My name is Susan Whitmore, and, most importantly to me, I am Erika Whitmore Godwin's mother. I am also the founder and president of griefHaven. Before anything else, I want you to know how sorry I am about Kyle. I have heard from many people what an amazing person he was. Often people do not realize that losing a brother or sister is so painful and that your days and nights are filled with grief and wondering how you are supposed to deal with such a loss.
For the first six years after I started the foundation, I included a letter I personally wrote with every Packet of Hope. I thought I would be able to do that forever; however, I had no idea how large and in demand griefHaven would be become, nor how much it was needed by the thousands of parents and siblings all over the world who now depend upon us for hope, love, education, and support. I thought, "Okay, so I can't write a personal letter to each one any longer, but I CAN write something meaningful and helpful." This letter will give you a sense of the journey you are on─the journey of rebuilding your life without your sibling. Siblings tell us that they read this letter over and over throughout the years and find things within it that helps them as time goes on, for some of this you will relate to now, some you will relate to later, and some won't be a part of your journey at all, as we are all unique in the ways we grieve. Consider this a timeless piece of hope that keeps on giving. I hope you will see beyond the words into the essence of the message. These are the universal threads of truth that weave us all together and forever bind us, heart to heart.
As I said, so often people forget that siblings also grieve, that they are dealing with the loss on a deeply intense level, and that they are also having to deal with seeing their parents in so much pain—all experiences that siblings have never had before and will most likely never have again.
Losing a sibling is a unique type of loss, which is why when I started this foundation I also committed to supporting siblings. In fact, you can read our past Sibling Voice newsletters on our website. They are written by siblings and are for siblings. We also encourage parents and others to read that newsletter so they will better understand what you go through. The Sibling Voice newsletter is sent by way of email, so, if you aren’t already on our mailing list, you may easily do so right on our website.
One of the common threads we regularly hear from siblings is how others tell them that they must be strong for their parents. Although a comment like that might be well meaning, it is one of the worst pieces of advice someone could ever burden a sibling with, for that comment entirely negates the fact that you, as the sibling, are also grieving. So how can you be in such intense grief AND be strong for someone else? It's really not a fair request, and, on the other hand, it's a downright unhealthy thing for you to be doing. Your parents will find their own types of support, and, as a family, you can grieve together, but not where one is responsible for holding up the other. At some point that will become possible as you each gain your footing on this journey and find your way to live with this loss. Ways you can do that are literally crying together, talking about your sibling openly and whenever any of you want, finding ways to memorialize your sibling, including your sibling in all of your family events in a way that is meaningful to you, and doing things differently from now on if that works, such as changing the holiday celebrations and normal traditions. In this way, your sibling's death will bring you closer together as a family.
Here is a story an adult sibling shared with me many years ago. He lost his brother when he was 14 and his brother was 16. He was 34 when he told me this story. Even though you might be older or younger than this sibling was, I have found in my work with siblings that this is the story they almost all tell.
Right after my brother died, everyone was coming to the house. My mother cried all of the time, and my father held his sorrow in, as if everything was okay and normal, even though I knew it wasn’t. When the doorbell would ring, I would answer it, and the people would rush past me to my parents, hugging them, crying with them, and telling them how sorry they were. But I stood there, in the hallway, leaning against the wall, and rarely did anyone ever say anything to me.
I felt alone, and I was utterly confused about the pain I was feeling. I walked around with a stomach ache all of the time, and it took years before I realized that the ache was actually held in and ignored grief. I cried alone in my room and wondered what was happening to me. And my friends were no help because they had no way of understanding my loss. If I tried to talk to them, they clammed up, and there was that awkward moment, so I stopped talking to them altogether. I acted out angrily a lot, and went off alone other times. Plus, our family dynamic changed. My parents no longer spent the kind of time with me the way they had in the past, and they never explained to me what was happening to them or our family. There was very little affection or showing of love after my brother died—just pain. Plus, I watched my father’s lack of reaction or tears, so I thought I was weak because I would cry, so I constantly tried to stop the tears and “will” myself not to think about my brother or cry.
