How one grief facilitator is speaking out and helping siblings build resiliency
It was the death she never imagined: in her early 30s, Andrea Moore, a Texan Grief Vacillator, lost her sister, Angie, to breast cancer.
“She was my longest relationship,” said Moore, on a video call with Learning About Grief. “I felt like I was on an island by myself.”
Sibling loss is seldom discussed and for those who experience it, it can feel like the unspoken grief. Grandparent and parent loss seem more common; losing a child is “the grief that no one wants to go through,” said Moore, because parents aren’t supposed to bury their children; but in bereavement culture, siblings are forgotten.
Siblings are often left to process their loss alone. Supporting friends and family spend time focusing on the surviving parents, spouse, or children and seem to forget that the sibling also lost someone important. They tend to have less input into funeral arrangements and affairs and may become a main point of contact for people outside the family.
“I had no support, not even from the people who loved me most,” said Moore. “They looked at [our] parents, [her] son and then her soulmate … her husband. No one —not a soul — asked about me. All they said to me was, ‘be strong for your parents,’ ‘pray about it,’ ‘give it to God.’ And I thought, yeah, that sounds crazy. Give it to God? That’s not happening.”
SIBLING LOSS CHANGES FAMILY DYNAMICS
Like other bereaved individuals, siblings notice a difference in personal relationships; and it begins with their most immediate family members: their parents. For people like Moore, losing her sister made her the only living child. And those with multiple siblings may experience a change in closeness to their surviving brothers and sisters. Since the burden is often put on children to support their parents in loss, the surviving child becomes a caretaker.
After her sister died, Moore accompanied her mother to several doctor visits and witnessed the health effects of grief firsthand. “Every physical part of grief nobody talks about happened,” said Moore, whose mother was “on every type of medicine.” What started as emotional grief had become physical.
“She was on 34 pills. Like what human takes 34 pills?” said Moore. “Then one day the doctor said to me, ‘Your mom’s in pain. She’s grieving. There’s nothing a pill can do. There’s no pill for grief.’”
Moore saw her parents’ grief thicken as they processed it differently — one with sadness, the other with anger — and acknowledged that the relationship she previously had with them had forever changed.
“We lose our parents when our siblings die,” she said.
It wouldn’t be until she relocated that her grief journey could unfold, but that was not without challenges.
“When I left, my parents felt like they were going through another loss,” said Moore.
Her parents had experienced the death of one child and now, the physical absence of another. Overall, Moore said she’s happy she made the move, and her mother celebrated her for doing so. If it wasn’t for her relocating, her parents may not have tapped into their own grief.
Moore mentioned that her parents were suppressing their grief to be strong for her, and she was suppressing her grief to take care of them. Being able to focus on what a life without her sister would look like helped in the grieving process, something she wasn’t able to do before. She credits this to moving.
Relocating to a new state meant no one to say, “how are your parents?” or “you look like your sister.”
Speaking of being asked how she was, she explained, “I used to say I’m fine. Then I had to stop. I posted [on Instagram] the other day, ‘Stop telling people you’re fine. Stop lying because you’re not.’”
Acknowledging how you feel in grief isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. Being able to take time to pause and tap into how you’re processing grief allows you to take an assessment of your life.
“Honestly, I couldn’t be a wife because I was too busy being a daughter,” said Moore. “And I can’t tell you I was being an efficient mom. In sibling loss, you become a caretaker and my role was being a daughter. People don’t talk about the emotional detachment from [spouses] because we’re too busy taking care of our parents.”
COPING WITH GRIEF TRIGGERS
Moore said that women are naturally jugglers – mom, wife, business professional – but when it comes to grief, the balls start falling. She says she suggests to clients that they discover what their “unique grief” is. This helps them create what she refers to as “a grief plan.”
The ability to release and express one’s emotions is an important part of healing. Moore says that if someone does not believe in God or a Higher Power, she asks them what can they connect with? Perhaps it’s nature or journaling or taking a walk. These are all coping mechanisms the bereaved have available to them.
