On sibling grief and becoming an only child

May 26, 2017 |  Category:   family favorite posts me

Two years ago, on the first Mother’s Day after my brother died, my mom confided in me that she didn’t know how to answer the question,”how many children do you have?” I told her that the answer would always be two, no matter what. It’s definitely a question that gives you pause after losing an immediate family member. At best, it delivers a potentially awkward moment in the conversation; at worst it can catch you off guard and open up wounds. It’s a pretty innocent question after all – to ask someone if they have any siblings – yet the answer isn’t quite so clear for some people, is it? Do I still have a brother? Am I an only child now?

3 years have passed. I still think about him every single day.

I sometimes wonder if my brother’s suicide will be one of those monumental things that will define my life. When you survive something like this, it becomes part of your identity; you become a survivor of suicide. It never leaves you and it’s not something others can fully understand unless they’ve experienced it themselves. Of course, grieving for any death is difficult, but grieving a suicide is different. The immense guilt that I carried with me for the first year or two has now eased into an acceptance of sorts, though I think about it all the time. While it was devastating for our family, I have come to decide over the years that I can understand why he did it. This may seem like an odd or even a dangerous statement to make, but I do and I have compassion for his decision. It doesn’t mean that our life wasn’t in shambles afterwards and that I wasn’t angry at him – I was. Some of you may know from my Medium post that we didn’t have any semblance of closure on my brother’s death for a long time, so while we’re memorializing the 3rd anniversary today, it’s only been a year since we were able to settle the legal issues surrounding his death and move into any sort of healing period. There was a lot of trauma during those first two years and it nearly destroyed me.

With that behind me, I marked the anniversary last year by spending the morning at the Met Museum, my brother’s favorite place in NYC. I decided then that this would be my yearly tradition. Honestly, I’m grateful to have a place to go every year. The days leading up to this anniversary are filled with enough angst already, but it gives the day a sense of purpose; I can wake up in the morning and already know how I’ll be spending my day. The museum is a perfect place to go – plenty of distractions and I’m not isolating myself at home with my own thoughts, but there are also quiet nooks in the museum that are good places to sit and think.

And what do I think about? I think about how strange it is to suddenly be an only child. I think about how little support there is out there for grieving siblings because it often gets overshadowed by the grieving parents or spouses or children. I think this is why I wanted to write this post, years later, because at the time of his death I found comfort in searching out stories of grief. At a time when I felt the most lost and alone, reading other people’s words was that lifeline that grounded me here. Maybe this story will help someone too. I have heard that siblings are sometimes referred to as “the forgotten mourners”. We are expected to be strong for our parents, to be there for the spouses and the children. When allowed, I did what I could.

Losing a sibling changes your family dynamic. We were four and now we are three. I feel the weight of this as my parents get older. The immense responsibility towards their future care without my brother’s help and support is what makes me feel the most alone now. I wish he was here to see the changes in our father; I wish he were here to share the grief whenever they pass. I also feel like I have no room to fail as the only surviving child. I’m not necessarily referring to life or career accomplishments, but just life itself. What if something happens to me? What if I get sick? It is unfathomable to think about a scenario where my parents would lose their only other child, but when we had our wills drawn up recently, I was faced with that thought even though it was hypothetical. Still, it was too much.

These days, I visit the cemetery with my family to visit my brother on holidays and memorial day weekend, but today is all mine: to commemorate his birthday which is also the day he decided to end it all, to sit and look at art, to remind myself to live a life that he no longer has.

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  • Ronnie May 26, 2017 at 8:18 am

    With all my heart, thank you for writing this post—for articulating these thoughts and feelings so eloquently and with such honesty, as always. It is so beautiful of you to share.
    You have brought me to tears. I did not know your brother, but I am thinking of you.

    • Jenna May 27, 2017 at 12:11 am

      Thanks so much Ronnie. While our loss is different in nature, I’m sure you know a bit of how this all feels. xo

  • Katie May 26, 2017 at 9:48 am

    Than you so much for sharing and processing a little bit of this grief here in this space. Peace to you today.

    • Jenna May 27, 2017 at 12:12 am

      Thanks so much Katie. Appreciate your comment today.

