Our siblings are a huge part of our selves. What happens when one of them passes away? Three people share their experience
We were five sibs; Akiva was the oldest. The two of us were just 21 months apart, so pretty much all of our childhood experiences were identical, but we were very different in temperament. While he was a wild and lively kid, I was much calmer.
Our grandmother would babysit us, and she had her hands full with him. I was her princess — she called me “the sophisticated one,” because I would follow rules and always do what I was told. I think I made him look bad.
As the two oldest, we took shared responsibility for making sure things went smoothly at home for our younger siblings. Our parents were married, but their relationship was rocky; the responsibility for the younger kids’ emotional well-being fell on our shoulders, and we became the other “grown-ups” in the house, the problem-solvers who needed to deal with the issues. If we wanted Shabbos to be pleasant, it was up to me and Akiva to keep the peace.
When Akiva hit his teens, he became much more closed. I think he was going through a lot of inner stuff, trying to figure himself out — so I certainly couldn’t figure him out. He’d spend a lot of time shut in his room, which put a bit of distance between us.
Akiva went to learn in Eretz Yisrael two years ahead of me. I realized from the little that we spoke over those years that there was a big religious gap developing between us. We’d grown up Modern Orthodox, but he was becoming way more yeshivish, changing his name from Adam to Akiva. It seemed as though he was slipping away from me. Steeped in my high school happenings, I couldn’t relate to his world — and I felt like he couldn’t really relate to mine anymore either.
There were many factors behind my going in the same religious direction as he, but I think a big part of it was that I always looked up to him, so if he was choosing this path, I felt like there must be a lot to it. I went to seminary with a mindset of “I want to explore this too.” I wanted to enter his world and maybe come a little closer to him through that.
And that’s exactly what happened. During my time in Israel and from that point on, we had something very special. In later years, whenever he was going through a rough time in his personal life or at work, I was the one he confided in most. Akiva suffered from kidney stones and underwent various procedures. Being a big, strong guy, he put on a good face, but he told me how awful it was. And that was how things were for many years — though we lived far apart, we stayed close.
My family grew and grew, but Akiva remained unmarried. In my eyes, his life seemed pretty lonely, and I would often invite him to fly across the country to be with us for family vacations and Yamim Tovim.
Akiva’s death was a total shock. Although he’d been sick for a long time with chronic illnesses, we didn’t realize they were fatal.
I was immediately filled with a tremendous amount of guilt — that I didn’t put more effort into our relationship, into spending time with him, into being there for him more during his bumpy periods and saying “I love you.” How often do you express that to your siblings? You figure you’ll grow up together and grow old together, and you don’t expect to live out a large part of your life without them.
Of course, you never know how many years you are given with anyone. But had I known I would have so few, I would have taken advantage of them much more.
One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t call him every week to wish him a good Shabbos. But after he died, I realized that while his body is gone, he still has a neshamah. Now, when I light my Shabbos candles, I say the perakim of Tehillim that spell out his name and wish “good Shabbos” to his neshamah.
Akiva and I shared so many pieces of our childhood, from the music we listened to, to the places we went together. But he was the one with the amazing memory, the sharp recollection of the most minute details. It’s almost like I gave a part of myself over to him, to his memory, because he would always be there to remember it for both of us. If you asked me now for an old anecdote, a story, my first thought would be to call Akiva, and then realize that I can’t do that anymore.
After he died, a part of me died with him. And now, a lot of the nostalgic references come along with a painful twinge. Instead of just being something sweet from my childhood, it reminds me of him and of what I lost.
Now that I’ve passed the age that Akiva was when he died, I feel that every year is a gift. Not because I have any reason to think that I’d leave this world early, chas v’shalom. It’s just that that’s all he was given; whatever he accomplished in those years is all he’s got. So for me, any time beyond that feels like extra, and I’m really grateful for it.
The Missing Sister
My big sister Chaya lived up to her title. I’m the youngest of five girls; Chaya always looked out for me. We had an extra special bond, an unbreakable connection. When I needed someone to play with, she joined me. When I went off to seminary and was homesick, she came to visit. When I went through a divorce and had five children to take care of, she was there.
As we grew older, the relationship became more of a two-way street. She was single and living alone, and she’d spend Shabbos with us pretty often so she could have the company of family. We, in turn, benefitted from her wisdom and warmth.
