“Do You Have Any Siblings?…”

By guest writer, Sean Malone

Last weekend I went to my friend Josh’s house to watch the NCAA basketball tournament. He invited a lot of people over to watch the game, so naturally there were people there I had never met. We all introduced ourselves, tore open the bags of chips, and got comfortable on the couch. As the first game got under way, I began talking to a few guys I had just met. In the nature of getting to know each other, they asked me about where I had grown up, what school I had gone to, and how I knew Josh.

And then it happened…

This always seems to happen when I meet someone new… They eventually ask the question, “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”

I found myself scrambling and thinking to myself… Do I really want to get into the story of my brother’s death? Will these new people, who I’ve just met, be able to handle hearing about it? Will I be able to handle telling it for the thousandth time? We are here to watch basketball, is this really the appropriate time to talk about this?…

It has been almost 13 years since my brother died and I still do not know how to answer that question. I don’t know if I will ever have an answer to that question.

My brother Tim passed away in 1997 at the age of 9. We grew up in a small town and his death was very public. Everyone tried to console my parents and I the best they could, they all wanted to help any way possible.

Many people tried to give advice, or ask me if I wanted to talk about how I was feeling. The truth was, I found myself not wanting to discuss him or how I was feeling at all. It hurt so much that I numbed myself. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was to talk to a complete stranger about Tim and how he died.

In the years right after Tim’s death, when I met somebody new, it seemed easier not mention that I had a brother. By not mentioning him I didn’t have to talk about him, I didn’t have to explain, and I didn’t have to relive the loss.

But, every time I had an opportunity to talk or tell someone about Tim and I didn’t take it, a horrible feeling swept over me. It felt like I was denying his existence. I kept imagining how sad and disappointed he would be with me for not telling others about him. And by not talking about him, I felt like I was forgetting him more and more.

I finally reached a point where I couldn’t take it any longer, so I tried a new approach. For a few years, each time someone asked me if I had any brothers or sisters, I would say that I did have a brother, but I would try to give as few details as possible. I wouldn’t mention that he died.

Every once in a while, I would tell someone what actually happened to Tim, and this always led to very awkward moments. Almost everyone had the same response; they felt awkward and wanted to change the subject right away. This made me feel so isolated and alone. I was stuck in an awful position; there was no right answer that I could give. Talking about Tim or not, I felt terrible.

As the years passed, I slowly began to process the loss of my brother, and started to make my way down my grief journey. It took me years, but I am now much more comfortable talking about my brother and my feelings surrounding him and his death.

Yet, the truth is, every time someone asks me if I have any brothers or sisters, no matter how much I try to anticipate or prepare for it, it still catches me off guard.

This last weekend at Josh’s house was no different; I needed a few moments to decide what I was going to say to this group of people that I had just met. I ended up telling them that my younger brother had passed away, but I still remember watching the NCAA tournament with him and routing for the UConn Huskies. And truthfully, that was what I was thinking about at that very moment. I’ve learned that I can usually find a positive memory to share when someone asks me about my brother.

At this stage in my life, I am comfortable discussing death and loss and do not have a problem telling others that my brother passed away. However, I realize that not everyone is quite as comfortable talking about death as I am. Still, I’ve decided not to let that stop me from sharing Tim, and my memories of him.

Photo Credit.

43 Comments:

  1. Alisha said on April 2, 2010 at 10:18 am ... #

    What a great way of expressing what we all struggle with….how to answer a question that strangers don’t realize they are asking. Thanks for honestly sharing how strange that situation is every time. Not sure any of us will ever get truly comfortable with answering questions like these, but it’s cool to know I’m not the only one who wrestles with the “do I or don’t I” of it all.

  2. Becca said on April 2, 2010 at 10:28 am ... #

    Thanks for this story! I always struggle with how to answer this question. Comforting to hear other people do, too.

  3. Rob said on April 2, 2010 at 12:15 pm ... #

    If nothing else, it is comforting to know that others have trouble with situations like this. Thank you for sharing your ideas.

  4. Rachel said on April 2, 2010 at 2:32 pm ... #

    This article brought tears to my eyes, and even though I lost my dad and not a sibling, I deal with a lot of the same things. Those little questions like “oh where is your dad? What does he do?” make it hard. We all have to deal with those questions, and even years later, its hard. I’m glad you’re dealing with your grief, and working for CZC.

