Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A Rose By Any Other Name...

"I know not how to tell thee who I am."
~William Shakespeare

     There is no word to describe what you are, or who you have become, after the loss of a sibling. If you lose a spouse you are a widow or a widower.  If you lose your parents you become an orphan.  But if you lose a sibling, or, as it is in my case, all three of your siblings, you just become the girl who's brother died.  The poor girl who's sister passed away.  The woman who tragically lost all three of her siblings.  There is no word in the English language to describe my loss and often times I struggle to find the words to express how I feel. 

     In many ways, siblings experience a double loss; the loss of their sister or brother and the loss of their parents. Surviving children do not only lose a sibling, they also lose the mother and father they once knew.  Everything changes.  I know this from experience.  Though I'm sure my parents did the best that  they could after my oldest brother died tragically at the age of 18, our whole family was changed forever. 

One of the few photos of my brother Bryan and I.
  I was only six years old when my brother Bryan died. I was the youngest of four.  My sister Lynn was 20, my brother Scot was 14.  They grew up with a completely different set of parents than I had. Growing up, I often heard the phrase "BC" which stood for "Before Cathi."  It was often used when stories were told about family trips, activities and traditions.  Fun times.  Happy times.  Times that I didn't experience.  As a child, I thought this to be funny.  As an adult I came to realize that the phrase wasn't so much "BC" but more so "AB~After Bryan." I had missed out on how outgoing and adventurous my parents once were. My childhood was entirely different than that of my siblings.

     Don't get me wrong.  I'm not saying that I had a terrible childhood or a disadvantaged youth. If anything, I was spoiled.  What my parents weren't able to give me emotionally they gave me financially.  I didn't want for anything.  Except that I did.  The emotional separation from my parents during my formative years profoundly influenced my life. Just as it had completely changed our family.  Experiencing death as a child becomes a lifelong experience of processing and understanding the loss, and all of the changes that come with it. 

     I have experienced the death of two different siblings, at two diverse times in my life, and in two contrasting sets of circumstances. Though I was only young when my oldest brother died accidentally, I was 36 when my sister died of breast cancer.  While these two death experiences were entirely different, they impacted my family and me in immeasurable ways.  My understanding and reaction to these deaths contrasted greatly.  

My sister Lynn on her 40th birthday.

     As much as I mourned for, and missed my sister, I still felt sorrier for my parents, for her husband, for her two young boys, for everyone but me.  I thought, "I'm just the sibling,"  their grief was, and should be,  more profound than mine.  I put on a brave face.  I grew up with grief. I knew the role I had to play.  I had to be the strong one.  I had to be there for my parents, who had now lost two of their four children.  I was now married with children of my own.  I couldn't imagine how I would ever manage or cope with the death of one of my own children, let alone two.  My parents were suffering and it was tragic to see.  My grief had to take to the sidelines.

     On September 19th, 2016, two years ago today, tragedy struck my family yet again.  My brother Scot, the only surviving sibling I had, died due to complications from surgery.  Ironically, he had fought and beat cancer just five years earlier. Another devastating blow to our family.  He was 54 years old.  Husband and father of four. 

My favourite picture of Scot.
     The death of my only remaining sibling hit me hard.  Harder than the other two had.  It was an extremely difficult time in my life.  How could I remain strong in the face of this unexpected tragedy?  I felt like I didn't deserve to feel so shattered, especially in the shadow of my parents' immeasurable loss.  

     My brother was the co-keeper of my childhood.  The only one who could relate to what we went through as a family.  He was the only other person who knew what it was like to grow up with our parents, in our home.  His death had me feeling so much more than grief. I could think of only the hard times ahead.  Of the times when my brother wouldn't be by my side.  When my parents began to age and needed care, or when they themselves died.  I was confused and I was angry.  Scot's death was something I could not come to terms with.  Because of this, I knew that I could no longer be the strong one.  

     Being the bookish person that I am, I sought answers in the form of a book.  Sadly, I discovered that there were more books on losing a pet than on losing a sibling.  A handful of books existed for surviving children after a death in the family, but they were geared toward young children.   Many books dealt with losing a parent, a child or a spouse.  There was no handbook for me.  No resource or information on how to heal myself and come to terms with my varied emotions.  This time, I needed to ask for help.  

     For the first time in my life, I sought council and began seeing a therapist.  I realize now, that I should have done this long ago.  I have been given tools to help me become better, not bitter.  I have been shown how to accept my feelings, deal with survivor's guilt and reduce my anxieties over what will happen next.  I have learned to be more mindful and, of all things, grateful.  I have learned that I will never "get over" the loss of my siblings. I must instead move on and through.  I have created a wonderful life for myself in spite of the missing pieces in my life.  Perhaps I am even strong like those well meaning mourners at my brother's funeral asked me to be for my parents. They are now aged 89 and 90.  Their health is failing as is their will.  I am their only living child.  It is a role that I did no want but can not change. 

     My siblings have left my life, but not my heart.  Today, on the second anniversary of Scot's death, I pay tribute to all three of my siblings in a way that he would have loved.  I got a tattoo.

Scot had several and never would he have believed that I too, would adorn my body with one.  It is totally not me, but somehow it is truly fitting.  The semicolon indicates a pause in a sentence.  It is not an ending, rather a sign that my story continues.  Each of the birds symbolizes one of my siblings; Bryan, Lynn and Scot. They are no longer with me, but they remain a part of my story.  Though sometimes I feel as if I were, I am not alone.  I will do my very best to live on for them with love and gratitude on my journey.

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