A sibling may be the keeper of one’s identity, the only person with the keys to one’s unfettered, more fundamental self. ~ Marian Sandmaier
Judy Lipson says there is no recipe for grief. Her sisters were her compass, constant, champions, and competitors and for thirty years she suppressed the grief of losing her two beloved sisters. Judy lost her younger sister Jane at age 22 in an automobile accident and nine years later her older sister Margie at age 35 to a twenty-year battle with anorexia and bulimia. It was not until 2011 that Judy began her journey to mourn for Margie and Jane, turning tragedy into Celebration through an annual ice-skating fundraiser. The following is taken from Judy's book, Celebration of Sisters: It Is Never Too Late To Grieve, and is reprinted here with her permission.
No one noticed that I was gone.
On the hot August day, the funeral over and the Jewish ritual of sitting shiva, I went upstairs to escape the crowd of people downstairs. I pulled my sweater closer to my body trying to keep warm. Shaking, unable to know whether to stand or sit, I leaned against the edge of a hard yellow leather chair looking out the window. The stillness of the trees, multiple cars lined our street and the adjacent side streets. Muffled voices carried throughout. The door opened and closed with a loud thud. A ring of the doorbell startled me. A no no in a shiva house. The coffee aroma drifted upstairs made me nauseous. My heart ached, tears streamed down my cheeks, my nose ran with no Kleenex around. Margie gone, Jane gone, I’m alone.
Thirty-one years ago, my sister Margie died at age thirty-five. Eight years earlier my only other sibling Jane died at age twenty-two. For thirty years I suppressed my grief.
I took on the role of caretaker for my family. My grief took a back seat.
My family did not talk about my sisters due to their immense grief. Haunted I would forget Margie and Jane.
Grief is not a topic people are comfortable talking about, nor sometimes individuals going through grief cannot comprehend what they need.
I needed help and was fortunate to get the necessary therapy. Reliving my sisters’ deaths buried so deep in my subconscious was daunting. Memories buried deep bubbled to the surface. Although the process incredibly challenging, lost memories came alive – some dark but many filled with light. Old black and white photographs depicting three sisters dressed up in party dresses, white laced ankle socks, and black patent leather Mary Janes feeding the ducks in The Boston Common out for a special Sunday dinner at Stella’s restaurant in The North End.
It is never too late to grieve.
Thirty years was half my life. When I looked back at the landscape of my life, I recognized that those thirty years could be thought of as lost time. And I reminded myself how grateful I was to be undertaking this hard grief work. But my heart would not allow me the freedom of forgiveness. My brain needed an alternative pathway to peace.
Sibling death is referred to as a disenfranchised loss. Disenfranchised grief is a term coined by one of the esteemed grief researchers, Dr. Kenneth J. Doka twenty years ago. He defines disenfranchised grief as, “Grief that person’s experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned.”
Often siblings are the forgotten mourners, overlooked and take on the burden, worry and caring of other family members. Siblings share a unique bond no matter the complexity of the relationship. They know you better than anyone else, and whom you dream of sharing your life with. In an instant that changes. Navigating your life without your sibling(s) is a complex journey.
To be honest, there is little information about the numbers of individuals who have lost siblings. One study shows that 8% of people up to age 25 have lost a sibling. The CBEM reports states that in the United States 1 in 14 children by age eighteen will experience the loss of a parent or a sibling. Some siblings channel the grief by choosing a way to honor their lost sibling(s). From erecting a memorable plaque, planning a walk, or running in memory of their loved one, creating a religious service on the anniversary date, writing poems, essays, and books. I chose to honor my sisters with an annual ice-skating fundraiser, Celebration of Sisters, bringing me full circle to a sport we all shared as girls.
But healing has taken place—through forgiveness and in acknowledging regret. After my sisters died, I never spoke of it. When asked, how many siblings do you have? I would answer, “just me.” Now when I meet someone new, I say, “I am the middle of three. Sadly, I lost both of my sisters.”
The resources for sibling loss include: The Open to Hope Foundation, The Compassionate Friends, and The Grief Toolbox.
© 2022 by Judy Lipson
About the Author: Judy Lipson is the Founder and Chair of Celebration of Sisters, an annual ice-skating event, established in 2011 to commemorate the lives and memories of her beloved sisters to benefit Massachusetts General Hospital. Judy’s memoir, Celebration of Sisters: It Is Never Too Late To Grieve, was released December 2021 by WriteLife Publishing. Judy has published articles, given speeches, and been interviewed for articles in The Open to Hope Organization, The Centering Organization, SKATING Magazine, and in literature published by Massachusetts General Hospital where she has maintained a close philanthropic relationship for more than twenty years. The Open To Hope and The Morning Glory Podcasts welcomed Judy as a guest. Her passion for figure skating secured her the United States Figure Skating Association 2020 Get Up Champion Award. To learn more about Judy and Celebration of Sisters, please visit www.judylipson.org
With many thanks to Judy for sharing her blog with us.