Society places a premium on some relationships, notably those between husband and wife and between a parent and a child. There's a good reason these bonds are basic to any society.
XTC But families consist of other relationships as well, and those deaths can affect us just as deeply. When death claims a spouse, a parent or a child, the survivors in the relationship are accorded the special sympathy reserved for primary mourners. Yet often the relatives and friends who offer comfort will tend to overlook others whose grief is also intense.
A 24-year-old California woman writes to tell of her own feelings ,, when her brother died:
"Although no one death is the same, I would like to clarify something. My older brother died a sudden death at the age of 20. I was the next oldest, being 17. In the past, when I have told people of this traumatic experience the first thing they say is, 'Oh, your poor mother, how she must feel.' Yes, my mother and my father went through a horrible nightmare, but I was not unaffected by it. I remember at the funeral, everyone (everyone being the adults) coming up and telling me to help my mother out and take care of her.
"'What about me?' I was asking myself. Did anyone but me notice that I too had lost someone, my oldest brother, the one who is supposed to make all of the mistakes and then live to tell me how to avoid them? Well, he made the mistakes and didn't live to tell me. Now I'm left to figure them out on my own, and these adults are telling me to take care of my mother.
"The point I'm trying to make is that children are very much affected, too, and although they may not show it right away, they too need to be listened to. Maybe then they can also start the healing process and begin to understand that they need to adjust to their loved one's absence." -- April Gentry, Garden Grove, Calif.
This is a message we all need to hear. Siblings are an irreplaceable part of our lives. They are the people who know us in ways our spouses, friends and colleagues never will.
They may be, as in April Gentry's case, the older siblings who were supposed to help us along in ways parents can't. Or they may be the younger brother or sister we always watched out for. These are roles and influences that shape our lives in important ways.
Even when family ties stay close, siblings inevitably move into lives of their own, creating new relationships with spouses and children that take precedence over brothers and sisters. But that doesn't make the loss of a sibling less painful or lessen the survivor's need for sympathy and support.
In this case, the loss was complicated by the fact that the brother was young. His life was still ahead of him, making his family's job of coming to terms with his death even more difficult.
It also brought home to his sister the scary fact that death is not something that happens only to people who reach what appears to be a ripe old age.
Dealing with any death can be hard emotional work. But that work needs to be done.
When siblings die, it helps if other relatives and friends recognize that their brothers and sisters grieve, too, that they have lost an important person in their lives and that, like their parents, they must adjust to a new configuration in their family relationships.
Like their parents, they will need to talk, to cry, to remember their brother or sister. And, just like their parents, they will need the love, support and patient sympathy of relatives and friends.
*Send your comments and questions about death and dying to Sara Engram, Mortal Matters, The Evening Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278
$Universal Press Syndicate