew Nikki was very ill, that she had tried suicide several times, and I was very afraid she would try it again and die.

There’s a break of three months after Nikki died and the diary starts again. And it’s the voice of an adult. It’s like my childhood very suddenly ended right there. That night.

It’s hard to understand all this when it’s happening - I certainly didn’t at the time. I think this is why people bereaved in childhood circle back to grief - something I have done.

As a child you don’t have tools to process what’s happening to you. So it sits with you. And you can come back to a moment many years later, when you suddenly understand. That’s happened to me several times. I think it’s not unusual with people who were bereaved as children.

There are things that weren’t resolved or understood at the time, and something happens to trigger a memory, and find yourself using your new adult brain to understand it now.

We also circle back because of milestones in our lives. So something happens, like having children, that brings a new aspect of the loss that you hadn’t known would exist.

It took me a long time to work out how to talk about Nikki’s death. I went off to university at 19 and the first thing I did there is not tell a soul. The past five years of my life had been defined by Nikki’s suicide and loss. It had changed my mum and dad, my brother, and me. And I wanted my life back. I didn’t want to be defined by it any longer.

But of course, not telling people doesn’t solve the problem. I was still a bereaved sibling, even if I didn’t want to be. As someone once said, reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.

And the grief didn’t go away. I remember Robin being really angry with Nikki when she died, because he was 17, just starting out and full of fun, and he felt she’d taken away his ability to be young and happy.

I have to say, he managed to find ways to be young and happy. He fought pretty hard for that.

But we were both carrying an enormous amount of sadness and also that shadow that comes along with you with suicide, which is: why. Is it my fault. How could this happen to our family.

Nikki’s death changed our relationship, me and Robin. Before Nikki died, Rob and I were playmates. After she died, we were comrades in the trenches, we were surviving together. We were the only two who really understood.

When I was 28, I moved to Beirut to work on a newspaper. Robin moved to Singapore to teach. And we both had a great time. I remember new year’s eve 2003, him ringing me just before midnight my time. It was dawn in Singapore. I was on the roof of a flat in Beirut at a party, looking out across the city at all the tracer fire being fired into the sky - because that’s how the Lebanese like to party. Everyone gets drunk and shoots up into the sky. It’s not very sensible.

Three months later I got a call that he had been taken very poorly and was in hospital. By the time my mum and dad and I had arrived in Singapore, next day, it was clear he wasn’t going to survive.

I couldn’t believe this had happened to Rob. He and I were supposed to be the survivors.

So I had to begin again, to reconstruct this world, where another continent had gone missing.

But it was different, this time.

Robin and I had lost Nikki, so we knew how important we were to each other. There was nothing unsaid between us in terms of knowing the depth of our bond. I still get some strength from that.

But for a long time, the person I most wanted to tell about Robin’s death was Robin. I wanted to ring him on the phone and say, you will never believe this, Rob.

I actually had dreams where I was sat next to him explaining all about it. They were really comforting dreams because, of course, he got it! He was the one person who really understood how shocking this was. And then I’d wake up, and of course, Rob didn’t know what had happened to him. 

When we were still in Singapore in the hospital, and I realised Rob was going to die, part of my sense of dread is that I knew about grief, and what was coming towards me.

I knew Christmas and birthdays and Mothering Sundays were going to be hard.

And I’d already watched my parents grieve. It was like reliving a horror show, in that way. I couldn’t bear that they were about to go through this again.

But while it was appalling and cruel, having that understanding did also help me in some ways.

This time I understood what my parents needed and what I needed better. And that what we needed was in some ways different. And that pretending it hadn’t happened wasn’t going to work.

I came back from Beirut to be nearer my parents. But I realised I needed to protect my grief this time. Because I realised how overwhelming parental grief is. And I realised that my anxiety for my parents, which had been such a huge part of Nikki’s death, actually didn’t help me deal with my own loss.

Someone said to me, very helpfully, after Rob died, you can’t grieve your mother’s son, you have to grieve your brother. And that’s true. Our parents’ grief can be overwhelming, and really matters. It shapes our world. And we love you. Like I say, we worry about you and we want you to be ok. But we have to find a path and a place for our grief. And there’s some stuff we can share, and that’s brilliant, and some stuff we can’t.

And that’s because, as I was able to see much more clearly second time round, sibling grief is a different bond, even though there’s plenty that’s similar.