For my children, she was that super-fun aunt that everyone wished for. My kids were her kids. They went to her house for help with homework, to play on her computer, to eat frozen yogurt. Her home was a safe space — not Mom’s house or Dad’s house, but a haven of comfort where they could get some respite from the pressures of life.
When Chaya got sick, the prognosis was six months. My parents were elderly and couldn’t take care of her, aside from the fact they’d recently moved to Eretz Yisrael, where my other three sisters also lived. My sisters took turns coming to visit and help, but I was the only one who lived near Chaya in New York. I provided the bulk of her care, especially since I was in the medical profession and could help from a more informed place.
This was somewhat of a role reversal, and it wasn’t easy for either of us. I’d always looked to her for support, but now things had shifted drastically, and she was very much on the receiving end. It pained her so much to be a taker. Chaya was the independent one, and now she was dependent on others.
Toward the very end, I was trying to wrap my head around the idea she’d no longer be around — it was unfathomable. One winter evening, I picked up the phone to call her for help with a computer problem. Being a technical whiz, she was our go-to. I paused for a moment while dialing, held back the tears, and realized that soon I wouldn’t be able to do this anymore.
The half-year between her diagnosis and petirah had been filled with so much physical and emotional pain that, for me, her death was somewhat of a relief. While of course I was grieving, my children were devastated. She was a second mom to them, and this was a tremendous loss. I tried my best to be there for them even while it was difficult for me too. Hashem gives you the strength you need when you have to rise up and face challenges — and I hope I did my job well.
Now, when someone asks how many girls are in our family, I always find it difficult to answer. Do I say, “I’m the youngest of five” or “We’re four girls now. My oldest sister passed away”? It depends on who is asking, and if I’m making small talk or giving insight into my life. But I never answer without mentioning Chaya; I can’t stand the thought of pretending she never existed.
I like to recall the details of our childhood, the songs we sang, and the games we played. And while it tears at my heartstrings to hear the music she loved, I still appreciate that I have these memories to hold on to. Her number is still saved in my phone, though I haven’t used it in 14 years.
Loss of a loved one creates a hole, a gap that remains open because that person was the only one who could fill it. In our family, one of the holes is in “The Sisters.” At every simchah, we used to take a “Sisters Picture,” and it took a while for us to start doing that again, knowing Chaya is missing. There may only be four faces, but we’ll each always be one of five.
Still a Brother
Growing up with my brother Tzvi was complicated. He was the proverbial middle child, with Shimon two years above him, and me, the youngest, two years below. Insanely smart, crafty and energetic, he was often getting himself into trouble.
Our house was always up-to-date with the latest technology because Tzvi made sure it was so. By age nine, he could take apart a computer and figure out exactly how it worked — and by 13, he could also put it back together.
Unfortunately, from a young age, we never got along. I couldn’t bear to sit next to him at the Shabbos table because he got on my nerves so much, and when we were teens, there were some traumatic incidents between us. He wasn’t emotionally well, and I took the brunt of it. My parents were aware of our total disconnect, and they took it for granted that there was nothing to do about it.
As we grew into adults, our lives went separate ways and communication became nonexistent. I didn’t care what was going on with him, even though my mother would often tell me about his new business ventures or supposed ailments. He was living a life antithetical to Torah Judaism, and I wanted nothing to do with him. And while deep down I knew I needed to accept him as a reality in my life, externally I had no desire to fix this broken relationship.
Everything changed the day I got the call. Tzvi was a big hiker, he loved nature, and one evening, he didn’t return from one of his hikes. He was found unconscious in the forest. He didn’t make it.
Tzvi’s death brought to the surface all of my unaddressed feelings and fears. It was like lifting off a veil, revealing something I always knew was there, but on principle refused to admit.
The people in our family whom Tzvi was close with at that time weren’t religious and didn’t care much about a kosher burial. So ironically, I was the one who stepped up to the plate and fought for him to be buried as a Jew. For the first time, I was forced to relate to him not as a difficult human being, but as a neshamah, a chelek Eloka mimaal. As a mechanech, I’d always professed my belief in the inherent goodness of every Jew, but at the same time, I was living a contradiction by ignoring my brother’s existence.