At the time my brother died the types of information and support out there today did not exist. If my family had received some education and support, our story would have been quite different. At the very least, I might have been able to understand that we were all grieving in our own ways, that those ways were fine, and that I didn’t have to be the strong one for Mom and Dad. I might have also learned that being “strong” does not mean that a person doesn’t show their emotions; quite the opposite, in fact.
It took years for me to understand that my parents had done the best they could and that what I was experiencing was normal, healthy grief. I took the changes in our family personally and thought they loved him more than me, or at least wondered if they could still love me since he had died. It was the worst time of my life, and is still hard in many ways. Now, as an adult, I understand the dynamics of all that was happening to everyone. I also know that it is not my job to be strong for or support my parents. In fact, they didn’t even expect that of me. That came from others and from within me.
I recommend to other parents that they include their children in their grieving process. You need to show your children what healthy, normal grief looks like. Give them permission to talk about their brother or sister. That will be very helpful and bring everyone closer together.
Perhaps you see some of your journey somewhere in his experience, even though you might differ age-wise. In fact, we call grieving siblings “The Forgotten Ones,” and our next documentary film will be titled “Portraits of Hope: The Sibling’s Journey” and will be all about siblings and the journey they take after they lose a brother or sister.
I also want you to know you are not alone, for sharing with other siblings who are many years on this journey ahead of you is a precious gift, since no one can understand this journey who hasn't been there. And my promise to you is that, with the correct tools, love, commitment to this process and support, you will find your way to a life with a "new normal" and "new meaning and purpose." I know the last thing you want to hear is that a new life will be created where you will bring your sibling with you into the rest of your life in a new and different way, keeping your sibling’s memory alive in all of the ways you find beautiful. Yet, that is an important part of the grieving process, for your sibling will always be just that—your brother or sister. Nothing ever changes a relationship—not even death can do that.
So how do you take those next steps? Try everything you can possibly find that might even remotely help you, and try it at least once. If it doesn’t work or isn’t helpful, you’ll know and won’t do it again. Hold onto the idea that the sorrow and pain you are feeling now will not last forever. It’s so hard to believe that in the beginning, but it’s true. I promise. Hold onto the truth that you will know happiness and joy again, for you will. This letter will be a part of helping you do just that. When our brothers and sisters are here with us, it is such an easy thing to do. Now, it is difficult and challenging. There are thousands of brothers and sisters all around the world who have walked this journey many years ahead of you, and they have all created new lives that do include meaning and happiness. They have made sure that their sibling is an integral part of their new lives. They stand as pillars of hope.
About your journey . . .
Once someone we are very close to dies, especially someone who dies at a young age, we are forever thereafter reminded that our lives can be changed in one split moment, and the landscape that was once so familiar, green, and beautiful looks like it is unfamiliar, barren, and meaningless. I remember that, during the first year after Erika died, everything hurt: my skin, my heart, my eyes, my muscles, everything. Even taking a shower was painful as the water hit my skin. The pain was so acute that I couldn’t feel anything else, even love coming in. I cried every day, sometimes all day. I felt like I was watching myself go through the motions of life—as if I were in an altered reality. I often said, “This can’t be happening” or “My God, what happened?“ or “Why? Why her?” I was trying to make sense of it all, and that is something that we all try to do— make sense of something so senseless.
The first period of time that we call the period of “impact” is very difficult. That brings with it all of the intense and painful emotions that come and go at any given time of the day or night. Siblings often talk about how they feel as if they are being snuck up on by the grief or as if the grief has a life of its own. There are many different ways this grief manifests. You may be unable to sleep or eat. You might feel as if nothing matters and you are unable to experience any joy or happiness in your life like you used to. You might be angry at everyone, such as your parents, friends, God, the hospital, or anyone involved in your brother’s or sister’s death. You might even feel anger toward your brother or sister who died.
