I am often asked by bereaved parents, both fathers and mothers, what I did after my son Scott’s death to support our three daughters. Among the many things I discuss is the importance of not comparing or glamorizing losses. While working as a family therapist I have seen a number of families where there have been actual heated arguments as to whether it is harder to loose a husband, dad, brother or son. I try to explain to people that we can only truly know the losses we have personally suffered. Thus, I was taken back recently by the social media and mainstream media response to the deaths of Debbie Reynolds and her daughter, Carrie Fisher, only a day apart. It was disheartening to hear a number of news commentators glamorize the event by saying, that Ms. Reynolds was lucky or even fated to join her daughter. I can fully understand Todd Fisher Speaking on 20/20 with ABC's Elizabeth Vargas, stating that he was comforted knowing that they are together because, "my mother wouldn't have it any other way.” At that point his mother and his sister had already passed away. However, the message of having a mother desire to join her child in death is a difficult one, especially for the surviving siblings.
News Travels Fast
After the announcement of these tragic deaths my daughter, Heidi, and I received a number of disturbing posts on Facebook that echoed the sentiment that it was a positive thing for a mother to join her child in death. One bereaved mother blogged that she could understand how Debbie Reynolds would want to join her daughter as, “after my son died I seriously questioned my life”. Another women responded, “Yes, she was the lucky one.” The feelings of wanting to join the deceased are not out of the normal range; as a holocaust survivor once told me, "the pull of the grave is strong," but actually wanting to take your life and giving the message that there is something special or magic about a mother dying the day after her daughter is disturbing. While it is easy to dismiss them as “throwaway” comments they are hurtful to surviving family members.
Think Before You Speak
Bereaved siblings often speak in support groups of their hurt and confusion at seeing their mother’s and father’s “loose it” after the death of a brother or sister. One sibling put it well when he said, “it was frightening to see my father crying uncontrollably.” Another girl said that it was scary having my mother say, “I wish I was dead.” Words count, and as a community and family we need to be sensitive to the impact of loss on surviving children and spouses. As we all know kids tend to take things literally, so before making comments about our mortality stop and think, “Is this comment really necessary?”
Being in deep grief is difficult and society tends to give support to bereaved parents while forgetting the siblings with messages such as, “take care of your parents” or “be good for your parents.” Furthermore, having a parent say they want to join a deceased child leaves living siblings wondering, “aren’t I enough?” I know that as bereaved parents we do tend to remember only the positive aspects of our children. This theme is played out in angel movies and songs like “Only the Good Die Young.” Bereaved sibling Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn, author of The Empty Room, a memoir of the death of her older brother, Ted DeVita, who lived for eight years in a plastic bubble at the National Institute of Health, summed it up best when she said on our Open To Hope Television Show, “My brother, Ted hasn’t done anything wrong for 30 years.” Let’s not glamorize death. The world will miss the talents of Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher and Todd Fisher will miss the companionship of his mother and sister and our hearts and sympathy go out to him.
Celebrate Bereaved Siblings and All Family Members
As bereaved parents and spouses let’s acknowledge the impact of loss and remember that while one light may have gone out there are many reasons for gratitude. If you are a bereaved parent, spouse or friend give a bereaved person a hug today and tell them how much they mean to you and how important they are in your life. Below are some ideas for connecting with your bereaved family members and friends:
· Watch a funny or inspiring movie – I just saw La La Land; it was fun and uplifting.
· Sit in the sun – Nothing like a sunny day to make you feel good.
· Go for a walk – Get those endorphins going. You might even hold hands while you walk.
· Play a game - There are many games that young and old can enjoy together. My kids, grandkids and I have great fun playing cards.
· Talk to a friend – Plan on having lunch or visit with a person that both of you enjoy.
· Listen to your favorite CD together – Play a piece of music that you each enjoy and then talk about why it makes you happy or touches your heart.
· Serve others – Volunteer together to spend a day working on a service project.
· Play with a pet – Walking a dog is a great way to get out together. If you don’t have a dog offer to walk your neighbor’s.
· Plan a memorial event – Be proactive and plan activities with family members to honor the deceased on anniversaries such as birthdays, and holidays. Siblings can feel disempowered and victimized when they are not included in planning.
· Say their name - Siblings like to hear their deceased sibling’s name. Throw it out in the air, “I miss Scott today,” and don’t expect a response.
· Take an inventory of your pictures – Have as many photographs of your living children as you do of their deceased sibling. Yes, siblings do count.
· Memorial items –Is it time to move keepsakes of the deceased to a closet, trunk or small corner of the house? Don’t make siblings live in a shrine.
· Attend a support group - Go to The Compassionate Friends monthly meetings or attend the National Conference, which in 2017 will be in Orlando, Florida. Great chance to take the family to Disneyland.
· Seek Internet support – The Compassionate Friends has information for both bereaved parents and siblings. www.thecompassionatefriends.org.
Also, don’t forget to visit us at www.opentohope.com where we have radio shows, television shows, articles, YouTube’s, and webinars specifically addressing sibling loss. Please share this blog with friends and family. Siblings do need your understanding, love and support.