Now I was coming face to face with this concept of inherent goodness — and I realized that in the innermost recesses of my mind, I did believe it to be true. When push comes to shove, a brother is a brother. You share an eternal bond, if only by virtue of the fact that you were born into the same family. You may be complete opposites, have nothing to do with each other, you may find their values repugnant — yet, still, you’re brothers.
“He’s your brother” is a line I often used to hear from my mother and grandmother, but I didn’t understand at the time what it meant. It pained them immensely that we didn’t get along, and I now regret that I allowed my negative feelings to surface when speaking with them.
Tzvi’s death created a safe space for me to encounter my positive emotions for my brother. I’d been on guard for so long, and now the “threat” was removed — and I could allow myself to feel for him. I remember listening in on his funeral from abroad, and when they spoke of his kind deeds, it was as though I was trying to latch on to these bits of light, to tell myself that yes, he was a decent person. I’d never allowed myself that freedom before. The realization that all of my self-righteous rationalizations for shutting him out of my life may have been unwarranted was sobering.
This aroused in me an avalanche of regrets. There have been so many students and acquaintances in my life to whom I have shown empathy and love, yet for my own brother I wasn’t able to get that far. I distanced myself from him to protect myself, and I don’t regret that. But I wish that once I’d attained stability in my life, I would have returned to him from a place of strength, with open arms and warmth. Now I’ll never have that chance.
The journey I took from pain and resentment, to sorrow, to remorse, and ultimately to comfort was aided by the fact that Tzvi’s death tightened the rest of our family bonds. We were never an overtly emotional or super-close family. But now, we connected with a shared grief, a loss we all felt. We miss him together.
My Parents’ Pain
Years after the loss of my brother Shalom, I took a creative writing class, and at the same time, I was in therapy. I decided to share something deep I’d written about my brother’s death with the therapist. His astute observation was that I’d written about “my parents’ loss of their son,” not “my loss of my brother.” It made me realize that that had been my focus at the time of his loss, and it remained hard for me to put myself in the picture.
My mother and father were Holocaust survivors, and Shalom was their only son. Like many second-generation survivors, I was always concerned about their suffering. As a child, I developed an innate drive to spare them pain. My mother had lost her father and her brother in the war, and I was worried that her son’s sudden death would be too much to bear. My siblings and I struggled with how to break the tragic news to my father, being that he was medically fragile.
They weren’t frum — meaning that the emunah to which I clung wasn’t part of their reality. From my current vantage point, I realize that maybe they did have an internal sense of Hashem, albeit one that was never spoken of. Something helped them find the strength to keep living and enjoying more happy years in the face of what seemed to be insurmountable devastation.
What Should I Do?
“Adult sibling loss often falls into the category of ‘disenfranchised grief.’ Sympathy is traditionally extended to surviving parents, a spouse, or children, yet surviving brothers and sisters are sometimes expected to ‘get over it’ quickly so they can comfort others or ‘replace’ the lost sibling. Siblings might not receive the support they need to heal, and they might hide their feelings from others.” (Source: Vitas Healthcare site)
It’s important to remember that all of the usual sensitivities regarding loss apply to adult siblings as well. If someone you know just experienced a loss, follow these tips from the interviewees:
Think before you ask. A lot of questions we ask after a death are unnecessary — and can possibly be painful. You can show interest without asking things like, “How old was she?” “How did she die?” or “Were you with her at the end?”
Know your place. Like knowing when to go into the inner dance circle at a wedding, be in tune with how close you are with someone (best friend, close neighbor, or casual acquaintance) and if it’s okay to ask or do certain things — such as spending time with them right after the loss or joining a family conversation.
Don’t tell them how they’re feeling. People can be unpredictable, and they definitely don’t want to be told they’re feeling something they’re not. Phrases like “You must be devastated” are better replaced with “That’s so hard.”
Keep your own emotions in check. If the mourners aren’t falling apart, they don’t want to see you fall apart. Be aware of where they’re holding. If you need to discharge your own sorrow, it shouldn’t be to them.
Follow their lead. If they want to talk about it, great. If they want to talk about something else — also great. When you see them on the street or at a simchah, it’s best not to bring it up until they do.
Be normal, but be sensitive. If your friend lost a sibling, it doesn’t mean you can never say “my sister” again when talking to them. But it does mean she may not want to hear you complain about your sister’s visit. If it’s a close friend, an open conversation about this can really help.
Everyone mourns differently. And each person may need something else. We can try to do our best.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 773)
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