  5. Brandon said on April 2, 2010 at 3:12 pm ... #

    Wonderful article. Questions like that have arose about my uncle and my twin brother who did not make it to term. Sharing of positive memories of your brother is a great way I think to make others feel comfortable, great article Sean!

  6. sallyb said on April 3, 2010 at 2:31 pm ... #

    Thank you for this article.
    Having just lost my dear brother to suicide, I’ve grappled with the significant loss of a sibling and best friend. When someone learns of his loss and asks “was he ill” or “was it sudden” I respond that he committed suicide–an uncomfortable response for others in our society, but important to convey.
    Working with a gifted counselor, who recognizes the significance of sibling loss, I’m working through my grief with her excellent help.
    Thank you for sharing your experience, and how to move on from the painful explanation of his loss to the gift of his life.

  7. Linda said on April 10, 2010 at 1:57 am ... #

    The answer to that dreaded question? Be honest and be proud you have an opportunity to say-yes, I have been blessed to have a wonderful sibling, parent, child and my memories are cherished even through he/she is no longer with me. There is an amazing piece of poetry, written by I know not whom, but a wonderful description of action and reaction following the loss of a loved one. I will post it on the main wall for all to read, think about, and perhaps help in putting thoughts together. I carry it with me and now 6 years after the death of my 27 yo son from cancer, I continue to read it. Now I am able to smile. I wish for all of you the same in your journey!

  8. George said on April 13, 2010 at 6:24 am ... #

    My sister died 44 years ago when I was eight, and I still face this dilema when asked about my siblings and I still feel guilty when I don’t mention her. Wow.

  9. Donna Stewart Sharits said on April 13, 2010 at 9:43 pm ... #

    Here’s what I’ve learned to say, “Yes, I come from a family with five siblings – our youngest brother was killed in an industrial accident several years ago.” I’ve found it’s best to give as much information in one sentence to limit further questions. That’s worked best for me.

    But some people will want more information (either through compassion or curiosity). So I’ve developed one more sentence to say when necessary. “My brother was an iron worker who fell to his death along with 4 other men.”

    Beyond that, I still can barely speak of his death even after all these years. I miss you David!

  10. Bob said on April 22, 2010 at 5:15 pm ... #

    well done Sean…… perhaps tell folks about the TJM Canoe race that take place every summer in memory of Tim. One of my favorite most memorable days of the year.

  11. Amy said on April 23, 2010 at 12:46 pm ... #

    The answer to that dreaded question? Be honest and be proud you have an opportunity to say-yes, I have been blessed to have a wonderful sibling, parent, child and my memories are cherished even through he/she is no longer with me. There is an amazing piece of poetry, written by I know not whom, but a wonderful description of action and reaction following the loss of a loved one. I will post it on the main wall for all to read, think about, and perhaps help in putting thoughts together. I carry it with me and now 6 years after the death of my 27 yo son from cancer, I continue to read it. Now I am able to smile. I wish for all of you the same in your journey!

  12. Ann said on April 23, 2010 at 11:53 pm ... #

    I recently lost my older brother to suicide, and I’d like to thank you for this article. It’s comforting to know that others deal with the same inner conflict, and the same awkwardness that follows the snap decision to tell the truth. I say that it’s a comfort because you are right: until this site, I felt isolated and alone, because I was sharing my grief with people who had never experienced it, and didn’t know how to react (which isn’t really their fault). So once again, thank you for this article.

  13. Katie said on May 2, 2010 at 2:18 pm ... #

    Thank you Sean!!!!!!!!!!!!! I needed this.

  14. gusmom said on May 14, 2010 at 7:05 pm ... #

    I nodded along with everything you wrote. I have had a similar dilemma when someone asks my son or I if he is an only child. I know it will get more complicated as he gets older. Our situation is different because his brother died before he was born, but he sees pictures and knows about him so it will be interesting.
    Just wanted to let you know that a lot of people share your thoughts, and you expressed EXACTLY what so many of us have felt. Thank you.

  15. Mariel said on June 7, 2010 at 4:19 pm ... #

    hi Sean , my name is Mariel salazar i`m a friend of Paola, from Mexico and i lost my father 2 years ago, paola just send me this article you wrote and i like it very much because is exactley how i feel when people ask about my parents, dont know exactly how to escape the awkward moment that inevitably occur..

    I think it takes a lot of courage to do what you do here, helping others, ant telling your story.

