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The Sibling Connection
"Love, Fear, and Letting Go"

          The following lines from a poem by Mary Oliver capture the essential difficulty facing survivors of early sibling loss-- after the painful experience of losing a brother or sister, many surviving siblings lock up their hearts, and come to associate loving with emotional pain.

To live in this world
you must be able to do three things:
To love what is mortal;
to hold it against your bones
knowing your own life depends on it;
And when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

         The poem says we have to be able to love completely, and yet, to be able to "let go" when the time comes. Experts in grief also use the term "letting go", and we hear that we should "Let go and let God." But what does it mean? What are we hanging on to? How do we "let go" of it? And what does it all have to do with loving?

         I believe that the answer is extremely simple --we have to let go of fear. It is as if the human heart has only two settings--on and off. When we are loving, it is 'on' and when we fear, it is 'off'. So the dynamics of loss go like this--there is a death and it hurts. Without knowing it, we fear the repetition of this pain. We stay on guard, watching to be sure it doesn't happen again, thus preventing love from coming in or going out.

         Fortunately, that is not the end of the story. Many surviving siblings have told me of their experience at this point. They say that first, they become aware that they fear love. Then, they are faced with a choice.

         "One minute", writes Marie, "you are standing there realizing that you have a choice--either to shut out love, and the possibility of loss, thus isolating yourself from life; or to accept love, consciously knowing that it may bring pain. The next minute, you decide, and say to yourself-- in spite of the pain, I choose love. And your whole world changes."

The Rose by Amanda McBroom

Some say love it is a river
That drowns the tender reed
Some say love it is a razor
That leaves your soul to bleed
Some say love it is a hunger
An endless aching need
I say love is a flower
And you its only seed

It's the heart afraid of breaking
That never learns to dance
It's the dream afraid of waking
That never takes the chance
It's the one who won't be taken
Who cannot seem to give
And the soul afraid of dying
That never learns to live

When the night has been too lonely
And the road has been too long
And you think that love is only
For the lucky and the strong
Just remember in the Winter
Far beneath the bitter snow
Lies the seed that with the sun's love
In the Spring becomes the rose

          Ask yourself--am I sabotaging my relationships because I fear losing again? Do I prefer to be alone because it is safe? Do I cut people off emotionally when they act in a way that I consider dangerous, such as driving, swimming, participating in sports, traveling, or even growing up? Am I a coward? Have I let my fear of pain prevent me from getting close to people? Have I withdrawn from relationships?

          If you answer "YES" to any of these questions, it is not too late to change.

         The first step is to recognize what is happening--become aware that you do fear loving again. Then simply accept that fact, and validate your emotion--say to yourself something like this: "That makes sense considering the pain I have had." Accepting the emotion prevents it from growing strong through resistance. Then tell someone about your fear, or if there is not a trusted person with whom you can talk about this, write it down and read what you have written. In other words, express the emotion in an appropriate way. Now, each time your fear surfaces and you notice that you are pushing someone away with your anger or defensiveness, or you notice that you avoid going out and being with people, just observe what is happening. When you are ready, take a small step towards being open to relationship. Each time you reach out or trust, or spend time with people, ask yourself how it feels. If you continue to feel supported and accepted in the relationship, continue to risk. In time it becomes easier. If you have difficulty with re-connecting to people, seek help from a counselor or therapist.

         Now we are back at the beginning. To live in this world, you must be able to love people with all your heart, people who may die and leave you in pain. And when the time comes, you must let go of your fear of loving again.

          I hope that when the time comes, you will make the choice Marie did--in spite of the pain, to choose love. Be brave-- life is meant to be for love.

Copyright © 2000-2009 P.G.White, Ph.D.