All of my stories are true; my life, experiences, and what I’ve learnt. I’m a work-in-progress, I’m not perfect but I’m listening and learning along the way.
Here I share my experience of losing not 1 but 3 siblings, and how I learnt to live with the loss.
Nothing quite prepares you for the loss of a close family member. The first time I lost a sibling I wasn’t even born. When mum was pregnant with her second child, somewhere in the 1960’s, she had a condition called Vasa praevia (or low-lying placenta), albeit she didn’t know that at the time.It effects around 0.6 in 1000 pregnancies (1), and 1 in 200 births (2), and today it can be detected by scan and dealt with by planned caesarean. Back then, however, the embryotic sack was a ticking time bomb to the unborn baby’s death. When mum went into labour and her waters broke, my sister bled to death. Anyone who has gone full term with a baby will know how unbelievably heart breaking it would be to lose your the perfect, beautiful baby, that’s grown inside you for 9 months. Mum didn’t talk about it much, and I found out many years later that tradition was to bury babies who had died in an older person’s coffin, apparently to guide them on, but nobody knows where that grave is. When I was younger I didn’t connect emotionally to the news, I knew it was sad but until you’ve had your own children, you can’t really understand how that would feel. Neither did I realise that the loss had left a little scar on my heart, but it had.
In the early 1970’s, I was born. I should have had an identical twin, but I was born alone. I was what is termed a ‘womb twin survivor’ (3). I’ve felt a deep sense of loss for my twin sister since my early teens, and most likely before that without realising. Albeit I didn’t realise it at the time, this second sibling death affected me at a much deeper level. At school, I never fit into a group, I played alone by choice and chatted to myself constantly, I still do. As I got older I never enjoyed being part of a club or clicky group, and I’m happy for friends to come and go. Intimate relationships have proved difficult too; they never quite fill the void. It was only when I discovered that all of these feelings were a ‘thing’, that I could start to heal myself, and choose to be happier with what I have, and live with what I’ve lost.
Last year, in February 2017, my brother died at 53. We’d been estranged for a few years, ours was never an easy relationship and we were very different people on the face of it. Nonetheless, his death caused another scar, and a lot of guilt.
All of the three sibling deaths were very different, and for different reasons I felt I didn’t have the right to grieve for any of them; ‘before I was born’, ‘died in the womb’, ‘estranged’. So I’d largely swallowed down the grief, focused it out of my mind, chosen not to discuss it. The truth is, it doesn’t go away. It just bubbles inside you, I often felt it like a ball in my solar plexus or a knot in my stomach, both gave me a physical pain that’s hard to describe. You have to grieve; it’s a natural process that leads to healing, and it’s different for everyone (4). Healing doesn’t mean forgetting, or getting over, it means finding a way to live in peace with your loss. When you choose not to grieve it can cause seemingly unrelated health issues; not least inability to form attachment, anxiety, depression, sleep deprivation, anger.
I’m a complex character, I guess we could all say that. My mental health hasn’t always been in tip top condition, and not dealing effectively with loss is one of the key things that triggered that. It seems to have taken an age, 47 years to be exact, to get to a point where I know how to manage my mind and myself. I’ve spent years learning and trying out different things. I’ve read countless books, literature, reviews. What I share with you below are the things that worked for me, and I always come back to for many different types of loss or abrupt change. They also have good evidence wrapped around them.
Acknowledge the loss and don’t bottle up your emotions. You may think you’ve cleverly nailed down that box of grief in your mind, but you haven’t dealt with it, so it’s still present. Sometimes, by connecting to the person you’ve lost in some way, this not only help with the sense of loss, but helps our emotions to run freely. You might do this by creating a memory box or scrapbook, or writing a poem or short story about them, whatever works for you.
Recognise when you need help, and ask for it this might be from a group, online information, a friend, a therapist or your GP. If you don’t get the help you want, keep trying other avenues until you get what you need, different things work for different people.
Self-Compassion is important, be patient and kind to yourself. This is your grief and nobody can tell you how long the process will take, or how that will look. Be honest about what you need, let others help, and make time for your own healing.
Your physical and mental health should always be at the top of your list. This is the cornerstone of therapies such as CBT and wellness coaching.
Here’s some key areas to focus on. These are all recommended by the NHS in the UK. I use all of these myself, and with clients on my Live Well coaching programme, so I know firsthand that they work.
- Nutrition: eat a healthy balanced diet, poor nutrition affects our functioning and mood. Get inspiration
- Connect with people so you don’t feel alone, loneliness can lead to mental health issues such as anxiety and low mood.
- Get out into nature and soak up the fresh air, and vitamin D.
- Take physical exercise, even short spurts of HIIT or brisk walking will help to release endorphins, your natural ‘happy drug’. Get inspiration
- Be in the present moment, notice what brings you joy, and take time to enjoy it.
- Meditate, even if just for 10 minutes a day, scientific evidence has shown the great benefits this has on your mood and resilience. I also found it helped unblock emotions that I’d locked down. Get inspiration
- Yoga is a great way to relax, limber up and build strength. It’s also a slice of time just for you. Get inspiration
- Sleep is so important for our physical and mental functioning, but don’t worry if you’re struggling to get to or stay asleep, that’ll only make it worse. Yoga & meditation before bed can help. Get inspiration
- Breathing exercises in the moment can help you to bring about a sense of calm.
1Ruiter, L; Kok, N; Limpens, J; Derks, JB; de Graaf, IM; Mol, B; Pajkrt, E (July 2016). “Incidence of and risk indicators for vasa praevia: a systematic review”. BJOG : an international journal of obstetrics and gynaecology. 123 (8): 1278–87. doi:10.1111/1471-0528.13829. PMID 26694639
2NHS Choices, 2015
4Dealing with death and grief, MindWell