    Tks and hope to meet you soon…

  16. Eileen said on June 8, 2010 at 2:13 pm ... #

    Hi I am glad I read that, so maybe I can understand how my children feel about recently losing their brother. I was told by someone when asked how many children I have to say, I have 7, 6 here and one in heaven…..it is hard to say, it is hard to deal with but we want to keep his spirit alive…

  17. Michelle said on June 8, 2010 at 3:06 pm ... #

    Having recently lost my son to a freak accident I often wonder how I will answer this very question. Thank you for the suggestions that were given and I am grateful to have found this site hoping to learn as I go through this new part of my life.

  18. Terri Retzke said on July 1, 2010 at 11:27 am ... #

    Hi Sean. Thank you so much for such poingant and important message. I lost my oldest son 8 years ago when he was 11 and my younget was 5. I have grappled with that question so many times over the years and have always acknowledged my 2 boys – and then dealt with the awkwardness that follows. My youngest son has attended CZC for several years and I sing their praises for saving him from his overwhelming grief as he got older and was trying to process his grief at different stages of maturity. Your article was a hugh “light bulb” moment for me understanding that he deals with the same ongoing question as I do. I am printing your article and will have this conversation with him tonight. Thank you again for talking about such an important topic!

  19. Nancie said on August 3, 2010 at 5:15 pm ... #

    I really liked reading this and others comments. My brother died almost 3 years and when I am asked how many siblings I give a response depending on who the person is. If it is someone who is just making small talk then I say 2-a brother and sister. If it is someone who I am becoming friends with then I will tell the whole truth that I have a sister and my brother died.

  20. beth herman said on August 4, 2010 at 4:27 pm ... #

    I have to say that this resonates with me as well. I lost my sister over 30 yrs ago, and it is still something that I struggle with. My sister was in an accident that is hard to hear as well as hard to tell and meeting someone new I almost instinctively say no I’m an only child… It’s almost for their sake more than my own, because they don’t know what they are asking. I also share with them as we get to know each other.

  21. Britt said on August 14, 2010 at 1:48 am ... #

    THANK-YOU for writing this. Glad I’m not alone with this question. Coming up on almost five years since my sisters been gone and I still don’t know how to answer it.

  22. Arturo said on August 25, 2010 at 3:05 pm ... #

    My dad had a sister that died in a car crash (my aunt). I know how you feel, but the best thing to do is acknowledge him talk about him in a positive way. People will seldom ask about details of how and why did he die so keep it simple. “yes I have a brother but he passed away a couple years ago” mention something like you did when watching the game and change topics. The more you do it, the more comfortable you will feel about it

  23. Ashley said on September 17, 2010 at 11:21 pm ... #

    Wow. My brother was murdered 11 years ago and I have never felt I could find anyone to connect to about his death, even though I have another brother (he hid his pain). This question is one I will always dread. It makes me cry to finally find others who know what I’m feeling. Thanks.

  24. Sean Malone said on October 6, 2010 at 9:39 pm ... #

    It has been a while since I last checked in, but I thank you all for your comments and suggestions. Best of luck to each of you in your journeys 🙂

  25. Lisa Cave said on July 17, 2011 at 5:04 pm ... #

    After 34 years, I still get caught off guard by that question. Thanks for sharing…

  26. Kristen said on December 24, 2011 at 1:34 am ... #

    Thanks for this, I’m always caught of guard by this question. I guess it’s just one of those that you’ll never have a real answer to.

  27. Daisy said on June 25, 2012 at 3:00 pm ... #

    I lost my brother 6 years ago and had a very hard time with it and heavily grieved for years. I, too, constantly struggle with this question (I fine more so in professional settings.)

    Sibling grief is not brought to light enough. I remember trying to seek help for my grief and could only find support groups for parent-child and child-parent loss. This made me feel even more isolated. It also made me feel like my grief wasn’t important enough to need support.

    Thanks for your article on sibling grief.

  28. Mia said on June 25, 2012 at 3:27 pm ... #

    Thank you for this. I would first like to say that I am very sorry for your loss. I have not experienced the loss of a sibling myself, but just this weekend I was in a group of people where this question came up to a friend of mine who had recently lost two of his siblings. Some of the people in the group knew about this, and so we were able to take some of the pressure off the person who had been asked, by, like you said, relaying some memories, and things like that. It felt like we were helping a little bit.

