Elizabeth SteffelLosing a sibling to life circumstances beyond your control is something that you never forget and always remember. It is a loss you feel deep in your chest. It is a loss that you spend your waking moments actively ignoring in hopes that you can forget feeling as if an integral part of you has been removed leaving you feeling as if you are no longer a whole person.

Hundreds of television shows, books, and other media openly discuss the difficulties that individuals, who had lost a sibling at a young age, struggle with. These media depictions of individuals struggling with the loss of a sibling always tell the story of someone who lost a sibling to death. These depictions of sibling loss are a good resource for others who have lost a loved one to feel a sense of solidarity and learn how to heal. These stories of loss and coping help people who have not lost a sibling understand the perspective and life experience of those who have.

The aforementioned stories about losing a sibling and learning to be whole again DO NOT help me, an adult former foster youth, and likely other adults and former foster children who have lost a sibling due to legal separation. These stories of surviving the loss of a sibling to death create a deep sense of isolation and despondence within those of us whose siblings are alive but lost to us forever.

I am the second child of four [all names have been changed to protect their privacy]. My older brother Devin is 4 years older than me, my younger brother Alex is 2 years younger than myself, and my sister Kim is 4 years younger than me. Growing up in a house in which our father was an alcoholic and Schizophrenic and our mother was diagnosed with Borderline Personality and Bi-Polar Disorder made the relationship between my siblings and I hostile but integral for survival. My parents often played us off each other. Each parent would have a favorite child of the week or month which then put the other two at the mercy of any abuse or hate filled emotional tirades from our parents. Though these inconsistent attachments with our parents propagated hostility and competition between our sibling group we always depended one another to aid and defend each other from outside hostility and/or our father.

My eldest brother had undiagnosed Asperger’s which resulted in me having to take on the role of oldest sibling. My parent’s mental illness and my brother’s emotional and social immaturity resulted in me becoming the parentified child. I changed my sibling’s diapers, prepared family meals, and cleaned the house. I took my siblings to their parent teacher conferences. I helped them with their homework. I defended them from bullies. We spent weekends and summers as far away as we could from our parents playing outdoors in the woods and with neighbor kids. My siblings were the only stable thing in my life. I never knew who or what my parents would be during the day but I could always count on Devin being analytical, Alex wanting to rough and tumble, and Kim wanting to play princess and other imaginary games. I loved my sister. I still love the sister I remember. She was shy, kind, and not built tough like my younger brother and I. We did all we could to protect her from our parents tirades. She was the baby and we protected her as best we could.

A month and a half before my 13th birthday I ran away from home and reported my parents for the abuse. I hated turning on them but I wanted the hitting, cutting, and beatings to stop. I wanted us to be a normal family like the one on Full House. I wanted us to be safe.

Foster care did not save my family. Foster care removed me from my parents’ home. My parents denied the abuse and, as is normal for families, my siblings did not break the family trust and told the courts I had made everything up. In one supervised visit my sister apologized to me for lying. She said mom and dad had made them say I was a liar. As a 13 year old child I could not forgive her. She was angry with me for destroying the family. I was angry at her for not helping me protect myself after all the years I had protected her.

My siblings remained with my parents. Then my parents divorced. Devin moved in with dad. Kim and Alex lived with mom. Reunification happened. Alex had become a very violent child and kicked in the face of a child in his school with cleats. He was removed from my mom’s care and placed with my dad. My mom had a manic episode which resulted in her nearly killing me and I was placed back in foster care. Devin got a home of his own hours away from our home town. Alex and dad moved to a new community, also hours away. I was moved out of state to live with a friend of the family. Within one and a half years of me reporting my parents to child protective services our sibling group was torn apart forever.

The worst part about being separated from your siblings is the adults you are sent to live with. People forget how important a role adult’s play in shaping the way a child sees their family and the world. Because of foster care, counseling, and positive mentors I began to see how unhealthy my family was. How violent we all really were. How bad things actually were. While I gained outside perspective Kim was taught by mom that all the family problems were caused by me and my dad. Alex was taught that everything was caused by me and my mom. Devin, due to his Asperger’s, could never see past the social rule that kids have to do what their parents say and since I betrayed them by, not keeping the family secret. I was the bad one.

Now, fast-forwarding through the years: I am 29 years old. 16 years have passed since I left my family. Every time a see a hallmark movie or one of those “sisters are amazing” motivational posts on Facebook I feel a tug on my heart and an emptiness in my chest. Over the years Kim and I have tried to be friends. She suffered from depression, attempted suicide, mild drug use, and very reckless behavior. The sister/mom in me always comes out when talking to her. My actions in attempting to “help” her are seen by her as controlling. She would often say “mom said you were removed because you were a sociopath. I can’t trust someone like you.” Not a conversation can occur without her telling me I am evil and the cause of the family’s destruction. Because of this we cannot talk. We cannot be friends. We try. Every two to three years we call one another, start a friendship and then fight. We both talk about that hole and missing one another but too much time and too much outside influence without counseling, or an ability to know one another as we grew up, has resulted in us never being able to connect. It is like a sappy love story. We want to be together but we never can without someone being hurt.

Devin and I have also tried to be friends off and on over the years. We have also talked about the hole inside and missing one another. No matter how much we want to be friends we never make it past a month or two of conversing. Devin always ends up telling me I made up the stories of my father’s sexual abuse. At one point he told me I must have raped myself with a toy and was remembering it incorrectly. Needless to say we, like Kim and I, cannot be friends without someone being hurt.

The saddest story of the lot is Alex. Alex is on his second marriage. He had beat his 1st wife and she left him when he went to Iraq. Alex physically abused Devin a few years back and takes no responsibility for his actions. Alex is a very violent individual and the family and he do not communicate at all. I refused to talk to him from the age of 14-28. Alex was always violent and I could never trust he would not rage. But, despite my fear of him I also miss him. A year ago I was doing research on abusive families and the cycle of violence. I could not help but wonder if Alex had experienced more abuse than I knew of and that is why he is the way he is. I contacted him via Facebook. He wrote me a letter telling me he was sorry about everything that had happened to me but that he could not talk to me or anyone in the family without fear of losing his mind or temper. I have not heard from him since.

I am currently a MSW student at the University of Southern California. In my Marriage and Family Therapy classes I have been learning about families identical to mine who were able to heal with counseling and efforts from professionals to keep relationships alive and healthy within sibling groups. I have learned about families which were worse than mine, where the siblings hated one another, who eventually became close allies due to social workers keeping the siblings together in foster homes and/or having sibling playdates once or twice a month. I now know that my siblings and I could have been friends today if the adults in our lives had made an attempt to keep us together. If they had helped us to heal with one another. Those adults, those social workers, judges, and my birth parents failed us. Their failure tore us apart. Today we live lives as adults who feel as if our siblings have died. Unlike individuals who lose a sibling to death, we are unable to publicly mourn the loss of our living but departed siblings.

I support Camp To Belong because they are working to do what the adults in my childhood failed to do. They are working to keep siblings together. They are working to prevent these youth from becoming adults who suffer from the loss of and isolation from family members. Camp to Belong will not only help these siblings heal and continue their relationship in childhood but also throughout their adult lives.

I cannot tell you how many nights I cried myself to sleep, cried uncontrollably while at my middle school, or broke down in tears just living my daily life because of the deep loss and yearning I felt for my sister. Over the years that pain became a scar. Today I do not cry over the loss but I still feel that scar. These youth may not speak of the loss but it is there. Camp to Belong will help prevent and protect these youth from experiencing the loss and pain my siblings and I have endured. I give my full support in their mission.