Sibling Grief as a Child
Updated: Jun 20
I was eight when I first experienced loss. At a time when fairies still fluttered around the garden and stuffed bears came alive under the glow-in-the-dark stickers on my bedroom ceiling, the concept of immortality seemed an abstract notion. Grief is a funny old thing with its complexities and ability to manifest in obscure and unexpected shapes. No two people experience grief in the same way; even those who have almost parallel lives (like myself and my twin sister Hannah). My first introduction to death was profound, transformative and disfigured my perception of the safe world I knew.
In summer 2006, my big brother Calum was seventeen years old when he suffered a severe brain injury after falling from a tree. 'Calum is going to heaven', were the words that informed me of his no-return from the hospital. Distraught and confounded, my childlike naivety completely misjudged the severity of Calum's accident. Having thought a head injury was as minor as a broken arm; I was oblivious to the reality of how fatal his accident was. As I became exposed to life outside of the realms of child's play, my blissful ignorance was burnt and buried along with the ashes of my brother.
I grew up in a family of seven with loving parents, three older brothers (Luke, Calum and Sam) and my identical twin sister Hannah. My 'cheaper by the dozen' life was characterised by the chaos and fun of a big and bundling family. Holiday's always began on a minibus to the airport, as we piled out at arrivals, our parents rushing to the security gate. Hannah and I would perch on the luggage trollies whilst our brothers swung us around, like the dodgems at a funfair. No matter how hard my parents tried to make life seem as normal as possible, I couldn't get my head around how different life had become. Family time became a constant reminder of Calum's absence. His room stood still, frozen in time, whilst life continued reluctantly around it. For the next couple of years, my birthday cake wish of becoming a mermaid was replaced with the wish for my brother's return. With the same gust of conviction that I may one day grow a tail and roam the sea, I was optimistic that Calum would indeed come home to fill the empty seat that glared back at us at the dining table.
When the summer holidays came to an end and primary school started again, I entered year four. Far removed from the realities of life, I didn't have to deal with adult concepts, and I found solace in being surrounded by children whose greatest concern was being caught in a game of Tag. When the school bell chimed to signal my return home, I have happy after-school memories spent in our garden, swinging on a hammock and chasing our dog around the house.
It was when nightfall came when I was left in the dark with my thoughts that the neglected grief that I'd stashed deep down throughout the day would then creep up and manifest itself into fears and anxieties. I'd lay in bed thinking about the day Calum would arrive home and dream up different theories for his return. I would wonder if his body had been mistaken at the coroner or if he was lost somewhere. I'd negotiate with God or whatever higher being was out there, to bring Calum home in return for being well behaved. As I attempted to sleep, my eyes would play tricks on me, piles of clothes left on the floor morphed into the silhouette of Calum's body. Shadows by the bedroom door metamorphosed into my brother creeping in and I'd lie awake under the covers frightened to close my eyes but scared of what I may see if I kept them open.
On reflection, I didn't have the tools or professional help to understand what I later learnt was the process of grief. I ran away from it and in turn, my grief became 'frozen'. Years later when I started therapy, I learned that if individuals do not reach a stage of acceptance of their new reality and remain stuck, they suffer from Unresolved Grief. It can manifest in multiple ways, including not wanting to speak about the person who has died, avoiding reminders of them and even happy memories.
It wasn't until I left home for university that the grief that I'd buried from my past, crept up to the surface. A constant undercurrent of anxiety brewed until it finally boiled over in the form of panic attacks. I started to contemplate whether there could be a correlation between my anxiety and my neglect of coming to terms with Calum's death. In my third year at university, I decided to try-out therapy. When my therapist asked me how Calum died, I burst into tears. I had disconnected with my grief for so long that even 13 years after Calum's death, I froze up when someone mentioned Calum's name. Like a chisel to an iceberg, we chipped away at the frozen grief. With my therapist, I visited memories, untangled emotions and made sense of my fragmented memories like a dot to dot puzzle. The sessions helped enormously, talking about Calum in my weekly sessions, made me more comfortable and at ease talking about him out of my sessions. I could recall more happy memories of Calum and felt more connected to him than ever. We also discussed my other brother Sam and his severe mental health issues and ongoing battle with schizophrenia.
My brother Sam was first diagnosed with schizophrenia 8 years after Calum died, when he was 21 (I was 16). Prior to this, he had been wrongly diagnosed with OCD for three years. It took an awful psychotic episode for his illness to be taken seriously and for him to be properly diagnosed. It would be reductive to claim that Calum's death was the only cause of Sam's schizophrenia, however, it was likely a contributing force. A 2016 study in Denmark and Sweden (Liang. H, et al) concludes that exposure to death of a parent or sibling before 18 years of age is associated with an increased risk of developing schizophrenia in later life. As written on the NHS website, 'Some people may be prone to schizophrenia, and a stressful or emotional life event might trigger a psychotic episode.'
In April 2019, Sam had enough of the mental torment that schizophrenia so unfairly bought him and took his life. In a state of shock and disbelief, I found another therapist near home. As I entered my therapist's room with a lingering dark cloud over my head, I knew I had to approach the therapy with an open mind and face the challenge and pain that each session would involve. I closed my eyes imagining him in the room and spoke to him and drew a picture of Sam killing himself. I wrote a poem about my declining relationship with sleep and how I was imagining the clothes in my bedroom to be my dead brother once again (only I wasn't 8 anymore, I was 21). I viewed those hour sessions as a vital means to an end, the best investment I could give myself, to reap the benefits, for a healthier and happier mind.
When I was younger, we weren't offered any professional help or counselling. In recent years there's been a prevalent shift in the perception of mental wellbeing and counselling for those who have lost siblings. Charities like Child Bereavement UK are doing incredible work, training professionals in schools and organising support groups. I just hope that there is now a better referral system set in place to direct grieving children, either from school or hospital, so grieving children can have access to vital support.
My approach to grief now reflects a quote from one of my favourite childhood books: We're going on a bear hunt by Michael Rosen - 'We can't go over it. We can't go under it. We've got to go through it!'
Alice, Calum, Luke, Sam, Mum, Hannah
We are Running the 2020 London Marathon for the charity Rethink Mental Illness, improving the lives of people severely affected by mental illness, in memory of our brother Sam.
If you would kindly like to donate, click here.
Cover picture from, Society6.com