  29. still wondering said on September 12, 2012 at 9:46 pm ... #

    I still find myself submerged in grief some days and others days I answer without a beat oh I have two brothers one lives n works blabla and the other passed in about ten years ago. My problem is after 10 years people I grew up with want to express their grief about my brother to me because they are scared to talk about him to my parents. I didn’t want a wedding reception for this reason and I found myself uncomfortable the whole night. Family who came to my brothers funeral did not come for my wedding. The people who did show up wanted to see how my family was dealing. I m sorry but this is not his funeral 10 years ago its our wedding.

  30. antwon said on October 23, 2012 at 4:58 pm ... #

    that was so righteous i loved it thank you so much

  31. Sue said on May 15, 2013 at 3:07 pm ... #

    I always say ‘yes but she passed away. I might cry but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to talk about her’. This stops the person thinking that THEY upset you.

  32. Simon said on November 4, 2013 at 11:52 am ... #

    Thank you for posting this. It’s so nice to know that others have a problem with this question, I thought it was just me.

    My older brother Mark died 14 years ago but I still take the option of saying no to the question when I’m asked it and I hate myself for doing so afterwards. From time to time I then have people asking about what it’s like growing up as an only child so I end up saying as little as possible and pretty much lying to them. In the end the whole thing becomes more uncomfortable (for me) than it would have been if I had just told the truth, Even though I always vow that next time I will talk about Mark it always catches me off guard and I revert to saying no.

    I hope by reading your story and others’ comments I am inspired to talk about Mark the next time I’m asked and respond as the proud brother that I am. I really hope I do. Thanks again for writing your story.

  33. Tegan said on January 30, 2014 at 8:18 pm ... #

    Thank you for writing this. I thought that I was the only person who struggled to answer this question.

    My condolences. Even though it was a long time ago, I know what it feels like to lose a brother. I am the middle child of three adopted children. I have one older brother and one younger brother. On April 17th, 2010, my older brother had passed away from a brain aneurysm at the age of 14. Not only was this the day of his death but the day I call my “Airplane Day”.

    I went through the same stages as you, from not including my brother in the sibling count, then including him, but not going into much detail about him to avoid mentioning his death. Eventually, I started opening up more to people when they asked about how many siblings I had. Actually, just this afternoon, one of my new friends brought up the subject and told her what had happened. I am now comfortable enough to talk about my brother when asked without feeling awkward or bursting into tears because I know that it can’t be changed and that he would want me to be happy when I talk about him.

    Again, thank you! I really needed to get this off of my chest.

  34. Geena said on June 5, 2014 at 1:28 pm ... #

    SO hard isn’t it….the question that stops you in your tracks. Can you tell this person? Will they acknowledge how difficult that was for you or sweep it under the carpet so quickly (only because they feel uncomfortable perhaps) that it makes you furious how any one could be so dismissive over something so painful and someone so loved? I never know how to answer, but when I choose not to now, I no longer feel as guilty as at first when I was trialing out the “I have one brother” answer (first, it feels like a total lie because it’s not true… I have always had two and he is still my brother even though he’s no longer “with us”. He’s in our hearts, our memories, everything). this is because I’ve realised two things. It’s precisely because he means so much that the loss is so great and so painful to talk about, I.e you grieve much because you loved much – and you don’t want to relive that with a perfect stranger. Secondly, you may also run the risk that they, in their own awkwardness or dismissiveness, might upset you further by not acknowledging how precious that person was to you – and so it feels like you’ve just thrown pearls to pigs! Precious information about the loved one you have lost and grieve daily which has just been trampled underfoot because they didn’t know how to cope with that kind of information (and let us be kind to those people, they’re not mean, they just don’t have a clue what to say or do or how to enter into that and so they do what we might or maybe have done if the situation were reversed!) It’s no shame waiting until you can trust someone with this knowledge, or as was mentioned (if you are able) mentioning it and adding it with a positive memory – helps the person you’re sharing it with to feel less awkward too as they can react to that better. saying something like “sounds like he/she was a great person / a lot of fun / really caring” and (if appropriate) following with “what else was he/she like?!” can help evoke a more cathartic response.

