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Planning Retirement Online

Relationships 69    

                             January 2008

Maggi Stamp, LaterLife's Relationship Counsellor

Every month Maggi Stamp, a qualified and experienced relationship counsellor for Relate and in private practice, writes about some of the emotional challenges we meet in later life.

For reasons of confidentiality Maggi never writes about a particular person's problems unless you have sent one in to be answered, but all her examples are based on problems raised by clients, family and friends over the years.  

You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column.



I've never really grieved for my sister..

By Maggi Stamp

When I was 6yrs old my 5yr old sister died of cancer in my Dad’s arms. It affects me still. I decided way back then that I would never have children for fear of losing them.

I was ‘farmed out’ to relatives while my parents grieved, as I was a constant reminder of their great loss. Finally mum had another baby and my new sister rapidly became the miracle child who could do no wrong. I accepted this arrangement and always stepped aside rather than compete with her for anything.

Now plans within the family are made without ever consulting me and, at 50, I’m angry. Is this normal?

Your email sounds as though you have never come to terms with your own great loss. You and your sister who died were so very close in age and you were old enough to understand, just, that she was dying. The pain of losing her made such an impact that you took the decision there and then never to risk feeling such a loss again, so you had no children of your own once you became an adult. Perhaps your parents didn’t realise that children feel loss and need to mourn as much as adults, even if they do it differently.

That you were unable to cope with this tragic event in the family’s life could well be due to being ‘farmed out’ to relatives while your parents grieved. Although each individual grieves in their own way and at their own pace, a family that has lost a member needs to be together at that terrible time. You weren’t in your own home, with them showing you how to express your sadness by allowing themselves to be sad in front of you. I would rather think of a surviving child as a blessing rather than see something negative in your presence.

This is all very well to say, but I know that for parents who have to go through this awful experience there are times when they are at their wits end trying to keep themselves together and continue with the day to day things of life. Everything requires a massive effort when people are working through a fog of grief. I suspect they had no idea that what they did would make it much harder for you.

The combination of being separated from your mum and dad at a time when you needed them more than ever and the subsequent birth of a third daughter must have left you right out in the cold. That she was given the role of an ‘emotional saviour’ who could do no wrong was a bitter blow to you. Being the elder child, you would have probably wanted to be good and show responsibility. You obviously did this by stepping aside and not competing with her. This will have made it hard for you to develop the normal skills of speaking up, arguing and of confronting people who matter to you.

What a lonely childhood you must have had, missing your first sister and not being able to have a normal, healthy relationship with your second. It is quite possible that this helped to reinforce your decision not to be close in case you lost her too. I wonder if that has influenced other more adult relationships in your life?

You don’t say how much older than your surviving sister you are, but it sounds as though she still has the prime place in your parent’s life. And perhaps expects it, as she has known no other way. Hopefully, we are loved by our parents, but each in a in different way, but we also hope that we are equally important to them. You have never had the reassurance you need it seems. Now your parents will be elderly and you won’t want to upset them but understandably you are angry at the raw deal you feel you’ve had.

You need to work out what to do about clearing the air between you, your sister and your parents and tell them how unbalanced the family has felt from your position; and you need to grieve for your lost sister.

The feeling of anger and frustration at the patterns set up by the sadness of all those years ago is understandable. It needs to be untangled a little in order for you to work out how to raise these painful issues with the rest of the family, so that the balance can be adjusted to help you feel that you are important to them all.

To find support from a therapist who counsels those who have lost siblings would be especially useful for you but most grief counsellors will have that capability. If you are unable to afford to pay for a period of counseling don’t give up, it is important that you attend to your difficulties now you have found the courage to ask about them. Keep searching. I think you are writing from the USA. There are organizations that offer grief counseling free of charge, face to face or via the internet and here is just one of the many organisations that might be worth contacting to find help.

A team of skilled professionals across the USA supports the bereaved of all ages. They specialize in helping those who have experienced the following:

  • Death of a child, sibling or parent

  • Sudden and traumatic death

  • Loss related to HIV or AIDS

  • Multiple deaths

  • Suicide

You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column.

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