Whether you are a parent, grandparent, aunty, uncle... you are welcome here. Losing a child or young person to cancer affects all the family. Everyone's grief is different but you are not alone. We hope that the information provided here will help you to take care of yourself and your family and honour the memory of your child - always.
For older teens and young adults
A sibling relationship is a unique relationship. The loss of your brother or sister is a huge event in your life. You might be coping well right now… or maybe not. If you feel you could do with some help, Constellation Project Australia has put this information together to help you better understand your feelings and help you deal with your grief.
We hope it proves useful but remember, if at any time you feel that you are not coping, make sure you talk to your GP. There are also helplines available.
So just read on...
The cancer journey and how it can affect your grief
The long journey through treatment which families make alongside children and young people who have cancer is often physically exhausting, often upsets the balance of family life and brings with it a massive range of raw emotions such as shock, anger, hope, pain, disappointment and at times, despair.
Some patients and their families have likened the cancer treatment process to 'being in a war' and ,of course , all wars are traumatic. Everyone is different and affected in different ways by events but it is worth looking at our section on post-traumatic stress (PTSS) to learn more about it. PTSS is a natural human reaction to a high stress situation. Many people however benefit from getting professional help to manage these feelings.
Everyone grieves differently
Everyone feels different around losing a person they love because everyone’s relationships are different in respect of that person. The way you grieve may also be influenced by your cultural traditions.
All the research shows that men grieve just as much as women, boys as much as girls and there is no wrong or right way to grieve.
Learning to cope little by little
Writers and counsellors often talk about the grief journey as happening in '5 Stages' They name the stages as: 'Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance'. Although it is useful to know about these stages (because some people can relate to feelings and it helps them to understand that what they are feeling is ‘normal’), many siblings run through a huge range of emotions which are difficult to label.
Some young people move in and out of stages and feelings especially because in adolescence and early adult life young people having to cope with lots of changes anyway. ‘Grief stages’ can also imply that you are expected to ‘get over’ your grief in a certain timeframe and this is just not possible because we are all different.
From our research one thing does seem to ring true for most people, however; that grief becomes easier to handle over time as you gradually learn to cope with the feelings.
The early days
Even if your brother or sister’s death was expected, there is a limit to how much you can prepare for their passing away. Your initial feelings could be shock, anxiety, feeling restless, depressed and ‘weepy’ or angry even. Try and be gentle with yourself at this time. Try and eat, even just small snacks, and go for walks or sit outside for a little fresh air and to ‘clear your head.’
Try not to turn to alcohol or illicit drugs to take away the painful feelings. These don’t help in the long run and can make you feel worse.
Later on ......
As the days and weeks go by, sometimes living with your feelings of grief can seem to get harder. This is because, after the funeral, family and friends try to settle back into their old routines, while you return to work or study and try to get on with life. This is sometimes the point at which the impact of your loss dawns - so feeling low is to be expected.
Sometimes people outside of the close family and friends group can expect you to ‘get over’ your loss too soon. Don’t let this misunderstanding affect you too much.
For anyone who is grieving there are days when you feel like staying in bed with the curtains drawn. Having a ‘Doona Day’ now and then is natural and part of healing. However, if you become very depressed and feel unable to function for any length of time, please see your GP for help.
Talk to your famiy, dont hide your love away
Sometimes family members don’t talk about their grief to each other because the relationships are so close, and there is so much raw pain. Sometimes siblings don’t talk about their deceased brother or sister because they are afraid of causing pain and upset to each other or to their parents.
There are no easy answers to this but generally any communication about the death is better than no communication - so keep the lines as open as you can. Family gatherings around memorial events can often help as the memorial gives everyone permission to focus, express their feelings and to talk about your brother or sister.
Memorials don’t have to be once a year, you might decide to visit the grave site with your Mum or your Dad/sister/brother/friend for example once a month to take flowers or perhaps go on a special walk on their birthday or anniversary of death.
Talking to friends
Although grief and loss affect all of our lives, there is still a lot of awkwardness around bereavement. People are often reluctant to talk about death. The death of a child or young person is also an unusual event so this makes it even harder for friends to understand and talk about.
People you know may sometimes try and avoid the subject, usually because they don’t know what to say, or are afraid of saying the wrong thing. Sometimes people will make clumsy mistakes (e.g. "you’ll get over it" etc.). The important point is to try not to take any insensitive remarks to heart.
Remember that whatever anyone might say, only you really know how it feels. On the other hand there are lots of friends who will really want to support you. Close friends who are good listeners are like gold. Although they might not know exactly what you are going through, they care about you and this means they are a ‘safe’ person to talk to.
If you are feeling really brave you could send your friends the link to our 'Being a Great Friend' page which will help them learn how to support you.
Talking to other young people who have lost a sibling
Even though everyone is different, some young people really benefit from talking to others who have had the same kind of loss. It can make you feel less ‘alone’ and you can learn about how other young people have coped and survived losing a brother or sister to cancer.
Grief counselling from either a qualified counsellor or experienced psychologist can be really helpful to you. If you are worried about burdening others with your feelings or feel that no-one understands, or if you don’t feel you can trust anyone with how you feel, then you might need to talk in confidence to someone who has had training and is there just to help you--someone who can offer reassurance and coping strategies if you need them.
