It was a sunny South African day, and my aunt Ann was doing what she loved most – walking her dogs down the quiet country road she lived on. A car approaching from the distance set in motion a chain of events that led to Ann falling and striking her head on a rock. She never knew what hit her. She was dead by the time her body came to rest on the ground.
There was no pain, no languishing in a hospital bed with tearful family members keeping vigil, no questions about whether or not to keep the life support going.
As merciful as Ann’s death was, it was a terrible shock to those of us left behind. When my mother called me with the news, I felt as if all of the breath had been sucked right out of me. It was the last thing I had expected to hear. By the time I boarded the plane for the long trip to South Africa, I was still in a state of disbelief. Even now, a month later, I feel slightly overwhelmed by the harsh reminder that life can be a lot more fragile than we usually think.
While I have always known that people can and do die without warning, this has never happened in my own personal experience. Everyone I have lost up until this point in my life has been either sick or old. Those losses have not been less painful by any means, and they have not necessarily been easier to accept. But they have definitely been less shocking.
For the first time, I am confronted with the ugly reality that at any moment, someone I love could very unexpectedly not be there anymore.
More than ever before, I find myself wanting to hold my loved ones close to my heart. Seeing my mother lose her last sibling has made me reflect deeply on my relationship with my brother. He is the only sibling I have, and this sudden death in the family makes me want to be a better sister to him.
It’s not that I’ve been a bad sister. It’s just that I haven’t really made much effort over the last few years to stay in touch with him, to keep up with what’s been going on in his life, and to let him know that he is important to me. Apart from the big events in our lives, we haven’t really had any contact. I feel driven to rectify that and find ways to reconnect with my brother.
These events in my life could very possibly lead to a shift in how I teach my two children about the importance of their relationship as brothers. The sibling relationship takes on extra significance when one child has a developmental disability that automatically places the other in a caretaker kind of role.
When my kids are grown and I’m no longer around, my younger son, James, could quite literally be his brother’s keeper.
Until now, I have just kind of assumed that this is the natural order of things, that when parents die, it is up to the siblings to look out for each other. What I have started questioning is the obligation behind this: should siblings take care of each other because they are obligated to, or because they want to?
I worry that if I try to drum a sense of duty into my kids, there will be potential for them to grow up with some resentment towards each other. Instead, it is my hope to foster a relationship of genuine brotherly love between them, so that they make a natural progression into being best friends as they grow from childhood into adolescence and then adulthood.
The makings of this kind of brotherly loyalty already seem to be in place. When James isn’t home, George always expresses a desire to see him. James, for his part, refers to his brother as “my George”. They experience a healthy level of sibling rivalry but they are never short of a hug for each other, and there are many mornings when I wake up to find them curled up together in George’s bed, with George’s arm thrown casually but protectively over his little brother.
My boys are there for each other now, and if I do my job as a parent right, they will be there for each other for the rest of their lives.
Do sibling relationships play an important role in your family? Do you believe that there should be a sense of obligation between adult siblings?
This is an original post for World Moms Blog by Kirsten Doyle of Toronto, Canada. Kirsten can also be found on her blog, Running for Autism, or on Twitter @Running4autism. You can also connect with her on Facebook.
Photo credit to the author.