Another suggestion for those going through grief is sound therapy which differs from traditional music therapy. “For every griever that I talk to, listening is a situation,” said Moore, and sound therapy helps them become more in-tune with their emotional selves. “Listening to yourself. If your body is telling you ‘breathe,’ [do that]. Today you don’t need to watch Law & Order [if] you lost your sibling to domestic violence. And sometimes you’re frustrated and don’t know why you’re frustrated, but you’ve triggered yourself,” said Moore.
In the grief plan that Moore created for her clients, she encourages them to detox from social media. While the digital world can be helpful to those experiencing loss, it can also have its ramifications. Moore suggests that the bereaved who are having a hard time should limit their usage online.
The news going on in our country and on a global scale can be triggering to some. “It’s anxiety that they’re putting themselves through,” she said. “I’ll ask, ‘What have you been watching today? What have you been looking at on social media today?’ Detox. Take a walk or run.” It’s okay to take a break she tells us and knowing when to is part of listening to ourselves.
Grief is not limited to the funeral and the months and years after. Moore lost her sister to cancer, which, for her, meant experiencing anticipatory grief. “You’re watching someone die,” she said recalling her sister going through treatments. She remembers seeing her sister’s clothes fitting perfectly to becoming too big, but weight loss wasn’t the only physical change.
“She didn’t even look the same. She lost her hair, so one day I grabbed the clippers and said I’ll cut mine too.” As many sisters do, Moore and her sister Angie shared plenty of laughs when they were together. “I said, ‘let me call ma’ [after I clipped my hair]. Mom said, ‘What did you do to your head?!’”
Beyond that Moore said she was afraid of seeing her sister go through radiation. Family members faded too because “they were also grieving,” she says. “Angie was one of the oldest cousins and everyone looked up to her. Looking back, everyone was having a hard time coping and processing Angie’s loss,” she said.
“I remember talking to my sister two days before she passed. She kept saying, ‘I’m going to be okay.’” At this stage, the doctors informed her and her family nothing more could be done. Moore said that she and her sister had a different definition of what “okay” meant at that time. “My okay and her okay weren’t the same. My okay [meant] we’re going to walk out this door. I’m going to have a drink and you’re going to watch me. Her okay meant she was preparing to be free of pain, free of radiation, just free.”
FROM GRIEF TO GRIND
Moore said that her sister’s healing and being set free enabled her to be free too. She admits that she still gets frustrated and cries but understands that it’s okay to talk about her sister. Going through grief offered her a new sense of purpose and she’s using it to help others surviving siblings like herself.
At the time of Angie’s death, Moore was still pursuing a college degree and assumed she’d wait until after graduation to focus on purposeful living but a conversation with her father changed that. “He asked me, ‘When God called you to be purposeful, what degree did he tell you you had to have?’ And me, I always joke and tell him, ‘but Daddy you know I’m a Christian and I curse a lot, but from that conversation, my business Grief to Grind was born. It focuses on helping entrepreneurs who have experienced sibling loss build resiliency.’”
When Moore started Grief to Grind, she said she didn’t want to sound morbid but she recognizes she speaks on a hard topic. She tells people escaping the hard pain of grief is impossible. Someone might want to kick or scream or get frustrated. “Grief is messy,” she says; and we can’t expect it to be pretty in the beginning, but it does get better.
Grief and happiness are possible. Journaling and laughter are now a part of Moore’s life. She said she’s smiling a lot more these days and helps others do the same. She encourages those supporting someone through loss to “do more than just be there.” This can look like asking them to play volleyball or take a walk on the beach, going out to eat, and or sitting next to them while watching a show. Sometimes bereaved people need someone present to take up physical space where there’s an empty spot. This can be a great comfort.
And her suggestions for the bereaved? “It is okay to feel. Not a soul on this green earth has the right to tell you how to grieve. Sometimes we have to remove [people] for our own peace. I had grief in the boxing ring, and it was not pretty. Find your tribe. Grief is a minute-by-minute situation. They’ll help you through.”