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The Many Layers of Grief: Losing a Sibling

addiction grief non-linear journey our words sibling loss Aug 02, 2022
Layers of grief depicted by layers of the tide

Content warning: This post mentions loss by drug overdose, as well as the raw emotions from when I found out about my brother’s death.

By Kim Hanlon

Grief is cumulative and cumulatively negative.

When I think of the layers of loss I experienced when my brother died, there is a visceral feeling of the different parts of me that felt injured - death-by-a-thousand-papercuts-style. And the “funny” thing is, is that while the death of my brother is what I consider to be the most intense loss I have ever experienced, in a way it was a layer to another loss. 

Over the few years prior to his death, I had also grieved the deaths of my grandma, my nana, my poppa, my childhood dog, and a childhood friend; as well as a major romantic breakup, and two significant injuries which each left me temporarily disabled. My heart already felt raw and vulnerable. I grieved for what felt like a fragmenting family as the older generation was mostly gone and family traditions shifted as a result. I grieved for my parents as they had lost their parents. 

And so when Steven died and my birth family of four became a family of three - it felt like a wrecking ball came through an already fragile structure of my family. 

Additionally, I was 25 and already in a state of figuring out what I wanted in life. I had found a graduate school program that would kick off a career change out of biotech and into health education. I was in love and wanting to get engaged to my then-boyfriend-now-husband. Even as I grieved my grandparents, I also was in an exciting time (albeit also stressful) as I weighed the options and what all that change meant. The anticipated changes were welcomed but scary at the same time. 

Gutted by grief.

When my parents came to my apartment to tell me Steven had died - I felt absolutely gutted. 

  • I felt gutted for my brother, who was working so hard to recover from his addiction illness.

  • I felt gutted for my parents who had already grieved so much losing their parents, and worrying about their son as he navigated addiction, rehab, and suspected relapse.

  • I felt gutted as I realized I no longer knew what I wanted. Well, a part of me felt I wanted to quit everything. How could life go on as planned when Steven had died??? I wanted to go live with my parents and revert back to as much as I could salvage of my childhood that had been ripped out from me. Sure, I was nearly 26, but to have no semblance of my childhood remaining after so many family members had died, it felt like all those happy childhood memories were now forever shrouded in grief and pain. So yes, I wanted to quit my job, break up with my boyfriend (the pain of hugging anyone of a similar age to Steven was nearly unbearable for months), ditch grad school plans, leave my apartment, and even forget adulthood so I could try my best to ignore the trauma that had just happened. 

I did not quit all the things. A voice inside told me that I was so vulnerable that more change would be more detrimental to me.

So I stayed with the job, my boyfriend (now husband!), grad school plans, my apartment (until a few months later when I followed through on preexisting plans to move in with said boyfriend), and, well, I guess I didn’t have too many options about the adulthood piece. 

We grieve more than the loss itself.

In the coming weeks I experienced more layers of loss:

  • My parents and I visited my brother’s apartment two days after he had died and stepped into another world. A world where it became more clear just how much he was struggling. The apartment was trashed. Peanut shells all over the floor, dresser broken, prescription sheets all over - dozens of them, all for oxy. My heart broke for Steven. My heart broke for my parents. My heart broke for me. My rage ignited towards the doctor and system that allowed him to fill these prescriptions.
  • I went back to work the next week due to a few different factors, but one being I just did not know what to do with myself besides cling to some normalcy. I felt like “my brother is dead” was tattooed on my head. I cried every single time I was alone. Alone in the lab? Tears. Alone in an elevator? Tears. Alone in the bathroom? Tears, and looking in the mirror trying to recognize this heartbroken girl. Alone driving to and from work? So. Many. Tears. 
  • My manager, who so generously had offered to drive me to my parents’ house three hours away when she learned of Steven’s death, asked me how he died. I could not answer. This question became a stumbling block as I did not want his death to become his legacy. I did not want people to judge him for how he died. And, honestly, I did not want people to judge me for how he died. 
  • On that note, we had to tell the family how Steven had died and admitted to the lies we had told when he had missed Thanksgiving and Christmas while in rehab. Steven had not wanted people to know, and while I respected that, it was uncomfortable to lie to my family and especially my best friends who happened to live next door to Steven. 
  • I felt so much guilt for knowing about (some of) his drug use and not doing more. My great-aunt Helen asked me when she first saw me after his death, “Kimberly, did you know?” and it gutted me. I was tongue-tied. My cousin saw my face and knew. I didn’t feel judged by her, but I felt terrible. 
  • Speaking of guilt, I beat myself up for feeling an ounce of relief that he (and we, his family) was no longer suffering from his addiction. Not relief that he had died, but relief that the worry about his addiction was “done”. I am ashamed to type that, but it is true, and I know I am not alone in this experience. I hope someone else reading this finds solace in knowing they, too, are not alone. 
  • We planned my brother’s funeral, and my mom and I had to answer the florist’s question of who’s service we were planning - it hurt to answer. 
  • I relived his death in my mind countless times. I agonized over his last in-person words to me - a plea for me to stay with him as he felt so overwhelmed. I dreamt he was still alive. I felt I was barely hanging on to sanity. I struggled to hold boundaries because holding a boundary of going home that last time I saw him meant heartbreaking regret and I no longer trusted myself. 
  • I carried my grief with me everywhere. It felt relevant to every single thing I did. Conversations were difficult because inside it felt wrong to talk about anything other than how Steven was no longer alive. I didn’t want to be a “downer”, so I acted recovered, but at the same time, it felt inappropriate to be anything but mournful. It was exhausting to live torn between acting fine and heartbroken on top of not knowing how to connect with people anymore.
  • I went to therapy and while some of it helped, my therapist breached my trust and I grieved that as well. I felt taken advantage of in one of my most fragile states. 

