Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
I’ve lost all my parents and siblings. Each one I’ve grieved and tried to move on, but now that I’ve lost my last remaining family member, my sister, five weeks ago, why do I feel like I’m grieving for them all now? I’ve never felt so lost and alone now that I’ve lost all of my family.
When we lose the last member of our family of origin, we may lose the most relevant cast of characters of our childhood, all of the witnesses to a unique world of our youth–a time that defined us, and that will not come again. And with the loss of siblings we lose the people who know us most thoroughly, across the years, jobs, roles and relationships, those few who have followed the thread of our life for nearly its entire course. As long as one person remains who stands in this unique relation to us, we may feel seen, understood, known. But when that person is lost, the enormity of our aloneness can rush in all at once–indeed, we may lack even the very person we need to understand our unique grief.
And yet, for better or worse, every family will encounter such a moment of transition, when only one member of the nuclear family remains. How we cope with that inevitability if we are that lone survivor will depend on who we are and who we love: we might draw on our personal or spiritual beliefs, as well as our network of extended friends and relations, to seek a sustaining web of meanings and bonds that supports us in our grief, and helps us find a potentially redefined meaning in our lives. A woman experiencing a similar position to yours wrote me just a few days ago, saying she felt like “The Last of the Mohicans,” referring to the James Fenimore Cooper novel about the lone surviving member of his Indian tribe during the time of the Revolutionary War. But the protagonist of that story found new (and heroic) meaning in forging new bonds with American settlers, even as his people migrated, developed new ways of life, and blended into other tribes. Perhaps this is the challenge for us as well, as we address the questions: To what am I now committed? To whom do I now belong? How best can I represent my people in a changing world? Confronted with courage and compassion, we can find answers to these questions, and in so doing reestablish a world of meaning that has been shaken by loss.