Youngest No More
Two months ago I celebrated my 48th birthday. I'd decided this year to celebrate and push through and beyond the concept that I was now the oldest of the kids. My sister died at the age of 47 and my brother at the age of 39. I'd surpassed them both in age and this has been difficult to wrap my head around. And trying to express my conflicted emotions to anyone else has been an exhaustive effort met with a complete inability to truly understand what I am feeling. But, I do not blame those with whom I have tried to share my thoughts for being unable to express anything other than factual statements of time healing, moving on and other platitudes. They have not lost their siblings.
It was one thing to go through the heartbreak of the death of my brother; my big brother. The oldest of us three he was the father figure and protector and at the same time a typical big brother full of mischief where his sisters were concerned. He had a kind of half smile he would famously flash that seemed to intensify the blue of his eyes thus distracting anyone about to question what he was up to. Instead they would be charmed and any possibility of his involvement in any devious deed was forgotten. As an adult he made choices that may not have been the best for him, but he always accepted any consequence that came with those choices. Memories of him from our childhood are the fondest for me. Our teenage years were complicated and we were not able to experience three of us in the same home. Never the less, when we were all reunited, we did share occasions together that linger in my heart. When he died, my sister stepped in and made arrangements, paid for burial, and made many decisions my mom was unable to make at the time.
My sister was always the do-er. She was always busy, always moving. As a kid I idolized her and she would be annoyed and flattered at the same time by my constant adoration and need to be involved in whatever she was doing. She was two years older than me, but we shared many of the same friends. Her ability to be blunt cost her many relationships, but those that endured were solid. If you were her friend, you knew it without question. She was also my protector often referring to me - even just before she died - as her little sissy. Her laugh was contagious and I used to laugh with her mainly because one of her eyes would close when she laughed really hard and she would be unable to open it. I envied her artistry and small feet neither of which I inherited from the family gene pool. When she died I felt lost. My brother was gone, and now my sister. Never again would I be whole; too much of where I came from was gone.
After my sister died, I was surrounded by people who offered their condolences. They also reiterated what I already knew; that I must be so sad after losing my best friend. Sad was not the word. I also heard many many times how much my mom must be hurting. Yes, she was. I would never and hope to know how she must feel - losing two children - and I did have much sympathy and pain for her.
My sister was married and left behind three children and a widower who adored her. Death does not leave anyone even in the outer circle of acquaitence untouched. My heart broke for my nephews and niece and my brother-in-law. People continued to offer their sympathy to me ending it each time with how sad her husband, children and mother must be feeling. I wanted to snap, "Hello...I'm hurting too!" Why is it that no one understood that I had just lost my only other sibling. The two people in my life who knew me better than anyone else, even my mother. What mother knows all of your crushes or the times you cut school or the late nights out playing when you were supposed to be in bed. Secrets, discussions, jokes all shared between three kids. All raised in the same house, aware of where we came from. Able to fully understand how we each felt. And we were all born in the month of September, something that bonded us more solidly.
I started to become angry when people expressed their sympathies. My brother-in-law knew and loved my sister for 14 years. I knew and loved her my entire life. I was aware that I was not being reasonable, but I needed someone to understand. Looking for empathy I searched in vain for sibling grief groups and found nothing. Only on-line forums; impersonal, distant, electronic support. I decided to go to a counselor who told me it was too soon for me to be in grief counseling. First I needed to be stuck at one of the processes before she could help. Meanwhile my mom, brother-in-law, nephews and niece were all receiving counseling. The loneliness began to overcome me and my isolation grew.
Objects of Affection
Even as I was searching for an outlet for myself, I was also extending myself to my mom, brother-in-law, niece, nephews and my own children. My kids had a wonderful relationship with their aunt with not a day going by in between visits with her. The grief was growing but was being pushed down further into the deal with you later part of my soul. I had to be strong, and many people were counting on me. Then the objects began coming. My brother-in-law needed to remove her clothes from his closet because he was having a difficult time getting through his days whenever he would see them, so I took them to my house. My mom was having a difficult time with photos, paintings my sister had done and momentos she had gathered. In addition, she had pulled out the small box of belongings my brother had left behind and realized it was keeping her depressed. She asked if I could take these things to my house and I agreed. I was also receiving items from my niece that she was not ready to have at her house; her mom's jewelry box to be specific, full of items to go through. That also ended up at my house. Suddenly I was surrounded by objects that had belonged to my sister and brother and I was still stiffling my own pain.
