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Loss, Mourning and Shiva

By Our Guest Blogger, The Other Debra

None of us were surprised when we received an urgent message that our brother had passed away.  Seven years ago, he was diagnosed with Glioblastoma; a devastating and aggressive brain tumor. My family and I are grateful for every day our brother lived and for the courage, determination and dignity with which he fought his illness.

I am blessed to have grown up in a warm, loving and close-knit family. Our nuclear family was comprised of 3 sisters, a brother and of course, our parents. Our mother passed away quite suddenly at the age of 58, leaving our family in shock and desperately clinging to one another. At the time 3 of us were married, my older sister, brother and me.  Our youngest sister, 26, was single.  It seemed natural, at the time, for my sisters and me to support one another and for our brother to find solace with his wife and family. At this time, we all followed a natural course of events and my brother developed a different kind of relationship with me and my sisters.  As I am transported from the shiva of today to the one from years back, (they couldn’t have been more different) I am reminded of the famous quote by Emily Gifin: “A son is a son ’til he gets a wife, but a daughter is a daughter all her life.” 

This sibling alignment seems to have determined our future dynamic as a family.

My brother and his family were always in touch. We celebrated holidays together, saw each other at family gatherings and we hosted his children when they came to Israel for a gap year. But a certain sibling closeness that the 4 of us had, only the sisters have been able to hold onto.

My brother’s diagnosis brought us back together as siblings. We created a special sibling Whatsapp group. We could tell when he was feeling great, as his famous wit was front and center. We shared childhood memories, finished each other’s sentences. Often, we felt like we were kids again!

Just a month and a half before his death, the siblings had the special blessing to spend a week together. The last time the 4 of us laughed the way we did, was 7 years before when we were all together to celebrate my son’s bar mitzvah in Israel. Our reunion was a gift we, my sisters and I, will treasure forever and we feel blessed for seizing the moment and spending this time with him.

Our brother’s death leaves us heartbroken. 

The Vitas healthcare website addresses the loss of a sibling.

The death of a sibling is the most neglected loss in adult life. Loss of a sibling means loss of someone who knew your formative past. And there may be guilt feelings related to unresolved issues with the sibling.

When adults lose a sibling, they often feel abandoned by society. Sympathy is extended to parents, or to the sibling’s spouse and children, but brothers and sisters are supposed to “get over it” quickly so they can comfort others or “replace” the lost sibling. This is one reason why adult sibling loss falls into the category of “disenfranchised grief.” When society fails to validate the grief and sadness of siblings, they do not receive the support necessary to heal. There is a tendency for the grieving sibling to then go into hiding with their feelings. (VITAS healthcare)

When someone has been a part of your life since birth, they are part of you, the makeup of how you live your life, and they add to the definition of who you are. When a sibling dies, a part of the surviving sibling is lost as well.  Yet life goes on for us and like all mourners we must find a way out of the darkness.  I would like to share here some of what I have learned from experiencing this great loss, the mourning and the shiva.

Although, expected, the finality of death is still a shock. Those present with the deceased need to quickly inform others and start making arrangements.  How to tell members of the immediate family who are not geographically nearby needs to be considered. It might be difficult for those very close to the deceased to be in touch with family members immediately. Someone close to the family should be appointed to contact others in person or by phone.  News of such magnitude can be most upsetting, and it is wise to have someone’s personal warmth and touch present.  Every step away from the personal is less sensitive.  While phone calls and emails may be appropriate for friends and acquaintances they are less considerate for family members.  Additionally, not everyone checks email several times a day and there is a chance that the family member may not know the news until much later. Personal contact via phone to those far away is the best.

Those who are considered mourners under Jewish Law are parents, siblings, spouse and children. As mourners we are not only comforted by others but find comfort and solace from one another. Each mourner has a connection to the deceased in a very different way but that should not mean that one mourner “owns the mourning” and therefore cannot comfort or be comforted by others. Since we were not able to be together during the week of shiva, we craved for contact and comfort from the other family members. We had the responsibility of telling our 96 year old father who lives in Israel. His first response was his need to speak with the family in the United States. 

We were asked many questions about our brother’s spouse and children, and how they were doing during the shiva week.  We can only answer the questions about how we are doing, and we should not be made to feel that we must create a narrative to answer intrusive questions.  We really don’t know how they are doing.  

Society may not recognize the intensity of sibling loss, but bereaved siblings know that the loss has a real, sometimes devastating impact on them. A number of people shared their own personal struggles when they lost a sibling, and this was exceedingly comforting for us.

so different from when our mother passed away.   One must always keep those goals front and center.  

  • We only know how we are feeling and grieving. Our hearts break for the spouse and children but we cannot answer how they are feeling. Focus on the mourners and their feelings.
  • It is an indescribable loss for a parent to lose a child, no matter the age, our father is 96 years old. Be sensitive to age and feelings.
  • Don’t be the first one in the shiva house and don’t be the last to leave unless you are family or closest friends. If mourners have specific visiting hours, respect their need to have quiet time.
  • Don’t ask questions! Just listen. It makes the mourners feel better when you want to know about the person they lost.
  • Questions like, When was the last time you saw him? How is the family going to support themselves? (to our elderly father) Did you know how ill he was? These questions are not comforting, and in fact are stressful.
  • When bringing food: 1. Label everything on the container itself: What you brought, heating instructions and  who brought it.  2. Do not bring food in containers that need to be returned. 3.  Be cognizant of food allergies.
  • If you cannot visit, an email or text is more powerful than a phone call. With a house full of people, it is difficult to talk on the phone not to mention the experience is exhausting.  Texts and emails are most comforting and can be reread and printed.
  • Families can’t always sit together. Don’t question the decision and don’t question the logistics of the funeral and the geography of who is sitting with whom.
  • Important to consider siblings, we are not orphans, widows or widowers.  Even if there is distance between siblings over the year the bond of childhood remains strong.
  • Introduce yourself when you visit and tell about your connection to the deceased or the family.
  • Don’t say “I didn’t know you had a brother” or “I didn’t really know him”. 

The most important lesson my sisters and I learned from this sad chapter is “SEIZE THE MOMENT”.  We spent special quality time with our brother before he passed away, memories we will have forever. Don’t wait until the funeral to fly in, visit when your family member is still alive and above all share the happy times. Enjoy the living!

1 Comment
  • Miriam Cohen
    Reply January 13, 2019 at 5:28 pm

    I know how hard it is to lose a sibling, it is different from losing a parent, and in many ways,so much harder. You shared your parents love, and you were a good team. Mark’s illness and passing will be accepted by you 3,and only your love and golden memories will remain.

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