You might replay over and over again in your mind certain moments and feel as if you can’t control those thoughts. You might feel guilt, as if you should or could have done something to stop this from happening, because you weren't there enough, or even that you should be the one who died, not your sibling (called “survivor’s guilt). You may notice that your friends and other family members are saying things to you that are not helpful at all—things that irritate you. You might feel depressed in a way that you never experienced before, and you might find that you are exhausted all of the time. Perhaps you can’t sleep, or you fall asleep only to wake up three hours later. You might feel like being alone or, conversely, you might feel like being around people constantly because you don’t want to be alone. And there are many other reactions that siblings experience during this period. The point is this: all of these responses are normal and healthy for you to allow yourself to feel. I know they feel horrible and that you want them to go away and never return; however, all of those feelings and experiences are your body's natural way of dealing with your intense feelings, somewhat in the same way that your body would make you cough if you had something in your throat. It's a strange comparison, I know, but it is only to point out how natural it is to grieve in whatever way you do that. What is not natural or healthy is to feel nothing or block out your feelings.
As time goes on and you give yourself permission to be in the experiences of what grief is for you, you will eventually notice that your sadness starts to become softer. There is a reason this is called “grief work.” It takes a big commitment for everyone impacted by this death, and it’s difficult. However, this is not a linear process where, like the flu, you get better and better every day. This is like a roller coaster ride where you are up and down and up and down and feel as if you have no control. With lots of love, patience, and hope, you will rebuild your life and take your brother or sister with you into your new life. You will find ways to memorialize your sibling and keep his or her memory alive. Life will go forward with new meaning and purpose, but it will be the new meaning and purpose you create. You might not even notice the progression or changes in your life as you travel this journey until you look back.
Also, you may notice that your parents are grieving differently or maybe even having disagreements because they are noticing the differences in their ways of dealing with this loss. This sometimes scares siblings, as they aren’t sure what to make of it. Rumors abound about how the death of a child causes most parents to divorce. That is absolutely untrue. In fact, no one can figure out where or how that rumor got started. The truth of the matter is that most parents go on to build even stronger and deeper relationships with each other and their children. In the beginning it is difficult for everyone, because this type of loss does not come with a “how to” manual, so everyone is trying to figure out how to grieve and go on in life. Everyone is afraid that the pain they are in now is what their lives will be like forever. So sometimes it takes a while for parents to find their way, just as it will for you.
Just as we tell parents there is no wrong way to grieve except not to grieve at all, we tell you the same thing. If you can, walk alongside your parents and other brothers and sisters, talk about your sibling, ask your parents and friends to talk about your sibling if that is comforting to you, let others know what you need and what works and doesn’t work, and be kind, gentle, and loving with yourself. It is okay to cry loudly or sit quietly and let the tears stream down your face. Everyone finds a different way. You can see that what I am saying is that your way is what is right for you. There may be times when you want a hug. There may be times when you just want someone to sit quietly and listen. There may be times when you want to “sweat it out” by working in the garden, going to the gym, playing sports. There may be times when you need to go to the ocean or into nature and just scream and yell at the top of your lungs. It’s all okay, and you could have all of those needs in the course of a day. Believe it or not, that is perfectly normal, too.