  • Diane May 26, 2017 at 10:24 am

    Simply said, I think this new, unwanted tradition is a wonderful way to remember your brother and while continuing to heal and LIVE. It’s been an honor to be given a glimpse into the thoughtful and honest way you are navigating this territory. Very best wishes for your continued journey, Jenna, and my thoughts are with you on this day.

    • Jenna May 27, 2017 at 12:12 am

      Thanks Diane. I had a really good actually. Art inspires and art heals and I saw some incredible art today.

  • Heather May 26, 2017 at 10:43 am

    We are coming up to the first anniversary of my son’s childhood best friend’s suicide, 2 days after his 14th paintball birthday party, which was on my son’s actual birthday (they were 2 days apart). Suicide is so incredibly devastating and far reaching. It wasn’t my son I lost, but it felt so close since they had grown up down the street, gone to the same school, we had been to their family cabin, celebrated NYE and Halloween together. The loss feels so different with suicide, it’s very different then death from an illness or accident, especially for such a young life. Thanks for sharing and your insight. I know I need to mark the anniversary in some way for my son and our family. It’s been a tough year.

    • Jenna May 27, 2017 at 12:14 am

      So sorry to hear about your son’s friend. This is incredibly sad – 14 is such a young age. I have to say having gone through this, I am terrified of the potential of dealing with depression with either of my girls knowing that it runs in the family. Wishing you lots of healing this year.

  • wg2 May 26, 2017 at 11:21 am

    Thank you for sharing. My husband’s (twin) brother also committed suicide. This was many years ago, when he was 18 or 19 (we are in our 40s). To this day, his parents never talk about it. The only time it’s brought up is when our child brings it up, and it’s usually met with very little response from the in-laws. My husband will talk to her about it a matter of fact, but with everyone else, he doesn’t say much. He still periodically has dreams about him, and he’ll talk to me once in a while, sometimes he gets into a funk and we work through it. How does he respond to the questions “Do you have any siblings?” Most times he’s not interested in going into it, mostly because he doesn’t want to put people in an awkward position, so he’ll answer “none”. But once in a while he’ll tell the whole story. When people ask me if he has any siblings I just tell them a fact “We are only children”. It doesn’t quite answer the question directly, and I don’t feel it’s my place to answer that for him. But currently, that’s what we are (I have no sibs). Much tenderness and light to you.

    • Jenna May 27, 2017 at 12:18 am

      Families cope is different ways. Culturally, as Asians, we don’t talk about it even though suicide is so prevalent in our culture. I was actually surprised when my mother talked about it at my brother’s funeral. I find myself still referencing my brother in conversations quite naturally if something triggers a memory or if it’s relevant to the conversation, so I usually answer that I did have a brother if I get asked that question. It’s tough though, and I can see from other people’s stories that it stays with you for a long time- probably for the rest of your life.

  • Zooey May 26, 2017 at 11:55 am

    Moved by your grief and the attendant strength it takes to mourn — and to live. Thank you so much for sharing something so personal with such honesty and beauty.

    • Jenna May 27, 2017 at 12:18 am

      Thanks Zooey.

  • Karen May 26, 2017 at 1:08 pm

    What really touched me about this post is that you have understanding and empathy for your brother even after his passing. I’m glad you have a way to honor his memory on your own terms.

    Sending warm thoughts,

    • Jenna May 27, 2017 at 12:21 am

      It’s such a sensitive topic. I bristle when I hear how selfish suicide is to the people you leave behind – I think it’s a lot more complicated than that and we can’t make that judgment across the board.

  • Julienne May 26, 2017 at 1:10 pm

    This is a very beautiful, thought-provoking post.

    • Jenna May 27, 2017 at 12:22 am

      Thank you Julienne.

  • Lakshmi May 26, 2017 at 1:16 pm

    Typed out something, then I deleted it. Words are inadequate and meaningless here. But this poem came to mind.

    “All You who Sleep Tonight”

    All you who sleep tonight
    Far from the ones you love,
    No hand to left or right
    And emptiness above –

    Know that you aren’t alone
    The whole world shares your tears,
    Some for two nights or one,
    And some for all their years.