As siblings we grow up round each other, we shape each other from the moment we’re alive. I’m a youngest sister so there is no before my brother and sister existed, for me. There never was a world in which Robin and Nikki weren’t just ahead of me and in everything I did and everything I could see.

When Nikki died, that entire world ended. We had to start again as a family to make a new world. And it was long, slow, hard work. But we did.

When Robin died, it was like the map to that new world got torn up. Their death felt like losing my self.

In sibling retreats, talking about the relationship between brothers and sisters, I sometimes use the metaphor of a tree growing in the forest. We all grow towards the light, we fight each other for the light a bit, but essentially we shape ourselves around each other.

When the trees closest to you are cut down, the shape you are is still defined by them and how you grew together. No one else can see the other trees, they’ve gone, but we feel them in our core, in our shape, in who we are. We’re part of this ecology that was our family. The shape we are only makes sense through them.

After Rob died, someone said to me, you’re an only child now.

I had to really think about that. Because I knew immediately, in my gut, that it wasn’t true. I’ll never be an only child.

When I go about the world, I’m a little sister. They trained me to go under the radar, expect to be a little bit indulged perhaps, and to do my own thing and assume I’ll get away with it because nobody really pays attention to what the youngest gets up to…

My earliest memory is a good example. My dad was a travelling salesman for Cadbury’s when I was very little. Brilliant job, by the way, it’s what all parents should do for a living!

So he had a van full of boxes of chocolates. My earliest memory is being about two or three, in the garage, with Robin and Nikki inside dad’s van. I’m standing by the open door of the van. They’ve made a hole in the bottom of one of the boxes at the back of the stack, and they’re handing me fistfuls of Curlywurlies.

It’s a really happy memory. But it’s also who I am. The little sister who receives the stolen goods and doesn’t bat an eyelid because, if mum and dad come… they did it!

Those memories are still with me. But when Robin and Nikki died, it felt like I lost my past. Because I had always shared my past with them, my whole life long. I assumed I always would.

Part of grief for me was owning those memories for myself, of who I was and who we were together, and learning to treasure them alone.

It’s why the badge I’m wearing today to remember them isn’t an image of Nikki and another of Robin, it’s of the three of us together. Because that’s the thing I love and treasure. That shared past.

Then there’s the future. We expect to lose our parents and not the other way around. So we think that loss will come, but we expect to share it.

After Rob died I realised that one day I’ll probably be the last one left of my birth family. I couldn’t bear that future.

I knew the remedy the same night I arrived in Singapore. I was sitting in the hospital - they had a lovely peaceful meditation garden with smooth stones and a waterfall. I had my partner Bill with me and I said, I think I’m going to need to make some new people to love.

Luckily, he was happy to go along with that.

A couple of years later our first daughter was born. And I looked at her and how important she was to me and to my parents, let alone Bill and his family, and thought, this kid needs an ally.

We had two more babies and it worked. They were brilliant. A massive comfort.

Having children felt like a triumph of hope over experience. I’m so aware of how fragile life is. I fear for them and I know in my bones that no future is certain.

It’s something Rob and I understood and talked about. I look at my kids and the shape of Rob that is part of me enjoys them.

I can’t pretend it was good to go through loss twice. I feel like we had learned enough lessons the first time.

But… I suppose one good thing is that my parents and I have talked a lot about grief and a lot about death.

When Nikki died, we were laying new territory on a completely new map. The second time we had the landmarks. In some ways, we supported each other better. We talked better. We knew what we needed better. I feel I can say what I need to about death and grief to both my parents, and that feels like a real source of strength for me.

And I am immensely proud of both my parents. They each live life with gusto. They’re determined, lively people. They’ve explored the outer reaches of anguish and joy. That feels like a very full life, even if we’d all choose an easier one.

So conversations, even difficult ones, helped. What else helped?

I must admit that losing Robin was overwhelming. It was too big. It was as if Nikki had died all over again when Robin died. I felt utterly silenced. I couldn’t find words.

It’s the closest I have ever felt to being destroyed.

I really needed help. I eventually saw a therapist, and that enabled me to go back and find words for some of the things I hadn’t been able to understand as a child, when Nikki died. That was the beginning of the process.

The second thing was something I realised as an adult but hadn’t known as a child. And that is that I didn’t have to sit alone with this.

I went in search of other bereaved siblings. There was nothing via TCF at the time, but I came to a National Gathering here in 2007. There were six other bereaved siblings and we found an empty room and we talked.