Sometimes friends or spouses, out of their love for you, might try to be helpful by putting pressure on you to do something you don’t want to do, such as “get out” or not talk about your sibling because they think it upsets you. They mean well, but remember that they have not lost a brother or sister—you have. And remember that they can’t possibly know the experiences you are having inside, even when you explain them. So out of their own uncomfortable feelings, friends and loved ones will often say things that make you feel angry or upset. It’s just their lack of education about grief that results in saying and doing the wrong things. You can refer people to our document online entitled, “What Can I Do? What Can I Say?” It will bring everyone up to the current grief information and help all of those around you know what does and does not work. Also, if you can, let people know what does and does not work for you. I know it’s a lot to ask of you in the midst of so much already going on, but it will guarantee that you will get the love and support you need in the form you need it. Here is an example of what you might consider doing. If someone says, “At least you have other brothers and sisters.” You could say, “True, yet my siblings are not interchangeable. My brother’s death has left a hole, and no amount of siblings will fill it.” Or if someone says, “I understand how you feel,” you can respond with, “I used to think I understood how others felt, but you can’t possibly know until it’s happened to you.” In other words, let them know the truth. This has a two-fold result: (1) It lets the person know that whatever they just said wasn’t comforting or helpful to you, so they won’t say it again; and (2) It educates the person about grief overall, which helps everyone overall. You may also encourage your loved ones to go to the website and read all of the information there for those who want to know how to support you. There are also a lot of great books on sibling loss. You will find them on our website or just send us an email, and we’ll send you a list.
Siblings often ask questions like, “Why did this happen to my brother or sister?” or “My sibling was such a good person. Why him or her?” Or “He was always so careful. How could this have happened?” We all seek answers to questions when someone dies young, and I asked it myself over and over again about Erika getting cancer and dying. Eventually, you will find your own answers to those questions. Some people find that they reach a scientifically-based answer that works for them. Other people find a more spiritual answer that works for them. And some people eventually decide that there is no answer that satisfies them, and they simply accept that not having an answer is okay.
So there are many ways to find your own answer to the “why?” question, and you will. “Will I always feel the pain I feel right now?” The answer is no, you won’t. This I promise. “What can I do to make the pain go away?” This is where that notion of grieving your own way comes in, for you will find that by allowing yourself to grieve is actually what allows the grief to be freed from inside of you. You need to give your grief a voice, which means a way to be expressed so that what is inside of you comes out of you. In families we often find that everyone is trying to be strong for everyone else, and they think “being strong” means not crying, not showing that they are upset, or avoiding talking about their sibling completely. Fathers will often say, “I have to be strong for my family,” thinking that that means not showing any emotions. The truth is that true strength comes from a willingness to feel what is naturally occurring within you, and that is not stuffing your feelings or pretending to be different than you are. Plus, it is just downright unhealthy to do that. Grief will wait for you to deal with it as long as you choose, so let’s do it now and not later down the road. Plus, grief not dealt with can come out in other unhealthy ways, such as drinking, drugs, anger, distancing one’s self from other loved ones, poor choices in life, bad relationships, and so forth.
As a general guideline as what you can actively be doing right now to help you with your grief, we recommend:
- Try everything once to see if it helps you. For instance, you might feel that attending a grief group is not something you want to do. Yet, you won’t know if it is helpful unless you try it. You can always leave or never go back, but to pass up something that you find is actually of help would be a shame.
- Educate yourself about grief, just the same way you would if you found out you or a dear friend had a disease. You wouldn’t just sit back and do nothing if you found out about a unique illness you were diagnosed with. That is NOT to say that grief is an illness; it is not. It is a natural and normal response to losing someone we love. Read books about sibling loss. Read our sibling newsletters. These are just a few of the ways you can educate yourself. We suggest you partner with your grief and take care of yourself.
- Use everything we have to offer on our website, as well as other websites, until you find the things that are helping you through your days and nights. For instance, all of our past newsletters can be read right on our website. You can watch TV shows we’ve been on, listen to music we recommend, make a memory page for your sibling, etc.
- If you can, read books about your loss or any other types of books that you find helpful.
- Exercise, even if it’s just a short walk. It’s proven that the endorphins and dopamine you receive from a small amount of exercise help with depression and grief.
- Avoid watching and listening to things that only cause you more pain, such as tragedies that play over and over on the news. Those things only re-traumatize the brain and make your journey even harder.