    — Vikram Seth

    • Jenna May 27, 2017 at 12:22 am

      thank you for sharing that poem.

  • Alicia May 26, 2017 at 1:25 pm

    I am so sorry for your loss.
    My husband’s grandparents had two children and lost them both, their son to a sudden embolism and their daughter, my mother in law, to a long battle with breast cancer.
    I come from a huge family and the thought of parents outliving their children was completely foreign to me before this happened. Their grief is hard to wrap my head around, and their story has floated over my own parenting journey which has been frought in its own way.
    You are not alone. Thank you for talking about this. I am so sorry that your brother is gone. I’m thinking of you all today.

    • Jenna May 29, 2017 at 6:47 pm

      It’s really hard to wrap your head around losing a child, let alone both. I can’t even imagine. Thank you for sharing with me, and for your thoughts.

  • Emm May 26, 2017 at 1:49 pm

    Thank you for sharing. My heart is with you today.
    I read all of your posts and always find something so enlightening and thoughtful to carry into my day.

    • Jenna May 27, 2017 at 12:22 am

      Thanks for sticking with me all these years and reading these posts. It’s so very appreciated.

  • susan May 26, 2017 at 4:52 pm

    I can’t even imagine Jenna. You’re brave and kind to share your story, as I’m sure it has the power to help and heal others, as well as being cathartic for you. Sending love to you and your family.

    • Jenna May 27, 2017 at 12:23 am

      Thanks Susan. I don’t if being brave has anything to do with it – though I’ve been hearing that a lot today! I just think about how I scoured the web for stories to relate to because it was comforting. You want to feel like you’re not alone and there are people out there who know what you’re going through.

  • Celina May 26, 2017 at 5:09 pm

    Thinking of you and your family. Since starting to read your blog several years ago, I have been struck by how open and honest you are about your life. I really appreciate you sharing this, and wish you lots of happiness in the future.

    • Jenna May 27, 2017 at 12:24 am

      thank you so much for reading and leaving a comment today, celina.

  • Joo May 27, 2017 at 12:43 am

    My heart hurt for you and your family, while reading this post… I find so much grace in your resilience and strength to move forward while still celebrating your brother’s life, in your own special way. Your words truly move me and I have no doubt, so many others. Hugs.

    • Jenna May 29, 2017 at 6:47 pm

      Thanks for all your support Joo.

  • David May 27, 2017 at 2:47 am

    nice post / great pics jenna.

    • Jenna May 29, 2017 at 6:47 pm

      thanks david.

  • Jen May 27, 2017 at 4:05 am

    I think the fact that you’ve found compassion for your brother’s decision is beautiful, as is your desire to share your experience to help others feel less alone. I have a sibling who was hospitalized as a danger to their self and others 8 times while I was in high school. I know that’s not the same as what you and your family are going through, but I can empathize to some degree with how confusing and isolating it is. Thank you for sharing, Jenna.

    • Jenna May 29, 2017 at 6:49 pm

      It’s not the same, but you can definitely understand! Those months leading up to his death were excruciating and I’m sorry that you have had to go through that, jen.

  • YD May 27, 2017 at 6:07 am

    Appreciate you writing this and sharing it with us

    • Jenna May 29, 2017 at 6:49 pm

      Thanks so much.

  • Jen May 27, 2017 at 9:50 am

    Love you, friend. That’s such an awesome way to honor him and your relationship. I’m glad you’re moved through that horrible legal stuff to have the headspace to take your feelings and memories to the Met with you. My uncle took his life when I was little and it was a storm of pain and confusion for many years. I still don’t think my mom, three aunts, and grandparents ever figured out a way to find a space to each honor their own memories and feelings. I think my family would be less fractured if they had. I don’t think the let each other do that. ?

    • Jenna May 29, 2017 at 6:51 pm

      It could be. Suicide has a way of tearing families apart, as you know. I know too, although it’s a different kind of fracture in our case.

  • Tina May 27, 2017 at 4:49 pm

    Your honesty is simply beautiful and rare. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us about your dear brother.
    Your blog is the one I always come back to, always and it is because of how honest it feels reading you. Trust time, always trust time.
    Beautiful post, Jenna.