It was the first time I’d spoken with other bereaved siblings. The sensation of being understood was absolutely life changing for me. From there I became involved in TCF peer support for siblings. We started with an overnight retreat, which is now an annual thing. Now we have online zoom groups too.

I’m happy to say that I don’t need those groups or retreats any more. Grief has been part of my life since I was 14 and sometimes I’d really like it not to be. But I never want to feel that lonely again. And I don’t want anyone else to feel that lonely either.

Grief is personal, and sometimes it is very, very solitary. But being understood is powerful medicine.

There’s a lovely Shakespeare quote I often think of in relation to TCF: “Give sorrow words: the grief that dare not speak knits up the o’erwrought heart and bids it break.”

That was true for me. I needed to find the words. Speaking to other bereaved siblings through TCF helped transform a paralysing experience into something I could live with. It made it possible to find purpose again.

I still feel profoundly connected to Robin and Nikki. My love for them comes along with me each day when I go about the world. They’re part of me. They helped make me. It’s a connection that is baked in to my body and my soul.

I see them in my relationships. I’m certain some of the fun I have with my closest friends comes from my training as Robin and Nikki’s little sister.

So there is a life after death. It’s different, and I’m different. Some of me is someone Nikki and Robin would recognise. In other ways I think I’d surprise them. I find my life now engaging and hopeful, and I still grieve - because I still love. I’m sure everyone in this room understands that.

One last thing. This talk was called Forgotten Mourners, and that’s simply because I think sibling grief isn’t much understood, and isn’t much noticed in society. Every bereaved sibling has had the experience of people coming up and saying “I heard what happened. It’s awful. How are your parents?”

It’s like our loss doesn’t exist. I don’t think it’s unkindness, I think it’s just that people don’t really understand. Most people are more used to the idea of sibling rivalry than sibling love.

That’s maybe why I accepted the invitation to speak today. I hope this chat has illuminated a bit of what is special about siblings and our bond

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On the following page a 7 minute section of Rachael's talk is shared on video.

 

Comments: 2 (Add)

Catherine Gray on 23 February 2024 at 19:56

Rachael, I was just telling my husband what an amazing, talented and inspirational friend you were at school and then I came across this page! You are so right, as friends we tried to understand and support you, but we could never really comprehend the extent of your suffering. I could always feel how lonely you were though and now I can better appreciate why. Sending love Catherine x

Julie Laws on 7 February 2024 at 19:17

I enjoyed reading your blog on siblings grief as I lost my sister in 1991 ,when i was 26 and then my Dad in 2005 , my Husband in 2014 and disabled brother in 2018. Your story made me awaken my own grief which I ve tried so hard to hide. I had to be strong for my Mum when my sister died from hodgkins lymphoma. I had two young chikdren and worked in my father's shop. Then my parents split due to the stress of my sisters death and other reasons. After a few awaful years going to court and custody battles , mum got a new bungalow. Dad married his mistress of several years and we werent told . He was later diagnosed with heart problems and died in 2005 , and we were not in his will. I was shocked as he always said we'd be provided for as we were his children . Again i was numb and grieving my fatger and tgought he didnt really love us at all. I recovered , or so i thought and life carries on , and Mum needed my support more and more . In 2006 my husband was diagnosed with malignant melanoma . We had to sell our business as he was quite poorly. He had an operation to remove the cancer on his leg . Again I looked after the chikdren and the home etc whilst also checking in on mum and my disabled brother. In 2014 my husband died aged 49 and part of me died with him. Oyr youngest son was 14 yrs okd. Again i made sure his needs were met and he was really angry and aggressive towards me. It was tough. I didnt grieve as i felt numb and tried to be strong. My disabled brother still needed help. He was born spina bifuda and was paralysed from his waist down and in wheelchair. A drug addict cuckooed his bungalow and said she was his girlfridnd. He believed her and locked me out of his life. Six months later police were called , she had been physically violent to my brother and stolen all his savings, his Television , a gold watch and credit cards. He then had a heart attack and was in intensive care. His kidneys were not healthy and eventually he needed dialysis. He moved to an assisted home that id applied for through the council. But in 2018, after a week of mum & i caring for him , his end of life care, he died in my arms. Mum had just gone to church to pray for him. By reading your story you prompted me to write mine . I have recently been suffering with anxiety and low moods having moved from my family home of 25 years. I realise that all of the mourning i should have done, i never had a chance to grieve . Having spare time now and time to think about my losses , i think i need grief counselling to allow me to be happy with the years I have left . Im nearly 60 but feel tired of life . It has been one hell of a ride .

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