Just as many people who have experienced the passing of a sibling, for many years I also felt guilty for being alive.
This month marks 20 years since my brother Sonny passed away of Leukemia (cancer) and just like many of you, I’ve also been through the trenches, just to reach peace.
This is not to draw sympathy, it’s about bringing attention to a feeling and experience that is real – sibling survivor guilt.
When I think back to that time as my 12-year-old self, and the 10+ years following, I truly felt like I was the only kid/teenager/young adult who felt guilty for being alive and guilty for enjoying life and accomplishments.
But, I was never the only one. It’s actually a common emotion that millions of siblings across the globe experience after such a traumatic loss; and I wish more of us knew this at the time. But WE as a society don’t discuss it as much as we should.
In my experience, for about a decade I continuously questioned if my parents wished it was me who passed away; which was a thought far too often.
I was a kid questioning the validity of my existence and suppressing my sadness, anger, and all the emotions in between, because I felt I had to suck it up and just be “grateful” that I was alive.
During almost every milestone I felt guilty. Specifically, when I was graduating from college the same year that he would have graduated from high school. I remember my parents planning a graduation party for me, and thinking, everyone probably wishes we were planning this for Sonny.
I experienced great sadness and cried frequently the weeks leading up to my graduation from CSUSB in 2017, sometimes in front of people, sometimes while alone. But, I kept on trucking and told people that I was proud and sad that my time in college was coming to an end. But, I felt guilty that it was me graduating, instead of him.
Then there’s the points in life as an adult where I’ve made myself feel like I have to always be working towards a new goal, take every opportunity, go bigger and bigger and spread myself so thin, I had to be successful…because Sonny never had the opportunity.
Personally, I believe it’s important to honor our siblings that have passed away. But it’s even more important to remember to honor ourselves because we are the ones still here on earth.
In the beginning and in the years following a sibling’s death, society (friends and family) inadvertently place an enormous amount of focus on the sibling that has passed, which as a child can leave you feeling left out, less important, and completely overshadowed.
It’s like, “Hey, look at me. Over here. Can you ask me how I’m doing? I’m struggling over here.” It wasn’t all the time, but there were many moments I felt this way. And I completely understand that my family and many other families across the globe do the best they can to cope during these unfortunate experiences, but the surviving siblings need help too, and that’s why I’m writing this. To make people aware of the emotions that overcome a surviving sibling.
And it’s not a feeling of jealousy, it’s an internalized feeling that we gain from the trauma that makes us feel guilty for being alive, that makes us feel less important. It doesn’t exist in real life, only in our minds.
If you’re currently experiencing the loss of a sibling, it’s okay to feel this way, it’s normal. But, remember that you deserve to be happy, you deserve to enjoy your milestones and accomplishments, and you deserve to be alive, just like everyone else. You don’t owe your life to anyone.
It’s important to find a healthy balance of still honoring and remembering your loved one, but knowing that you are also just as important and deserving of life.
By the way, when I was in my mid-20s I finally told my parents that I always thought they wished it was me who passed away. They cried and couldn’t believe that was ever a thought floating through my mind.
P.S. I love you to the moon and back Sonny. You are my heart and have inspired me to be my best in countless ways.