My father died in 1997. He came from a family of 10 children, five of whom have since died. My aunt Minke wrote a book about that: Brotherly soul alone? The book stirred up a lot of emotions and had eight reprints in a short time. Grief for a deceased sibling turned out to be forgotten grief. In English, mourners are called forgotten grifters named.
To illustrate an anecdote: when a friend's mother died, the uncles and aunts (his mother's siblings) lined up with people who came to offer their condolences. They apparently did not need to be condoled themselves. Or maybe that didn't occur to them.
Stories of experience
My aunt Minke specialised in the subject. It became her mission to make mourning for a deceased sibling discussable. She gives lectures and guest lectures across the country. In 2015, she published Als you have a brother or sister loses. It is based on her first book, revised and supplemented by longer stories of experience. Ten chapters look at loss in different ways. The text includes quotes from people who have lost a sibling themselves.
"I felt sick for months. Nauseous with grief. Utterly defeated, anxious. Difficulty with strange people, with strange situations. I often thought I had to leave my wife because I didn't want to lose her in death like I had lost my sister. I most wanted to leave everyone I loved. Friends, family. Everyone. Pack my things and leave." (Vincent, 32)
Every day, people lose a brother or sister. The grief over this often lasts a lifetime.
I asked my aunt Minke seven questions about the forgotten grief. Her answers were sometimes confrontational because they were partly about my own family. My father, uncles and aunts. They also made it clear to me that the book If you lose a sibling should be on many more reading tables. It seems high time this mourning stopped forgotten becomes. Hopefully, this article will contribute to that.
I couldn't escape starting with the most personal question.
What is it like to lose four brothers and a sister?
"It was five different losses. In a different context, at a different age and with each of them I had such a different relationship. Especially that, of course, plays into it. Your father and your uncle Geert, for example, were in their 60s when they died, which was quite an age for our family. There was a certain comfort in that."
What is the difference between losing a father or mother and a brother or sister?
"That is different at every age. For a young child, the death of a father or a mother is a disaster. But then the death of a brother or sister is also a disaster and that is less well seen. Coincidentally, I heard Jeroen Krabbe on television talking about Pablo Picasso. That he had lost his seven-year-old sister to typhoid when he was 13 and that he had been obsessed with death and the fear of death ever since. For many artists, the death of a sibling has had a major impact on their work.
Growing up together
"You grow up together with your sibling. Your parents are of a different generation. They are old in your perception and that also brings with it the realisation that one day they will no longer be there. You can also see this with the ageing of their parents and the death of your grandparents. Once your parents would become old and possibly frail, you and your brother or sister will hopefully be able to take care of them.
"However, this is not for everyone. It is a huge shock when one day it turns out that your brother or sister with whom you naturally thought to grow old together dies prematurely. That is in no way in your 'expectation pattern'. Nothing prepares you for this hole that falls so close beside you in the chain of life... someone of your own generation and roughly of more or less your own age."
Why is it that so little attention is paid to sibling mourning?
"That still remains a question for me too. Maybe it is the most common grief process, such a common thing that we have started to overlook it?
A great deal of research has been done on the course of grief processes. These mainly concern the loss of a child or a partner, the two major areas of research. Gradually, there has also been a shift in this and there was even room for, for example, the loss of a pet and the grief that can accompany it. So far, however, curiously, hardly any research has been done on sibling grief, which means it may remain a blind spot.
Research is needed to gain knowledge about it and educate about it. Professionals are not confronted with it now in their training. They are often unaware of the impact the death of a sibling can have on someone's' life and health. If you 'never' hear or read anything about it in your field then it doesn't exist for you.
The only knowledge we have about it are the experiences of siblings themselves who, for many reasons, do not easily talk about it with others. My book Brotherly soul alone? is based on the experiences of people who themselves lost a sibling, briefly, longer or sometimes a very long time ago. They were happy and willing to talk to me at length about it, and I based the book on their experiences."
"When it came out in 2005, it was the first book on the loss of a sibling in Dutch mourning literature. Shortly before that, a wonderful book came out in America by Elisabeth DeVita-Raeburn, titled The Emtpy Room - Understanding Sibling Loss, it too noted that there is hardly any information about this grief in the grief literature.
