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An Open Letter To Grieving Siblings: How I Got Through The First Few Painful Years

Allison Ballenger
mbg contributor
By Allison Ballenger
mbg contributor
Author Allison Ione Ballenger is the author of One More Year. Sheholds a B.A. in Literature/Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Asheville.
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March 8, 2022

Sibling grief can often go unrecognized, as concerned friends and family members focus their attention on the bereaved parents, life partner, and children of a person who has passed. However, a sibling's grief is just as valid, painful, and life-altering. The sibling bond is one of the longest attachments of life and one of the few relationships that can conceivably span an entire lifetime. The following open letter is for all the broken brothers and sisters who are just beginning their grief journey. I see you. 

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An open letter to a grieving sibling.

I may not know you or your story, but I understand all too well the heartbreak and devastation you are feeling now. I lost my older brother, Scott, to sudden cardiac arrest in 2017. Scott had always been my rock and my sunshine, and losing him was the most unimaginable nightmare I could fathom. He left behind a wife, two young daughters, a mother, hundreds of friends, and an entire world of shattered pieces. 

You are probably asking if life can really go on. Will it ever stop hurting? Will you ever be able to breathe normally again? Will you ever genuinely smile and laugh again? The answer to all of these questions is yes. Well, except the hurting one. That, I'm afraid, continues. But it is different from what you are feeling now—more manageable, more of a subtle aching than a stabbing pain. 

Grief is like being given a giant boulder you must carry every day. At first, the load seems too enormous. You feel winded immediately. You think the weight of it might crush you. But you continue because you have no choice. 

Slowly, after carrying it on your shoulders day after day, the boulder will seem to become lighter. It's not that it is—it's just that you get used to the weight. The boulder is always there, you always feel it, but you get stronger and learn to work around it. It becomes a part of who you are. Almost a comfort. There are still days when it will bring you to your knees, but those days become fewer and fewer as the years pass by. 

I wish I could tell you that there is a shortcut to bypass the shock and sorrow of losing your sibling, but time is truly the only answer. The best I can do is to share a few things that helped me get through the first couple of years:

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Meditation

Quieting your racing thoughts will be essential during this time, and there is no better way to do that than through meditation. To begin, find a cozy, quiet area in your house where you can be undisturbed for at least 10 minutes. Sit or lie on the floor, close your eyes, and turn your attention to your breathing. It helps to count silently as you breathe, "in-two-three" and "out-two-three." Your mind will likely wander, and that is totally fine. When you notice your thoughts bubbling up, just let them go and bring your attention back to your breathing.

This is just my method, but there are thousands of ways to meditate. Here's some more info on meditation for grief, along with some tips for grieving mindfully.

Essential oils

I never thought I would be one to jump on the essential oil bandwagon, but grief showed me just how helpful and soothing they can be. Here was my daily routine:

  • Rose oil for anxious thoughts. I used a roll-on that was already blended with a carrier oil. 
  • Peppermint oil for easing panic. I kept a vial of undiluted oil in my purse—it was crucial for all of those moments when I couldn't catch my breath. 
  • Lavender oil to help with sleep. I also used a roll-on for this (and still use it every night). 
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Make sure you use high-quality essential oils (not fragrance oils). A quality oil will come in a dark, tightly sealed bottle and should say 100% pure, unless mixed with a carrier oil. Quality oils also typically have the Latin plant name on the front.

Exercise (when you are ready)

I know this one is tough, but physical activity releases endorphins and will also help you to feel a sense of empowerment and control. Just a quick walk around the neighborhood or local park can do wonders for your spirits. When you are up for it, you might try yoga, swimming, jogging, or even kickboxing to get your heart pumping.

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Find a creative outlet

This might also take some time, but finding a creative way to externalize grief helps to take it out of your body and to bring a sense of peace and purpose. I did this by creating a picture book tribute to my brother and our childhood. Channeling grief into something tangible was more cathartic than I could have ever imagined. Scott was a larger-than-life person, so it is no surprise that he continues to touch lives from the great beyond. Helping his magical spirit live on has been one of the greatest gifts of my life.

While writing a book was my outlet, you might find a way to honor your sibling through painting, dancing, playing music, crafting, or even doing volunteer work. I am living proof that, with time, it is possible to turn the darkness of grief into something beautiful.

Find a community

As you process your emotions and navigate this new reality, remember that you are not alone in this journey. Compassionate Friends is a great place to look for sibling support groups. You can also find numerous sibling grief support groups on Facebook. Please also feel free to contact me directly via my website if you ever just need a place to vent. We are in this together, and I am always happy to listen. 

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Allison Ballenger
Allison Ballenger
mbg contributor

Author Allison Ione Ballenger holds a B.A. in Literature/Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Asheville. Her debut children’s book, One More Year, is a tribute to her older brother, Scott, who was a story-telling, song-singing, life-loving, magic-maker. Allison currently lives in Cary, NC.