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When will we start to feel better?

 

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Denial: This is how many siblings cope with life after their loss. Denial comes in different ways for every individual. We survivors go from thinking that it’s just a bad dream, to not believing it could possibly be true, to referring to them as being alive, to actively making up fantasies and pretending for long lengths of time that our brother or sister is just going to college, on a vacation, living in another state, at a friend’s house, or in the Marines fighting a war....They’ll be walking in the door at any time. There simply isn't any other alternative. Denial is a way to get through, a way to block out the pain. The mind plays cruel tricks on all of us, making us think we see our sibling in public places...Someone who has their profile, hair, hands, nose. Looking twice just in case it might be even though we know there’s no possible way. Denial seems to lessen as we get more used to living our lives apart from our siblings...and to finally go away after things get back to “normal” (though it can never normal that way again). Usually it takes a lot longer, from a few months up to 2 years, to realize in our hearts that we will never ever see them again, that their life is truly over. And even after a good amount of time has passed, sometimes you'll just suddenly think of something, some tiny little thing and it hits all over again.

Anger: Everyone experiences their anger in different intensity levels and at different times in their grieving period. There is no set time for when it becomes the worst or stops. There were only 2 out of the 46 surveyed who said they did not experience anger. They said they felt mostly overwhelming shock and intense sadness instead. The most common answers about who/what directed their anger were: at God (some stopped believing in God for this reason), anger with the world and life in general, being angry with themselves for not being able to do anything to stop their sibling’s death, their parents, and also at the sibling for dying. The other common answers were specific people like the sibling’s spouse, the driver of the car who caused the accident, the doctors who couldn't save the sibling, etc. who were a part of their sibling’s life and/or cause of death.

The question was asked about when their anger was the most extreme. Immediately following their sibling’s death was the number one answer, but many also agreed that it never really goes away for them or that it goes away for a long period of time and then suddenly comes back. Some were angry about the circumstances that occurred after their sibling died. For instance, flocks of friends and relatives arrive as soon as a person dies; cards, notes, and letters arrive in the mail. Food is delivered at the door, neighbors come to wish the family well and show their sorrow at the loss. With the funeral, great numbers of people arrive to offer comfort and support to the family. Then in the days and weeks after, they all slowly disappear, there is no one there and the immediate family is left to grieve all alone. For many people, their anger came back again after 2 years or when reality sank in and they realized that their sibling really wasn’t coming back (when the shock wore off). Special events such as birthdays, heavenly anniversaries, and holidays are also cause for anger, the best and worst times when we need our siblings here with us. Also the every day things that they should be a part of, shopping for school supplies, family vacations, dinner time, and watching family members grow and change; those are very hard for so many.

Guilt: The guilt that comes hand in hand with losing a sibling is overwhelming. Siblings have a very special relationship. Loving each other, not being able to stand each other, competition, rivalry, growing up together, knowing each other inside and out, teasing, and defending each other are all just a tiny piece of this. As the surviving sibling, we dissect every thing we can remember having said or done and wonder how it could have been better. Those childhood fights and arguments turn into these horrible things that we did, the awful siblings we were. At some point, most realize that the things they were feeling guilty for happen to everyone. Those "bad" things would have been forgotten or laughed about in later years if our sibling hadn’t died. Most guilt is irrational, something that we have to cling to and wonder about. Worrying about how we could have stopped their death, changed the circumstances surrounding it, knowing for sure that we did something wrong or caused it.

There is also survivor guilt, feeling guilty for living when your sibling didn’t get to grow up or finish their life. Eating, dating, going for a movie, having fun with friends, any sort of pleasure brings intense guilt along with it. Thinking that it should have been you, that you didn’t deserve to live if they couldn't. Knowing that the things you’re experiencing should be what your sibling has too, getting married, having children, buying a house. Usually this is immediately following the death when it is totally consuming. It takes a lot of time to go away completely if it ever does.

Regrets: There is a very fine line between guilt and regrets. A lot of the things we feel guilty for are also the things we most regret. Every single sibling surveyed had regrets, at least one. Each surviving sibling has different regrets depending on the circumstances and their relationship with their sibling. The most common answers were not being able to say goodbye, taking them for granted and assuming they’d always be here, not saying how much they loved their brother/sister, not spending more time with them, fighting too much, not being able to do something to prevent the death, not being there when they died, and not appreciating the time they had together while they had it.

For those of us who lost our younger sibling, many of us regret how we reacted about our “baby” brother or sister following us around and copying us, "our little shadows". We knew that they did it because they loved us, but we didn’t want them around and couldn’t understand the reasons for that at the time. At the same time, "baby" brothers and sisters feel guilty for being the little shadow...For doing the following, bothering their older sibling, being a pest on purpose...For all the tattling and trying to get the big brother or sister in trouble. Younger surviving siblings have a lot of problems feeling like they need to step into their siblings footsteps, follow with what their sibling was doing at the time of their death. They take the same courses in school, not because it makes them happy, but to be closer to their sibling. They feel bad when they pass the grade in school that their sibling didn't make it through...younger surviving siblings also have high expectations to live up to with their parents but especially to themselves. Their older sibling suddenly becomes a standard to live up to, the things they accomplished seem bigger and brighter than anything the survivor can manage to do.


