The time my sister left home.
My sister, whom I was very close with growing up, ended up receiving a scholarship from the University of Washington for track and field, and left home after graduating high school. I was 14. At the time I underplayed how difficult this was for me. It certainly left a space in my heart, but at the time I had no idea of how large of a space it was. Through all my childhood we found refuge together from the turmoil and chaos of our parent’s very messy and unhealthy relationship. We hid together, cried together, and fought almost as they did. After she left we grew apart, and the big sister I always looked up to was no longer a significant part of my life. I didn’t acknowledge my hurt around this missing relationship, rather finding myself unknowingly seeking replacements - essentially, unconsciously using people to fill a void. And the grooves of habitual patterns that formed from our childhood together got deeper and deeper, shrouding the story of hurt and sorrow. The last few years, however, I began to understand the role this absence, this loss, has had in my life - to acknowledge all of the losses associated with the time my sister left home.
Therese Rando in her work How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies expresses a deep understanding and empathy of the complex role that loss has, and the subtlety that comes with symbolic and secondary losses. Sadly, most of us are raised in cultures that fail to appropriately create healthy dialogue and ritual around the most obvious losses, such as death of a loved one, let alone helping us acknowledge and deal with secondary or symbolic losses. Let me try and explain: Though I lost my sister’s physical presence, what impacted me perhaps more was losing her symbolic presence as teacher, sister, friend; as well as secondary losses such as 'refuge' from parents, and my own loss of identity as brother, friend, even 'pest'.
Rando states that the ultimate purpose of grief is to help you recognize your loss, to adapt to the reality of that loss and live healthily in the new world without what or who was lost (225). So, when we talk about adjustment to loss, we’re talking about awareness, which is at the heart of healthy grieving: acknowledging the loss, experiencing the pain, and moving adaptively into the new life without forgetting the old. When she left suddenly I was an only child. There was no acknowledgement of this experience as one that might cause real grief - Neither through the loss of her primary physical presence nor the secondary and symbolic losses. My 'refuge' was gone and I was amidst the family turmoil alone. As well, there was no acknowledgement of my sister as ‘refuge’. I was proud of her accomplishments, I was proud to be her brother. I celebrated the new identity of being only child. Yet, without recognizing what I was losing, nor the pain behind that loss I wasn’t able to adjust to the new reality well because I wasn’t acknowledging the fullness of that new reality.
So, where does that leave me? It leaves me wanting to raise awareness around the impact of loss. Even those losses all too easily dismissed or trivialized. Every change that happens in our life carries with it a loss, even good changes like job promotions or having a baby. And that loss, at the very least, needs to be acknowledged so that we can begin to adjust well to the change in our life - the new reality. The hope is that as we begin to deepen awareness around loss, we will live with greater self-respect, be kinder to ourselves, and become an understanding and supportive presence for others.