Losing an Adult Sibling to Cancer

This blog entry is in loving memory of my baby brother Henry Jr. 

My Personal Story of Grief....

When I saw my baby brother on Easter Sunday I suspected that he might have cancer because I had watched a movie about a young man's struggle with cancer the previous night and my brother exhibited some of the same symptoms.  He had lost so much weight, complained of fatigue, and just didn't look well. My brother attributed his symptoms to his diabetes; however, I was very concerned and encouraged him to see his doctor.  About a week or so later, my sister-in-law had to call the paramedics to their home because my brother was experiencing severe abdominal pain. The ER doctor told them that there were cancerous tumors and lesions in my brother's abdomen and liver and that he should see an oncologist. On June 19, 2019 my baby brother was officially diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer. The thing I learned about Pancreatic cancer is that there is no screening test and by the time a person exhibits symptoms they are already at a terminal stage. This was the case with my brother who because of his diabetes and other symptoms was too weak to endure aggressive chemotherapy or clinical trials.  My brother did manage to withstand one round of light chemotherapy; however, the cancer continued to spread. The life span for Stage IV pancreatic cancer is about 3-6 months. At the oncologist's advice, my brother's wife and our family decided to let nature take its course and allow my brother to transition as peacefully as possible rather than subject him to aggressive treatment that we viewed as inhumane. God blessed me to be able to sit by my baby brother's side, hold his hand, and comfort him as he took his final breath on September 19, 2019--5 months after he began experiencing symptoms. My brother's funeral took place on October 1, 2019 and I am writing this blog 2 days later. Today (10/3/2019) marks the 2 week anniversary of my brother's death and I am still in shock. I cope by educating myself so below is some of what I learned about sibling grief.

Adult siblings are sometimes called "forgotten mourners" because their grief is often overshadowed by the grief of other family members, such as the person’s parents, spouse, or children. However, siblings have the right to grieve too as a sibling relationship is often a deeply connected one. Siblings have been present in each other’s lives through all of their ups and downs so their death may represent the loss of a friend, protector, and confidant with whom you share many memories. You may grieve the loss of your past relationship and the role you pictured your brother or sister playing in your future.

Sibling relationships can be complicated. They may involve love and affection as well as rivalry, jealousy, and arguments. You may feel guilty about things you once said or did. Or you may regret that you did not maintain a closer relationship. You may also replay "what if" and "if only" scenarios in your mind. Or you may experience "survivor guilt," questioning why you were not the one who died.

Family members sometimes have different, unspoken roles and responsibilities that may change when a sibling dies. You may take on new responsibilities, such as becoming the oldest child or an only child to whom family members look for leadership. This change can cause you to feel more stress or resentment during the grieving process.

Because you and your siblings share many of the same genes, it is normal to worry that you could develop cancer as well. You may also be concerned that other family members will be diagnosed with the disease. Although cancer can run in families, most cancers are sporadic, meaning they occur by chance.

Source: https://www.cancer.net/coping-with-cancer/managing-emotions/grief-and-loss/grieving-loss-sibling


1. Denial & Isolation

The first reaction to learning about the terminal illness, loss, or death of a cherished loved one is to deny the reality of the situation. “This isn’t happening, this can’t be happening,” people often think. It is a normal reaction to rationalize our overwhelming emotions. Denial is a common defense mechanism that buffers the immediate shock of the loss, numbing us to our emotions. We block out the words and hide from the facts. We start to believe that life is meaningless, and nothing is of any value any longer. For most people experiencing grief, this stage is a temporary response that carries us through the first wave of pain.

2. Anger

As the masking effects of denial and isolation begin to wear, reality and its pain re-emerge. The intense emotion is deflected from our vulnerable core, redirected and expressed instead as anger. The anger may be aimed at inanimate objects, complete strangers, friends or family. Anger may be directed at our dying or deceased loved one. Rationally, we know the person is not to be blamed. Emotionally, however, we may resent the person for causing us pain or for leaving us. We feel guilty for being angry, and this makes us more angry. 

The doctor who diagnosed the illness and was unable to cure the disease might become a convenient target. 

3. Bargaining

The normal reaction to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability is often a need to regain control through a series of “If only” statements, such as:

If only we had sought medical attention sooner…

If only we got a second opinion from another doctor…

This is an attempt to bargain. Secretly, we may make a deal with God or our higher power in an attempt to postpone the inevitable, and the accompanying pain. This is a weaker line of defense to protect us from the painful reality. Guilt often accompanies bargaining. We start to believe there was something we could have done differently to have helped save our loved one.

4. Depression

There are two types of depression that are associated with mourning. The first one is a reaction to practical implications relating to the loss. Sadness and regret predominate this type of depression. We worry about the costs and burial. We worry that, in our grief, we have spent less time with others that depend on us. This phase may be eased by simple clarification and reassurance. We may need a bit of helpful cooperation and a few kind words. The second type of depression is more subtle and, in a sense, perhaps more private. It is our quiet preparation to separate and to bid our loved one farewell. Sometimes all we really need is a hug.

5. Acceptance

Reaching this stage of grieving is a gift not afforded to everyone. Death may be sudden and unexpected or we may never see beyond our anger or denial. It is not necessarily a mark of bravery to resist the inevitable and to deny ourselves the opportunity to make our peace. This phase is marked by withdrawal and calm. This is not a period of happiness and must be distinguished from depression. Loved ones that are terminally ill or aging appear to go through a final period of withdrawal. This is by no means a suggestion that they are aware of their own impending death or such, only that physical decline may be sufficient to produce a similar response. Their behavior implies that it is natural to reach a stage at which social interaction is limited. The dignity and grace shown by our dying loved ones may well be their last gift to us. Coping with loss is ultimately a deeply personal and singular experience — nobody can help you go through it more easily or understand all the emotions that you’re going through. But others can be there for you and help comfort you through this process. The best thing you can do is to allow yourself to feel the grief as it comes over you. Resisting it only will prolong the natural process of healing.

Source: https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief/


Everyone copes differently with the loss of a sibling. There is no right way to work through your feelings of grief. And there is no specific amount of time that it takes to recover from those feelings. The following tips may help you throughout the grieving process:

  • Share your grief with other family members. Your entire family is grieving the loss of your brother or sister. But each person grieves in his or her own way. Talking about your shared grief can help you work through your pain and sadness together.
  • Find support outside your family. It can be helpful to seek support from your family. But it can also be hard for some family members to provide consolation while coping with their own grief. Consider talking about your loss with people outside your family, such as a close friend, a clergy member, or a grief counselor. Support groups can also provide a setting to talk with others who share and understand your experiences and feelings.
  • Forgive yourself. Siblings compete, argue, and challenge each other. Forgive yourself for any unkind things you did or said or for things you wish you had done or said but did not. Forgive yourself for not maintaining a close enough relationship with your sibling. It does not mean you did not love him or her.
  • Take care of your physical health. Help ease some of your fear about your personal cancer risk by focusing on developing and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Have regular checkups and get medical tests as recommended by your doctor. Compile your family's cancer history and share it with your doctor and other family members.
  • Take care of your mental health. Feeling extremely sad or numb are normal reactions to the loss of a sibling. But sometimes these and other symptoms of depression do not lessen over time, and feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, or anger can begin to affect your daily life. If you feel this way about your grief, ask your doctor about grief therapy. Medication may also help manage depression related to grief.
Source: https://www.cancer.net/coping-with-cancer/managing-emotions/grief-and-loss/grieving-loss-sibling


that has no time limit nor one “right” way to do it.