Groups Show Beauty of Siblings Helping Siblings

By Kerry J. Bickford, VOICES Editor

Dealing with the aftermath of an overdose is complicated for families and friends left behind with so many conflicting emotions. For siblings, it can be particularly painful and isolating.

Siblings are lifelong peers who not only share DNA, history, and memories; they may have kept secrets or even have been complicit in each other’s active addiction at one point. Because of the complexity of these relationships ,surviving siblings might not share their feelings within the family, which can complicate their ability to grieve. 

Sharing within the family can be tricky, but it turns out that many siblings report being able to talk openly about their loss in the safety of a group of other siblings who are able to relate better than anyone else can. And while there seem to be numerous peer grief groups for adults and parents who have lost a loved one to overdose, it turns out that siblings are an underserved population. 

With all of that in mind, a unique support group focused on coping with grief after losing a sibling to overdose was developed by a bereaved father, Dave Swindell, and a bereaved sister, Judi Earnest. They worked together to create a safe, confidential space where siblings can share openly, and it didn’t take them long to pull a steering committee of grieving siblings together to help fine-tune a process that would fit their unique needs. 

Siblings Supporting Siblings (S3) opened its doors in March at the Milford Library in Milford, MA. Eight siblings who have been attending this group virtually since April recently talked about what it feels like to be grieving a sibling who died by overdose. 

Not surprisingly, members expressed their love for their departed sister or brother, but at the same time, their absolute fury at the disease of addiction. They shared familiar stories about their loved one stealing, doing time in jail, and, in one case, a beloved brother in long-term recovery dying the day before a sister’s wedding.This group’s camaraderie and safety clearly empowers participants to express difficult memories and feelings in a way that is healing and builds trust. 

Most members recalled “resenting the hell” out of a brother or sister who may have been the constant focus of their family’s attention while in active addiction, followed by the feelings of deep guilt and shame after their loved one’s death. Almost all agreed that sharing with grieving parents can be tricky, primarily because they want to protect them. Losing a child is an “out of order” death, and parents experience overwhelming grief. Siblings hesitate to contribute to this burden.

One group member described living alone with her mother and being an only child now, and the challenges this creates. The person vacilllates between caring, sharing, and protecting.

Another recalled, “I told him (her brother) to get his shit together, because I could see what it was doing to him, to our family. After he died, the anger became sadness, and I felt guilty that I had said these things to him.”

Group members shook their heads in solidarity when these truths were offered. Clearly they could relate.

That's the beauty of a sibling group experience. It allows participants to express their anger and other feelings about the disease of addiction so they can connect to the feelings of sadness at the bottom of the pile. The ability to process these conflicting emotions makes way for memories of loved ones when they were not in active addiction and allows the surviving sibling to begin to heal. This is the gift of a peer support group for siblings. 

Judi Earnest,who co-facilitates the S3 group with her husband, Tom, has also been leading Supper with Siblings since 2018) at Gilly’s Club in Wrentham. Siblings are offered a meal, conversation, and support, and Judi has a special, four-legged service dog, Gilbert, who lends some extra cuddles and hugs when needed!

The most impressive thing about both of these groups is the ongoing connections they create to siblings who have died. They live on in memories, both good and bad, and even allow for a few shared smiles through tears. The collective commitment to keeping their loved ones alive in this way adds to their resiliency in the worst of circumstances, and the siblings’ decision to choose a place of healing and light in the darkness of grief is inspiring.

It has been said that “where there is great love, there is great loss,” and clearly, it is love that drives these siblings to gather in a virtual safety net of caring and support. If you or someone you know would like to attend either group, please click on these links —  Supper with Siblings and Siblings Supporting Siblings — to contact the group facilitator.

Let the healing begin.