So why isn't more research being done one wonders... my understanding is that this is mainly a question of lack of money. Who could have an interest in subsidising research on siblings? There is no economic interest involved.
I have the Stichting Broederziel established and we tried for years to get funding for research. Eventually we ran aground when the Mental Health Fund rejected our well-documented application, saying: 'You need to prove that this is complicated grief.... before we start putting money into it!' We need research for that, don't we?"
"I remember well that the Sunday school teacher wrote that my sister keeps her eternal youth in heaven or something like that. People also sometimes think you see each other again later. Then I think: 'Well come on, do I, as a woman well into her eighties, have to say to a girl of twenty: 'I am your little sister'." (Willy, 83 years old)
How does the loss of a sibling affect relationships in a family?
"Relationships in a family change when a sibling dies. There is an empty place that may or may not be filled by one of the others. I lost my brother Wim (32) when I turned 21. From the moment I heard the news, I tried in every possible way to take care of my parents and give them some joy in life again. In vain, of course. I recognise this in many siblings' stories of going to take care of their parents or the sibling's partner or children.
Ideally, you learn to relate to each other again as a family and you can talk about your sibling together. In practice, little of that happened in our home, everyone processed it in their own way and I think we as sisters and brothers basically just shut down. In any case, we were not able to share our grief together. Not even when later our sister Baukje (42) and even later our brother Lex (45) died."
"Family dynamics these days are often depicted in Bert Hellinger's so-called Constellations from the idea that the love in a system can flow optimally when each member of the system is in his or her own place. I also once did such a constellation on our family and it looked dramatic. There were five corpses on the ground and five stragglers in the picture who could no longer touch each other.
That sculpture and the painting by Edvard Munch Death in the sick room that on the cover of Brotherly soul alone? stood are two very clear representations of the appeal that the death of a sibling does to the whole family. This also makes you aware of a certain responsibility to the previous and next generation."
Why do siblings often find it difficult to talk about their grief?
"Looking at myself: no one ever asked about it and I didn't even realise I was in a grieving process. When I started my 'research' in 2003, I didn't even dare to call it a grief process. I didn't see it described anywhere as such, didn't know if it even existed.
The choice not to talk about anything also came from seeing my parents mourn and my brother's partners and children. Those were the ones around whom it revolved... it was already very special if every now and then someone also condoled me. .
An inner reason why it is difficult is probably that it is getting so terribly close...from being young you have shared a lot with your siblings anyway. So if they suddenly die then you might be next. After all, you are of the same flesh and blood. You might also have the same disease... Suppose your sister dies of breast cancer and you turn out to have the gene for breast cancer yourself. That's a very stressful situation, not only have you lost your sister but you've been given a death sentence yourself at the same time...."
You stress the importance of guidance? What should that look like?
"In America, siblings are referred to as forgotten grifters. It is important to pay explicit attention to this form of mourning. Also because it very often involves young people and the course of the mourning process can have consequences for the rest of their lives and the choices they make in it.
It would be a big step forward if the range of groups for mourners in the Netherlands included one specifically for people who have lost a sibling. They have a very different story from widows and widowers whose grief is so well known and generally recognised and acknowledged, thankfully.
If you can talk about your sibling a few times in a group with peers, it can give you space to start seeing in what ways the loss has marked and possibly enriched your own life. And to choose in which way you want to 'take' your sibling into the rest of your life."
You suggest that losing a sibling can make you 'a better person'. How?
"Not in the sense that you were not a good person at first and because of the loss you were or anything.
This work made me realise that being silent about my deceased brothers and sister made me poorer and not only me but also the people around me, for example my children. They had once had an uncle Lex about whom I hardly told them anything because he was no longer around anyway. Gradually I started telling about him and the others every now and then, mentioning their names, and the children noticed how much I started beaming when I talked about them. They came alive. They have now become just their uncles and aunties even though they no longer live on this earth, something of the richness of their presence in my life now flows through to the next generation and makes both them and me 'more' human."