- Deal with the looping thoughts that keep playing over and over in your head, especially when you are alone, driving, or trying to sleep. We have an scientifically proven exercise that changes those looping thoughts over time, so let us know if you would like to learn it.
- Write. It can be a private journal, no holds barred, or poetry or a story about your sibling. Writing down your thoughts and feelings helps deal with them.
- Honor your sibling’s life by keeping his or her memory alive. This doesn’t have to be a major fanfare; rather, it can be simple ways that you all decide to do that, including simply talking about him.
- Keep their memory alive by talking about them, doing things that remind you of them, including them in all celebrations, sharing videos and photos, and helping children, new friends, and others remember them.
- Make decisions regarding with whom you spend your time based on whether that person makes you feel safe and loved. Although not everyone is able to be a good “listener” when you need to talk about your grief, there are friends who are still good friends. Consequently, you might find that old friends turn out to be people that do not fit in with the “new you,” so feel free to change things around to protect yourself.
- See green. Science has shown us over and over again that being in a “green” environment where there are trees, bushes, flowers, grass, anything green changes the brain and helps with grief. Even just walking in a neighborhood where there are trees is good enough. Being in nature generally is helpful.
- If you experience that the love and general feelings of joy and happiness are now missing in your life because of your loss (know that this is very normal for a while), then create that joy or happiness yourself. Remember that joy and happiness are just fleeting moments—that they come and go quickly. You can create these for yourself by knowing what makes you smile, inwardly and outwardly. For instance, for me watching the birds eat from the feeders outside of our deck or use the fountain to drink and clean their feathers not only gives me joy, but it makes me laugh. There are so many ways you can do this for yourself and your loved ones, and starting right away is fine.
- Know that grieving is not something you have to do 24/7. You will most likely see that you grieve for a period of time and then it starts to subside. If you feel a need to be alone when you are grieving, that is fine, but then get up and do something else.
- Watch TV shows, attend events, etc. that make you laugh, even if just for a second or two.
- LAST and most importantly, tell yourself that you want to be happy and embrace life again. Part of the grief journey that is so difficult is knowing that most of it is up to you as to how you move forward. So you need to make that choice and do the work. It doesn’t just happen in the most healthy and best way possible by doing nothing except allowing time to pass on. There is much information out there today that will enable you to fully embrace life while also bring your sibling along with you into that new life.
Your entire “being” is going through this loss, it’s impacting you on every level, and it doesn’t matter whether you knew beforehand that your sibling was going to die or it was a sudden loss. So as you move forward in time, you will notice that you see everything in life differently and that you are changing as a person. You might find that your choice in friends will change, that you are drawn to different interests than before, and that what once mattered to you no longer seems important. You need to know that your sibling’s life was not in vain. There are so many ways you can keep your sibling’s memory alive, not only in your personal life but in the lives of everyone else around you.
I know this is a lot for you to try and digest all in one sitting. But since I have this time with you right now, I wanted to give you a lifeline to hold onto so that, whenever you feel as if you cannot go on another day feeling the way you do at an intensely grieving moment, you will remember the words I have shared with you and/or reread them again. Here are some thoughts: It will get better, life will eventually be happy and joyful again, you will find new meaning and purpose in your life, and you will go on and do something in life, whether large or small, inspired by your sibling’s memory. That is the greatest legacy your sibling could leave behind—to impact others through your life.
If you ever have any ideas regarding how we can support siblings like yourself, please write to me personally. If you ever want to share a story, poem, thought, or photos, you can do that, too. You can even put together a memory page of your sibling for free on our website where hundreds of thousands of people will see it. And we are always looking for articles written by siblings for our newsletter, so know that that is yet another way to honor your brother or sister.
Just know that we are here for you and that, even though your beloved sibling is no longer here, nothing can change the fact that your sibling will always be just that--your sibling, for death may be able to end a life here on earth, but it can never, ever end a relationship.
From my heart to yours,
Susan Whitmore, BS/BM, CGC
Founder & CEO