  35. ersatz said on September 2, 2014 at 10:57 pm ... #

    For me, this question is especially difficult. I was conceived via IVF, and have two siblings who didn’t survive the process. I don’t know their genders, I don’t have names for them, and I never got to meet them. So when you mention bringing up a positive memory of them (e.g. I had a sister, Ruth, who died when she was six, but I still remember the fun times we had playing with dolls together), I can’t do any of those things. All I can do is say either, “I’m an only child,” which makes me feel incredibly guilty, or, “I’m an only child, but I have two siblings who died before birth.” Can you say that to an almost complete stranger? What happens when they ask, “How did they die/was something wrong with them?” etc, and I have to say, “They died in the IVF process, which only I survived”? Then, I’ve gotten myself into a discussion about whether IVF is morally right or not, which I don’t want to have with a complete stranger, because if they ever said anything to my parents, then it would break their hearts. And I can’t talk to my parents about how I’m feeling, because they don’t believe they “counted” as my siblings. And I can’t talk to my friends, because my closest ones think I’m an only child, and I can’t just say, “Actually, I’m not: let me tell you all about it so I can have a shoulder to cry on.”

    I don’t know if anyone will see this, but please help. I don’t have any answers on this.

  36. Gabriella z. said on September 3, 2014 at 10:11 pm ... #

    Thank you. Today, I figured out that I had a sister and a brother. My brother past away, when he was 3,a year before I was born. My sister, died at birth, 2 years before I was born.

  37. Quinn said on October 14, 2014 at 7:10 pm ... #

    I struggle with this all the time. It’s so good to read this and hear other’s stories. It is amazing how many times that question comes up. It’s like everyone I meet asks, and sometimes people who I have already answered ask again. I am the middle of three children. My little brother committed suicide when he was 11. Suicide is so controversial and shocking that I always dread the well meaning but awful follow up question of “oh I’m so sorry, what happened?” Answering means I’m opening myself up to all that pain and potentially hearing people’s hurtful opinions on the subject. But I hate pretending like he didn’t exist, it’s like everyone around me has no idea about this super important part of my life, and I’m lying and betraying him. It’s the same for my parents… “How many kids do you have?” But after 12 years I feel like I’m finally starting to heal a bit, so maybe over the next few years I’ll be able to actually answer and acknowledge him like I want to (without becoming a mess).

  38. meagan f. said on October 23, 2014 at 11:21 pm ... #

    that story was touching

  39. Juliana said on November 7, 2014 at 9:12 pm ... #

    I have a brother, two older sisters, a twin sister, and a younger sister. I have a younger brother we don’t talk about much. He died when he was three weeks old; he had underdeveloped lungs. I was six when he died. My mom and dad visit his grave a lot and my mom cries on his birthday and is depressed for about a month. God bless and good luck on your healing journey!

  40. Big Sister said on December 30, 2014 at 8:01 pm ... #

    I completely understand the gravity of that dreaded question. After ten years, I believe that trying to avoid that question at work has created a distance between me and my coworkers that I cannot bridge. I used to dread lunch room conversations and holidays, because everyone would talk about their families. I did not grow up an only child, but since my sister died at age 21 (I was 24) I have lived most of my adult life as an adult only child. It is very frustrating that my husband’s family never met her and my daughter will never have an aunt on my side. I feel like I have lost so much of my past because I do not have her to recall the memories with me.

    Thank you for putting this dilemma into words. People who have not lost a sibling do not understand.

  41. Cecilie said on January 21, 2015 at 8:50 am ... #

    Been strugling with the excat same situation for 6 years now dealing with my older brother passing away. Thank you so much, points are spot on and inspiering! Really helped me a lot.

  42. Josie said on March 27, 2015 at 1:57 pm ... #

    I want to thank you for this article. My sister, my only sibling, was killed riding her bike when a truck hit her, a month and a half ago. I was VERY close to her. I have been struggling with this question. Her death was very public as well, because we live in a small town. I find myself getting mad at people for thinking they have something to say about it. I am sorry that we all must feel this pain. But I want you to know how good it feels to not be alone in this. Thank you 🙂

  43. CPat said on April 19, 2015 at 6:54 pm ... #

    Sean,

    This is exactly the article I was looking for. Every word that you said is just the way I feel. It’s only been a little over a year that I lost my brother but I don’t know if I will ever be able to answer that question correctly. If someone asks if I have any siblings, I just say I have an older sister and always fail to mention my little brother. I just don’t know how to answer it and what situations to answer in. I am always hesitant. It hurts because I feel guilty about it but I don’t want to put other people in the position where they feel obligated to listen. But believe me, I can talk about my brother for hours and hours, it just hurts explaining how he died, it brings so many bad memories.

    But thanks to your post, I don’t feel alone 🙁

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