Many grieving young people say that they actually feel much better after talking to a counsellor even though they may have been a bit hesitant to do this. Your GP can refer you to an appropriate counsellor if need be.
If you have a job, tell your employer and workmates if they don’t know already. Most people will be helpful and kind at this time.
In NSW, all paid full-time or part-time staff are allowed up to three days paid leave in respect of the death of a family member. Your employer will possibly offer you some more paid 'compassionate leave'. Don’t be afraid to ask. Many employers have some discretion in this area and might give you a little more paid leave. If you are having difficulties getting your entitlement to compassionate leave visit the following website: http://www.youngpeopleatwork.nsw.gov.au/.
If you need more time before returning to work see your GP. Some people take some sick leave at this time if they need it.
Activities which can help you adapt
Below are some strategies to use to help you adapt to your brother or sister not being around. These ideas are gathered from our research and talking to people who have lost brothers and sisters to cancer. You may find some, (or none) of these are suitable for you--everyone is different, and only you know what is right for you.
Talk to your deceased brother or sister
Losing someone you love leaves an aching void in your life for a long time, especially if you were very close to them. You have lost an essential part of your life; lost a playmate, soul mate, sparring partner--possibly all of these and more. Your place in the family will have changed, you might have become the only surviving child or the eldest or youngest surviving child. Losing your brother or sister brings with it major re-adjustments on all kinds of levels no matter what age you are.
As days, weeks, months and years go by you will miss them, think about them, and remember things you did together. Things will happen in your life that you might want to share. You might think of things that you wish you had said to them or shared when they were alive. Don’t be afraid of taking time to talk to them out loud if necessary in a private place.
Write about your feelings
Keeping a journal is a good way of getting your feelings off your chest. Sometime re-reading it will help you to better understand where you are at. In having a sibling who has died of cancer, you are probably not only grieving but coming to terms with what your brother or sister went through and what you experienced whilst they were in treatment. Some young people talk about feeling guilty when their brother or sister got sick instead of them. Many also talk about dealing with really difficult feelings associated with having ‘flashbacks’ to stages in treatment, and to how they felt when their brother or sister died.
Thoughts and feelings like this are real to you. Writing stuff down helps validate what you are feeling and allows you to ‘process’ your thoughts.
Writing letters to your brother or sister who has passed can sometimes help you say things to them that you possibly forgot to say or were too upset to say whilst they were still alive.
Visit their gravesite or their ‘special place’
For many people, it helps to visit the grave of the brother or sister they have lost (or the place where their ashes were scattered or their ‘special place’). You might visit the grave alone or with a family member or a friend you trust. Even just sitting at the gravesite for a while can be calming.
Keep a memory box
This could be a private box of your own or one you share with the family. Most of us instinctively hang on to some treasured items which connect us to people we love when they have died. Do you have something special which makes you feel your brother or sister's presence and brings good memories of your special times together?
This could be anything; an item of clothing they wore (baby bootees or a coat), a piece of jewellery, something your brother or sister made at school, their mobile phone, favourite photos, something they wrote or drew (get copies made of these so you will always have them), favourite DVDs and CDs... .
Some young people keep several special things in a box in their room and go to the box when they want to remember their brother or sister. You might also want to buy a special candle to keep in the box, then light it (somewhere safe) when you are thinking of your brother or sister.
Create a memorial
Make a memory book http://www.journey-through-grief.com/make-memory-books.html and/or scrapbook using photographs. Actively doing something which helps you to 'be' with your grief is helpful to some people.
Some families create an online memorial through Care Pages www.carepages.com or Caring Bridge www.caringbridge.org where you and friends can upload tributes and photographs. If you are going to start one of these pages, it’s a good idea to get everyone in the family to agree to it first.
Create something positive and beautiful
Research done amongst children and young people who knew they were going to die (and who were able to express themselves) suggests that they want to be remembered in positive ways; they want their lives to have ongoing significance and meaning beyond their death.
When you feel strong enough, think about different ways of expressing your grief in the form of music, art, sculpture, photography or doing something great in their honour such as a charity walk, or offering a prize-anything to make the world a better and more beautiful place. Doing this with family members is also a way of staying close and offering each other ‘bereavement support’.
Remember that grief changes
Just as nothing in life is static, neither is grief. As your life goes on it is wise to remember that there will be events which will trigger different memories, feelings and reactions which will lead you to think in different ways about your brother or sister who died.
This is normal and a good way to cope is to talk with a trusted friend. Always remember however, if the pain gets too great or you become depressed or unable to cope, make sure that you seek help.
Some resources which might help
‘Sibling Connections’ http://www.counselingstlouis.net/index.html contains a lot of information and different points of view on the loss of a sibling and how surviving siblings might begin to deal with this. There is a message board where you can read postings from siblings of all ages.
RD4U http://www.rd4u.org.uk/ is a UK site designed by young people, for young people, which contains useful information and also message boards which will help you realise that you are not alone in your grief. There is a great booklet on there http://www.rd4u.org.uk/YouthBooklet.pdf which you can download and print off to share with others.
CanTeen have recently produced a book based on a large piece of research amongst young people called "'Forgotten Mourners' . It is aimed at helping adolescents deal with the loss of a parent or sibling to cancer.