    • Jenna May 29, 2017 at 6:52 pm

      Thanks for reading Tina. Appreciate it after all these years.

  • Denise in PA May 28, 2017 at 8:23 am

    Jenna, so much of what you said resonates with me. We just passed the first anniversary of my son’s suicide (the night before my birthday). It’s always difficult when people ask how many children I have. I will always say two, although I struggle with making people feel uncomfortable when I have to explain. I also don’t hesitate to talk about him and hope that I don’t make people who know me uncomfortable with my recollections. In our now very little family of three, we are always talking about “when Bill did this … or said this…”, etc. The fact that my daughter is now an “only child” weighs on me and her grief at the loss of her hero is immense. There is 10 years between them and at 28 years old, she still needs her brother. All three of us are doing okay, but never a day – or minute really, goes by with thoughts of him filling our space. I, too, understand his choice, although it was a permanent solution to a temporary problem and I wish he could have seen that. Thank you for sharing this…it helps.

    • Jenna May 29, 2017 at 6:56 pm

      Denise, I am really sorry to hear this and I hope you are finding ways to come to some sort of peace in your life. One year is not very long so I understand that things are still really raw right now. I still refer to my bother all the time too in conversation. It just seems natural, and I don’t think it’s received awkwardly. People don’t cease to be part of your life in memories just because they are gone. Sending you good thoughts.

  • Blandine May 29, 2017 at 3:36 am

    Jenna, I don’t know if that’s inappropriate given the loss of your brother and the everlasting grief -but these are actually the very reasons why I want to wish you a lot of happiness for the rest of your life, to somehow ease the burden. I am glad that you had a good time at the Met, it sounds like a very nice tradition.
    All the best.

    • Jenna May 29, 2017 at 6:57 pm

      Thank you Blandine. It’s been a tough few years and we’ve lost more immediate family members along the way, but there is still a lot to be thankful for.

  • Val May 29, 2017 at 4:49 am

    Thanks, Jenna, for sharing your thoughts and feelings so candidly. You articulated many things that I’ve felt but never heard anyone else talk about, despite knowing that many people lose siblings too. I lost my older brother to cancer when I was a teen. The dread of having to answer the question “do you have any siblings?”, the feelings of being in a family of 3 now from one of 4, the aloneness of being an only child, the weight I feel to care for my aging parents, and the …these are things I feel acutely now more than ever, even though it’s been more than 20+ years. As a mom of a preschooler, and not being successful yet in our attempts to have a second child, I grapple with the possibility that she too could be an only child, and I know I project a lot of my own fears and baggage onto her unnecessarily.
    As always, your blog has many gems, thank you for sharing them with us. Thinking of you in your grief.

    • Jenna May 29, 2017 at 7:00 pm

      Hi Val, So sorry to hear the loss of your brother. How terrible it must have been for your family. Sibling loss is a different kind of loss that often gets lost in the shuffle. I’m so happy to hear that others can relate to my words and thoughts. All the best to you.

  • A Reader June 2, 2017 at 4:24 pm

    I wish you could meet my grandfather. I only met him a handful of times when I was young. But I reach out to him in my thoughts at times of struggle. I didn’t know the man well. I didn’t know his favourite tune, his friends, his worries. But the man I remember was deeply loving and kind. He was one of those people who emanated unflickering warmth like a fireplace that warms up the whole dank house. And this warmth — it wasn’t just for me; he was that way with everyone. Later in his years, some said that he talked less, some said that he has “given up on life.” That the motivation to “go on” waned. But I didn’t know him like that. No. Not at all. What I remember about him is this.

    As a child, I was afraid of him dying. I lived with people who didn’t have his warmth. So I was afraid that this incredible warmth that he was — that brightened up my soul, my cold hands, and feet and face — would be gone, unreachable. Oh? And I would be cold. I was eight years old then. I told him this one winter day on our way to the grocery store. He slowly knelt to the sidewalk and looking steadily into my eyes, told me that it was ok to have this fear — but — it is

    good to have something to miss

    in life,

    — a little empty

    — a bit wanting. It means you lived. and to feel the pull towards the absence….