One day I decided to open the closet where my sister's clothes were and try to look through. I was overwhelmed with the smell of her perfume immediately after the door was opened. It hit me like a slap across the face and the tears began to pour from my eyes like an overflowing sink. Endless amounts of water followed by an inability to control my breathing. Weeping, shaking and losing complete control over my thought process I went into the garage to escape the possibility of my kids seeing me. There I was met with the box of my brothers and more boxes of my sister's belongings. I found myself on the edge of sanity. Never had I felt this overcome with the inability to control my emotions, thoughts, actions. An erruption of all that had been stuffed down had begun and it would not be short term.
I managed to call a friend who talked me into the house after I was able to sputter a few words in between the unstoppable sobs that took over my body, and she grasped the emotional severity of my situation. She kept me on the phone for about an hour, managed to get me to a speaking state and made me promise to call a counselor again. It was all I could do to make that phone call.
I'm a Survivor
After finding a counselor that specialized in grief and making an appointment I felt surprisingly better just at the thought of being able to speak to someone. Someone who had no ties to me or my family. I wanted to speak without feeling guilty about not showing enough sympathy to my mom and brother-in-law. I wanted to cry for myself. I wanted to let someone know how lost, empty and alone I now felt. How the dynamics of my family completely changed now, and how my future, my kids future, everything would be different. I also felt like I did not deserve to be on this earth anymore.
My sister had a wonderful career that she loved. She and her husband lived in her dream home; they had designed it and built it themselves, and it was a home that she had always wanted. Designed around a kitchen that she lived to entertain in. She was financially secure, had three great kids. She and her husband were friends as well as a married couple. He would do anything for her and even took over the responsibility of raising her older two kids when they married. He was nine years her junior but their age difference never mattered to him. And through every bit of chemo, every doctor appointment, ever pill - he was there for her. She deserved to be here still.
My brother had lived a hard life. As I said he had made choices that were not the best, but he owned them and the consequences that came. We had always hoped that he would make permanent changes in his life that would allow him stability of a home so we would know where he was and not worry that the streets had swallowed him up. Finally at the beginning of his 39th year, he had a job, was living with my mom and helping her with her rent. He was turning his life around although conforming to a system he felt was unfair made him angry, it was better than not knowing where he would lay his head. And he was tired. Things were looking up, and he was in great spirits for the first time in a very long time. Then one week before his 40th birthday, he went to sleep and never woke up. At least he was in a home, in a bed. But he was turning his life around. He deserved to be here still.
Yes, I had kids, a job, had worked hard for years to get through an abusive marriage and regain my strength and freedom. But it did not seem fair to me that one of them or even both of them were taken away from potential. They both had potential. Why was I still here? What made me deserve to live in this life? That question was the question haunting me, and every visit to the cemetary where my siblings were buried together, resurrected that question. This was what was at the core of my grief. When I went to the counselor it was named; survivor guilt.
I will not say that it has become easier to go through each day, each holiday, each event without my siblings. Their loss still remains fresh. But I do recognize and acknowledge my feelings which has aided in my ability to look at things in a more positive way. It is okay for me to live, love, experience life in the way that my siblings would have themselves and in the way that they would want me to still. It is also okay for me to feel sad and not try to be superhuman.
I can not bring them back and my life will never be the same. It will never be the way the three of us once talked about when we were outside our home contemplating the year 2000; how old we would be, our visions and dreams of our future. That one day is still very clear in my mind. and although their futures came to an end sooner than mine, I owe it to them and to myself to fulfill the future I wanted then. The future I want and deserve now.