‘Keep Their Memory Alive’: Four People Share How They Cope With The Deaths Of Their Siblings

"Don't be afraid to cry."

The death of any family member is hard. With parents or grandparents, we grow up with the knowledge that we’ll have to say goodbye to them one day – even if that time comes too soon. Losing a sibling – someone we assume will be there alongside us into our old age – can be a different kind of grief, as the recent tributes from Louis Tomlinson’s siblings to their late sister, Félicité, show.

Their Instagram posts describe their shock and confusion at losing a “best friend” and others who’ve lost a brother or sister can relate. “There’s not a day which goes by that I don’t think about my brother,” says Purdey Lines, 24, who lost her brother Toby to suicide when he was 13, and she was just 11.

From life events such as birthdays, weddings and Christmas to every day things like hanging out with friends or calling family, Purdey says: “All I can think about is how he’s not here and I can’t call him to tell him what I’m up to.”

Left-right: Toby, Purdey and their younger sister Marnie.
Purdey Lines
Left-right: Toby, Purdey and their younger sister Marnie.

Purdey, who found her brother in his bedroom, says much of her childhood is now a blur – but that moment is still very clear, as is the time she went back to school. ”I remember my languages classes being particularly difficult because we had to speak about our family in French or Spanish and say how many brothers and sisters we had,” she says. “I just never knew what to say.”

Almost 13 years on, Toby’s death still affects her daily. One of the hardest parts now, she says, is not knowing when – or if – to tell new people she meets. “It’s a difficult conversation but one I want to share,” she says. “I feel like if I don’t talk about him then he never existed but at the same time, I don’t want to share my story unnecessarily.”

Hannah Barham-Brown has similar struggles – and says the deaths of her two brothers also impact her daily life. Her brother, Theo, died due to complications of Down’s syndrome at 22 months old, when Hannah was 23. Three years later, when she was 26, her 24-year-old brother Gareth died – he’d previously had a heart transplant, but after nine years it began to fail. His health deteriorated within days, instead of months like Theo’s, and he died of sepsis while waiting for a second transplant.

“I don’t think I made any words for about three days,” says the doctor, 31, from Leeds. “I just laid on the sofa staring into the middle distance in silence.”

Hannah and Theo (left) and Hannah and Gareth (right).
Hannah Barham-Brown
Hannah and Theo (left) and Hannah and Gareth (right).

Working in the medical profession made things harder for Hannah. “There’s an additional level of guilt there, I think, when you lose someone, because you feel like you should have been able to sort it,” she says. “There’s a bit of wondering ‘is there something I should have done?’ or ‘should I have picked up on something?’”

One thing that has helped Hannah deal with grief is the “ball in a box” analogy –something she passes on to her patients, too. The idea is simple: imagine a box with a ball in it and a button on one of the internal walls that “activates” grief. Every time the ball hits the button, you feel the same intense grief you felt when you were first bereaved. At first, the ball is huge and bumps into the button all the time. But as time passes, the ball grows smaller – it hits the button less frequently, but when it does, it can be just as painful.

“To me that makes sense,” says Hannah. “You kind of feel like there’s a set time you’re allowed to be sad and then you have to go back to your life. But actually, grief doesn’t happen like that and random things will set you off – things still set me off – but it’s about letting myself acknowledge those triggers and feel that grief, then start again tomorrow.”

There’s no correct way to cope with the death of a sibling. Purdey was helped by childhood bereavement charity Winston’s Wish, and Hannah has found blogging about it to be cathartic. For Arinola Araba, who was born in Nigeria but now lives in Essex, it’s praying that gets her through the day-to-day.

Arinola’s brother died in Nigeria when he was just four-years-old, after he was hit by a speeding driver in the road. She was 14 at the time. “It was harrowing, I loved him so much, he was adorable,” Arinola, now 52, says. “I had to accept he wasn’t coming back.”

And Lisa Murphy, 49, whose brother Paul died when he was 33 and she was 30, recalls similar emotions in the immediate aftermath of his death. “I felt numb at the time,” she says. “It was the first time I’d lost anybody close to me and I just didn’t know how to process it all.”

One of the unexpected consequences was Lisa losing her voice due to throat nodules, which was a struggle as she works as a professional singer. At the time, she didn’t fully understand how or why this could happen, but now, she says, in her work as a therapist, she’s more aware of how emotional stress can have a physical impact. Lisa chose to visit a Reiki healer to help her cope with her bereavement.

Lisa and Paul as children (left) and Lisa today.
Lisa Murphy
Lisa and Paul as children (left) and Lisa today.

During such fragile times, Arinola’s advice to anyone who has lost a sibling is to get support – and keep the memory of their brother or sister alive. “Talk, talk and talk some more,” she says. “Write about it. Find a way of remembering your lost one and remember they would probably want us to be happy.”

Lisa says don’t be afraid to cry. “Tears can be the simplest way to release the buried emotions and yet people, especially men, often feel it’s weak or wrong in some way to cry,” she says. “Speak to a good friend or a counsellor if you can. Don’t brush it away and imagine that you should just ‘get over it’, because you may feel the impact later on in some way.”

Looking towards the future may feel impossible at first, but when you’re ready, Purdey says it can make the biggest difference. “I tell myself that life can change at any minute,” she says. “Although I have lost someone who was a huge part of my life and I constantly feel like I’m not complete anymore, I remind myself that life does, and will, bring so many new and happy moments.

“Trying to accept what has happened will never be easy and I don’t think I have accepted it even now, but knowing I have a lot of life left and many exciting things to come, I feel happy. I feel happy because I will experience my life and do my best in it for myself and my family – but also for my brother.