This Memorial Day, Ask Me About My Brother

This Memorial day, pass the ketchup, and asked surviving military siblings about our loved ones, writes Annie Sklaver Orenstein.

This Memorial Day, Ask Me About My Brother

Before my brother Ben was killed in Afghanistan in 2009, Memorial Day was one of my favorite holidays. It meant parties with friends and family, all of us excited by a long weekend and the promise of summer ahead. The fact that Memorial Day was also about violent and traumatic loss was a more abstract and theoretical concept—until the year those losses included my big brother with the contagious giggle and the drive to serve.

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For the first few years after Ben’s death, Memorial Day made me angry and indignant. We’re honoring my brother’s death with mattress sales and BBQs? I thought to myself. Nevermind that my brother enjoyed nothing more than barbequing and a good nap. He loved Memorial Day and all its contradictions. He could hold grief and joy together in a way that seemed effortless.

I began to dread attending the Memorial Day events I once enjoyed with him. Would people say anything to me? And did I want them to? Siblings are often asked questions that no one would dare ask a bereaved parent. Questions about how he died. How he really died. “What exactly happened that day?” “What happened after?” “How are your parents doing?” It’s amazing how many questions people can ask about your sibling’s death without ever stopping to ask about their life.

But which is worse: having someone say something or not? I’ve learned that being at that barbeque, knowing everyone else is aware of your loss and its connection to the day but receiving no acknowledgment at all is perhaps the worst outcome of all. I would be left feeling like the elephant in the room, trying to act like everything is fine when it most certainly was not.

The loss of a sibling is a unique form of grief that can be deeply traumatic at any age, and its long-term impact can be seen in every aspect of who we are. Siblings are supposed to be one of our longest shared relationships, and when that is cut short—as it always is when war is involved—siblings are left to pick up the pieces within their nuclear family and support grieving parents and loved ones. Many surviving siblings diminish their own grief so as not to further burden their already broken families, and find themselves struggling to address their loss even years later.

Studies have shown that surviving siblings have increased rates of depression and somatic symptoms, a lower sense of meaningfulness and benevolence in the world, and lower perceived self-worth. Siblings are also more likely to experience complicated grief or prolonged grief disorder, a form of intensified grief that often includes difficulty accepting the loss, preoccupation with the circumstances surrounding it, and a painful combination of bitterness, anger, yearning, and longing. What’s more, siblings grieving on Memorial Day in particular have experienced a violent loss which increases the likelihood that they’re experiencing traumatic grief; a powerful grief and PTSD cocktail that can rewire your brain and leave you feeling unsafe and utterly alone in the world.

Surviving military siblings, especially, find ourselves dealing with the trauma of war without the sibling we expected to grow old with, our parents grieving so deeply we have nearly lost them, too. Gina Moffa, a trauma-informed grief therapist in NYC and author of the book Moving On Doesn’t Mean Letting Go, explained to me that “people often don’t understand how re-traumatizing anniversaries can be for someone who experienced a military loss. While people are having a barbecue or enjoying a long weekend, surviving siblings are dealing with the symptoms of trauma as if they’ve just heard the news again for the first time.”

Read More: My Brother Was Killed in Afghanistan. He Became Real to Me Again in Quarantine

So what if you haven’t lost a loved one to war, but you’re celebrating Memorial Day with someone who has? Trickier still: What if it’s someone you don’t know well? Social support is one of the strongest antidotes we have to the loneliness and isolation that thrive alongside grief. It breaks the isolation and denial that allows traumatic and complicated grief to flourish.

What if Memorial Day wasn’t about how our siblings died, but about how they lived? Let me talk about my brother’s love of grilled meat in any form. Let me recount our sibling hijinx while we cut the berry cobbler. Instead of asking me to recount his murder, let me tell you about the time he and cousin Steven bought a turkey fryer a few days before Thanksgiving and attempted to deep fry everything in Aunt Jane’s kitchen.

I know this conversation is not easy for anyone involved. Grief and loss is an incredibly complex topic, and if I hadn’t been through loss myself, there’s no way I’d know how to approach someone that’s grieving in moments like this. I’m a deeply curious person and I’d probably be ask too many detailed questions. But that also might make me the perfect person to give some advice here. Curiosity is valid and, more than anything, it’s human. But that’s also what Google is for; don’t put someone on the spot asking about their trauma. If you meet someone at a Memorial Day celebration this year who has lost someone in the military, store that info away to Google later and in that moment, focus on life. Ask, “What was your brother or sister’s name?” “Is it helpful to talk about them?” And if yes, “What were they like?”

Your simple question can bring a surviving sibling back to life during an otherwise traumatic day. As Moffa explains, “when somebody checks in and they’re compassionate, patient, and supportive; when they just sit with us no matter how long it’s been, we feel tethered again. We are tethered to something that can make us feel alive and open the space for joy and life again. It brings us back to ourselves. That check in can be a life saving experience.”

Supporting someone who is grieving this Memorial Day doesn’t mean canceling your plans and spending the day at the cemetery or ignoring all those things you want to do on your day off. It simply means reaching out and checking in, including them in your plans, and making sure they feel seen and heard on that day.

This Memorial Day, you have the power to heal. You have the power to reframe the day from one that memorializes a violent death to one that opens up the door to conversations about life.