When Death Strikes: After losing a brother or sister, death becomes more of a reality and an everyday part of life. The surviving sibling then realizes that if it could strike once, it could again and begins to worry about losing other siblings or family members. This goes between a couple of extremes - where it becomes a conscious fear, very scary when it overpowers everything else, and it’s worried over and thought about all the time. At the other end of the spectrum is the few who said that they didn’t worry about it because they knew that if they did lose someone, they would be in Heaven, happy and together again with their sibling. Most are somewhere in the middle and worry sometimes, wonder who will be next in their family to go, or just worry if they would be able to handle it if anything else happened. They get more attached to their immediate family, start telling them they love them more often, and appreciate them more.

How Others React: There are probably hundreds of different things that people say when they find out that someone has lost a sibling. Some of them are wonderful and comforting and others just make us want to scream. In the survey, I asked them each to give the best and worst thing for people to say when they find out. The answers for the best things to say or do include: Just be there, listen, let them talk and cry, share memories, realizing that they cannot “fix” things, do something small for them such as the dishes or cooking a meal, the question "Would you like to talk about your sibling?" Be honest with whatever is said, just a plain "I’m Sorry" will do if you can’t think of what else to say. The 2 most important things that almost everyone mentioned not to say is that they understand when they haven’t been in the same situation or that it’s time to move on and get over it. Those are by far the worst and coming in second is ignoring our sibling and our loss by changing the subject, falling silent, or walking away. They existed; they were a part of our lives and always will be.

The others that people say that just make us feel worse and more upset include these: offering advice on how to deal with it and the question, "How are your parents?" That takes away from our grief like it is nothing, we hurt too. Don’t complain about your own problems with your siblings, we lost ours, will never see them on this Earth again, and don’t want to hear it. Don’t say that time will heal, you’ve never been there and have no clue or you wouldn’t say it and even if time does heal, we’re in the present so that doesn’t do us much good, and we're more than likely not ready to hear that anyway. Don’t ask, “How are you?” or “how are you dealing with this?” unless you really want to know the truth. And last of all don’t tell us that it was meant to be, that God wanted them with Him, or that they’re in a better place now. We may know all of those things but it doesn’t help, it doesn’t stop the pain, it doesn't change anything, and we'll more than likely very angry.

Death and grief: when will you start to feel better?

Death and grief is not something that can be compartmentalized. It's impossible to tell someone that he or she will grieve for three months or six months or two years before starting to feel better. There is no set time frame for you to mourn your loved one. Bereavement is a process, not an event.

There are several theories on the different stages of grief. Author Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote the definitive book on this subject, On Death and Dying. When people discuss the stages of grief, they are most often referring to the five stages of grief that she defined. According to Kübler-Ross:

  • The first stage of grief is denial. The bereaved feel as if this is not happening to them, that their loved one really didn't die and everything will be fine.
  • The second stage of grief is anger. This can be anger at anyone from the deceased to God. For example, those in bereavement often have thoughts of, "Why did you leave me alone like this?" towards their loved ones who died. Or their anger may be directed at God for taking away a loved one.
  • The third stage of grief is bargaining. At this stage, the bereaved will promise anything in order to make life return to normal. It often involves promising to be a better person. For example, those who have lost a loved one often bargain with God: "I'll stop smoking if I can have him back!"
  • The fourth stage of grief is depression. This is true, devastating grieving. The reality of the death has set in and feelings of sadness and helplessness take over.
  • The final stage of grief is acceptance. According to Kübler-Ross, this is when the bereaved will begin to feel better and return to a normal life. In acceptance there is healing because in acceptance, there is reality. Death is the final reality of life.
Alternative stages of grief

Dr. Roberta Temes studied alternative stages of grief in her book Living With An Empty Chair - A Guide Through Grief. The first stage of grief, as described by Dr. Temes, is what she refers to as numbness, a state where the bereaved simply go through the motions of everyday life and tasks. They literally feel numb and empty inside. There is little thought given to anything besides their grief.

The second stage is disorganization. This is where grief intensifies and the bereaved actively mourn the loss of their loved ones. This is similar to the depression stage of grief as outlined by Kübler-Ross. The final stage of grief is known as reorganization. This is similar to acceptance and the stage when the bereaved begin to feel emotionally stronger and "normal."

So, when will you start to feel better?

Which researcher has it right, Kübler-Ross or Temes? When will you start to feel better? These stages of grief are only theories and both have their merits. They attempt to clarify and universalize the grief experience, since this is the one thing that we all have in common – death, and coping with the death of others. Everyone will mourn the loss of a loved one differently. Anyone who has ever experienced bereavement will identify with one, both, or a combination of the two theories on the stages of grief.

Each death you experience will be different than the others. The stages of grief may last longer or be shorter depending on the relationship held with the deceased. There is no "schedule" for grieving your loss. The wonderful thing about being a part of the human experience is that we are all different in the way we perceive the world, each other, and ourselves!

Remember that this, too, will pass

The experience of loss, death and grief is different for everyone. It is important to spend as much time as you need to mourn the loss of your loved one. The important thing to remember is that you will feel better. It will take time to heal and the feelings will be intense, but you will heal. This, too, will pass.

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