    That’s aaall ok, he said. And with that he stood up, held my hand and we continued walking. And with that, he shooed my fear away. I was comforted. Immensely. I didn’t know what he all meant, but I knew then that my life won’t just be ok, but that it would be good. Because I had him to miss. And from that moment on I was shown that there was a way to feel his absence, which after all, wasn’t an absence at all. After supper, I went to my bedroom and wrote down what he said. Twice. So that I won’t forget.

    I hear his low, slow humming as I write this. And so. Here – we – are.
    Going on. Living. Feeling the pull towards the absence, from time to time. I – with my grandfather. You – with your brother. He’d hold your hand, and warm up your soul. Yes, he would.

    • Jenna July 3, 2017 at 5:36 pm

      Hello. I apologize for this very late reply, but just wanted to say that I love what you shared here on this post. Your comment is like poetry and I find myself reading it often. Thank you so much.

  • Marlena June 2, 2017 at 6:41 pm

    Thank you for always sharing your words and thoughts on this space. Thinking of you and your family.

    • Jenna July 3, 2017 at 5:37 pm

      Thank you so much Marlena.

  • SY June 3, 2017 at 1:27 am

    Unfortunately, I know all too well some of the issues you are speaking of. …thirty years ago, my only sibling, my brother, died of a viral infection to his heart. We were both away at different colleges and I was to graduate a month after he died. I had booked a tour to Asia for three months and my parents insisted that I keep my plans. Throughout that trip I couldn’t bring myself to mention my brothers death. At that time in my life it was easier and less painful to pretend he was still alive. Please know that you’ll never stop thinking of your brother everyday, but the pain, the feeling of loss and the sheer worry about your parents will subside. For me, it helps to talk with my kids about my brother and to have them ask my parents stories about him. It might not feel like it, but you’ve got this. Keep your brother in your heart, your parents on your mind, and your girls in your soul and all will be fine.

    • Jenna July 3, 2017 at 5:42 pm

      I’m sorry to hear about your loss, and I thank you for your words of advice. There isn’t a day that I don’t think of him in some way or another. Some days it’s in passing, and others – like yesterday – I’ll look at a photo and it will hit me all over again that he is really gone. We learn to live with the loss, and every year it gets a little more bearable.

  • Cristina Vicente June 4, 2017 at 1:32 pm

    Thank you for being vulnerable. It takes courage,. Thank you.

    • Jenna July 3, 2017 at 5:42 pm

      Thank you, Cristina.

  • Lisa June 25, 2017 at 10:37 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing this story. I have just passed the three year mark of my brother’s suicide and in some ways it feels even more painful now then ever, coming to a more full realization that there’s no denying that my whole conception of this life has fundamentally changed. I never knew before, how painful it would be to be asked if you have any siblings, when you’ve lost your one and only sibling. I also think about how I’m the only one now that will be there to take care of my parents. I too worry about if something were to ever happen to me. The weight of this thought is overwhelming. I’m still trying to figure out a way to mark the anniversary of my brother’s passing. I like the idea that you mark the day by going to one of your brother’s favorite places. Maybe I will do the same.

    • Jenna July 3, 2017 at 5:44 pm

      Lisa, our timelines are very similar as it’s been 3 years for us too. Sounds like you’re grappling with similar issues as I am, now that the initial shock of the death has subsided. All the other stuff, like adjusting how to be an only child now, comes to the surface. I hope you find a way to commemorate the day. I know it’s helped me a lot. Best wishes to you.

  • Takako Smith September 11, 2017 at 1:13 pm

    Jenna, thank you for sharing many of your personal stories through your blog. Today, I particularly wanted to thank you and letting you know reading this post has helped me while grieving loss of my friends 17 days ago. We have never met, but our path has crossed ( have lived in NY for 20+yrs, now lives in PNW) and I often find a comfort in reading your honest writing. Again, thank you.

  • Megan B February 8, 2018 at 12:07 am

    Thank you so much for writing this. My younger brother committed suicide last week – leaving me an only child as well. I don’t think it’s fully hit me yet but it helps to read your experience.