Sibling Grief : My personal story
Although the suicide of my grandmother during my first year of university brought its own tsunami of grief, it was my sister’s suicide in 2007 that rocked my world. It wasn’t that I didn’t know it was a possibility, it was a day-nightmare come true. Although Erin struggled with diagnosed bipolar for a few years (although quite certainly since at least her teenage years) and survived two suicide attempts, it was still the phone call I desperately hoped would never come my way.
As the only surviving sibling, the comment I most heard at the funeral went something like: “make sure you stay for strong your parents,” “You need to need to help your mom get through this.” While I am not a parent myself, the anguish of losing a child I realize can seem unbearable – suicide compounds that grief. However, what about my grief as a sibling? I too had lost significantly. I lost the person that shared the same parents, the person I had hoped to grow old with and share trips and memories. The sister I would bounce ideas off of, ask for input, talk about relationships to, help me pick out my next glasses and share the ups and downs and decisions of aging parents. Sibling grief can be just as intense and painful.
Poem written five months following Erin’s death
Wake me up
When the dryness of the
desert leaves my mouth.
When the cotton balls leave my head
and free me from this fog
When the limbs on my body
are attached again
When the salt from my tears
are dried up
When my heart’s gaping hole
begins to fill in.
Death by suicide can feel unbearable. There are days where I thought I would never make it through the day and I would collapse into bed exhausted from even trying. And yet, here I am today as the Executive Director for suicide prevention in Waterloo region. Does that mean I don’t miss my sister? Not a chance. Her picture sits on the corner of my desk and guides my work every day. Although I chose to turn my grief into advocacy and action and am comfortable sharing my story publicly, I realize this is not what most people choose to do. What I do want you to choose is living. I want to tell you that you can make it through this. There will be really difficult days and sometimes it is one step forward two steps back, but you can make it through this. I learned that this is normal and good. It is part of the grief process and is a necessary part of the process.
I learned some wonderful mantras that helped me get through my darkest days – and are still good ones on those days that unbearable grief sneaks up and taps me on the shoulder.
- Be kind to yourself.
- “Don’t SHOULD on yourself; don’t let others SHOULD on you either.”
- Stop the video tape playing in your head– you have control and can pause it at any time.
- When I find myself going down the road of “would have, should have, could have” I stop myself and remind myself that I did the best I could and was a loving, supportive sister.
I also found individual counselling and a suicide grief support group to be incredibly helpful. In addition, I journalled, wrote poetry, read, read and read some more (two favourite books that I found particularly helpful were ‘Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide” by Kay Redfield Jamison and “No Time to Say Goodbye” by Carla Fine), boxed (and often boxed and cried at the same time – a great release of emotions), exercised when I could and listened to my body by sleeping and napping when I needed it. I also created a beautiful photo book that became some of my best therapy. Initially I created it for Erin’s daughter so she would have a book of pictures and stories of her mom as she grew older. What I quickly realized is that this book became therapy for me.
I can’t bring my sister back. But I can bring hope to others in her memory.