Grief for unmet hopes and dreams.

Fast forward a few years, and new ripples of my grief for Steven were still coming.

  • I grieved that he was not at my wedding. I wanted an empty chair for him, but couldn’t bear to do it at the same time. 
  • I moved into a new house and it hurt immensely that he would never see this house and this new chapter of my life. 
  • I graduated from my Masters program and wished so badly for a hug from my proud older brother. I wanted to dedicate my life to helping others live healthfully and avoid addiction or pain from grief. 
  • I became pregnant and fear of parenting seeped in. I am convinced that I had a 40-hour labor because this fear prevented my body from releasing the pregnancy. Even with Pitocin, it was hours before it was time to push. 
  • Each parenting decision carried the weight of how it would shape the life of my son. Sleep training was excruciating and ditched - I had severely broken sleep for two years and am still recovering from the health impacts of sleep deprivation. 
  • I wondered how Steven would have lived in his thirties. How would he have voted? Would he have moved to Croatia like he dreamed even the day before he died? Would he move back closer again when Jack was born so he could “uncle” as wonderfully as I know he would have loved? Would he continue being an athlete, or get a tummy as he inched towards forty? Would his hair begin to gray? And, most pressingly, would he find happiness and contentment in life? 

And there are the positives in my life that maybe would not have happened.

Would I have built this career in grief support? Likely not.

Would I have met colleagues who have turned into dear friends?

Would I have learned the tools to navigate grief as I have now? Maybe. 

There are so many layers of grief to any one loss. Grief is cumulative and cumulatively negative. Without tools, the stress of grief can build up, and like a kettle with a cork in it - threaten to explode. 

We can hold grief and joy at the same time.

I miss Steven like nothing else. I feel him, and my heart can hear the advice he would give me as I navigate life’s ups, downs, and turnarounds. One more layer of grief I had was I feared I would lose my memories and I hated that thoughts of Steven always turned to relive the trauma.

I cried with joy when I reclaimed those happy memories when I finally validated these layers of grief and found more tools for how to carry my grief forward while saying goodbye to the pain of all that had felt unresolved in my relationship with Steven.

I was able to name and voice the regrets, the unmet dreams, the appreciation, the forgiveness, and the apologies I had for Steven and thus silence their deafening refrain in my heart. In turn, my heart reopened to joy, and began to feel whole again.

Never the same, but no longer so beaten up. 

It is so healing to give space for grief - each layer of it. We hope you find the courage to do the same. It may hurt to speak to our grief, but trust me - it hurts so much more to try and swallow it or pretend the pain isn’t there. Furthermore, unresolved grief continues to have ripple effects - as if your grief is a boat and your heart keeps rocking it until you finally pay attention to those ripples. 

We wish you a life that carries grief while also making room for new memories, hope for the future, and the capacity for joy both at the moment but also when you look back. We know it is possible as we have done it. Please reach out to learn more about how. 

Note: Did you find this helpful to read about the layers of loss? You may also want to check out what Ilana shared about The Many Layers of Grief: Losing a Parent.