I never doubted that my parents’ grief for my sister’s death 20 years ago was different from mine. However, it wasn’t until I began to speaking about grief and loss, specifically about suicide loss, that I began to really see how the losses are different. And it wasn’t until I found myself working in the field, particularly doing advocacy work, that I saw why the paths are so unique. I do not believe in “yardsticking grief,” saying that one grief is more difficult than another. Losing a loved one is different for each of us for a variety of reasons.
From the beginning, I knew that siblings often felt left out because they were told to “be strong for their parents,” as if their grief didn’t matter. And I had countless parents tell me that they didn’t realize the depth of grief and how much they neglected their surviving children because they were so caught up in the child they had lost. I often tell people that no one does anything maliciously in grief; we can’t predict how we will react.
But as the years went by, another message blossomed as I talked to more parents and siblings. When attending any sort of event relating to loss or doing advocacy work around it (in my case, about lobbying Congress for more suicide-prevention funding), the bulk of the advocates are parents. There might be a few siblings and spouses, but usually it’s the parents who show up in full force and have managed to raise levels of funding and get bills passed into laws.
The parents, though, sometimes are upset that their surviving children aren’t involved. They talk about how the children aren’t interested in what they are doing, or often don’t want to talk about the sibling who died.
What the parents don’t realize is that the siblings are very aware of the important work their parents are doing. They choose not to take part because they have a much longer life to live without someone they thought would always be there. They are in the thick of getting educated, building careers, starting families, and creating their adult lives in general.
Siblings miss their deceased siblings and they think about them often, but they want to get on with their lives because they don’t want to miss out on more than they have already. They take the sibling with them and never forget him or her. They want to live in the present and make sure that they are building a future.
Parent should never take what appears a lack of interest by sibling as just that; it’s not. They respect what their parents are doing, but they want their energy to go into building a future where they can figure out how to keep the deceased sibling as part of it – and that takes time along with creating the great life they can still have despite such a huge loss.
Michelle Linn-Gust, Ph.D. has spent two decades educating people worldwide about coping with loss and change, and has served as president of the American Association of Suicidology. Her first book following her sister's death, Do They Have Bad Days in Heaven? Surviving the Suicide Loss of a Si..., inspired siblings around the world in their survival after a loved one’s suicide. She recently published her eighth book, Conversations with the Water: A Memoir of Cultivating Hope, chronicling her grief journey as she moves forward beyond the suicide and loss field. Learn more about Michelle at www.inspirebymichelle.com.
Image via Wikimedia Commons/EdwardPo44