By Sym Posey
The Birmingham Times
To lose a sibling is painful, and the weight of grief can seem almost unbearable and be even more profound during the holidays, according to professionals. Rather than times of family togetherness, sharing, and thanksgiving, holidays can bring feelings of sadness, loss, and emptiness for those who have lost loved ones—and more so for those who have lost siblings.
Crystal Mullen-Johnson, CEO and founder of Birmingham-based Strive Counseling Services, knows firsthand what the holidays can be like for someone who has experienced the loss of a loved one.
In June 2022, Mullen-Johnson lost her nephew, Edward Avery Mullen Jr., “EJ,” to suicide. Just 17 years old at the time of his death, EJ was a Pinson High School graduate with a full ride scholarship to Alabama State University.
“For me, I understand grief,” said Mullen-Johnson. “After the catastrophic death of my nephew, my family stayed with me for about a month and a half. I took care of them. I gave them permission to grieve. It’s very important when we are supporting others that we allow them time and not force the grieving process.”
“The holidays can be a challenging time for those that have lost those significant persons in their life,” she added. “Grief is a natural process that we should go through, but some have complications. They have complications because they are not aware that the emotions they are feeling are grieving emotions.”
“It Has Been Hard”
Crystal’s niece and EJ’s younger sister, Alaina Mullen, remembers her brother as a “bright spirit.”
“He loved doing art. It was his focus, and it is what he was going to study. Every time you were around my brother, you were happy or laughing,” recalled Mullen, 16, who is the youngest of three siblings; she has another older brother.
This past year has been hard, Mullen said: “Therapy has helped me a lot with getting through [my] grief. At the point I am now, I am coping better, and I have accepted it into my life, but it has been hard.”
“With it being the holidays,” she added. “Him being gone hits me harder during this [holiday season] because this is the time that you are with your family, and you are celebrating.”
Mullen and her family say they don’t have traditions but, they “talk about [EJ] and keep him in the conversation” as a way to honor and celebrate his life.
“It gets better. It’s not going to be hard for the rest of your life. Find a hobby that you enjoy and that distracts you. … I pray, I journal, that what helps me,” she said, adding that she also finds strength in her family.
“My family is supportive. They are a listening ear, although they are going through their own things. They show up for me in everything I do in school,” said Mullen.
Mullen’s aunt, Mullen-Johnson, said that, even as a therapist, she has someone to speak with: “I have a therapist that I talk to process my thoughts and my emotions.”
Mullen-Johnson’s downtown Birmingham private practice, Strive Counseling Services LLC, offers services that are tailored to meet the needs of each client according to their presenting problems and mental health condition.
“There are a lot of myths associated with grief,” Mullen-Johnson said. “When someone experiences the death of a loved one, society expects that person to return to normal within two or three months, but that’s not how grief works. Acute grief can last an average of 18 months, with the most difficult part hitting around the six-month mark.
“The holidays can be challenging because you must think about all the memories that those, we, or those persons formed with the one that they lost. Consider the daily interactions you have with your loved ones. When that person passes on, depending on the circumstances, it is a catastrophic event. … They are no longer a part of your life, so now you are stuck with that feeling of loneliness, guilt, even fear.
“Not being able to share in those sentimental moments or rituals and spend the holidays with those you love can cause a roller coaster of emotions, such as emptiness, and that can [cause someone] to spiral into a depressed mood, she said.
“No Expiration Date”
“Grief has no expiration date,” Mullen-Johnson continued. “It is a lifelong journey that you will carry with you for the rest of your life. No simple guidelines exist that will take away the hurt one may be feeling. Each individual grieves differently, and that can be based on the level of the relationship or the dynamic of the family.”
Matthew Bunt, M.Ed., Licensed Professional Counselor-Supervisor (LPC-S), is an outreach coordinator for The Amelia Center at Children’s Alabama, a grief counseling center that provides support for those dealing with the loss of a loved one.
Bereaved siblings often describe feeling sad, lonely, and different from their peers, he said. The impact of the loss may be felt most by the brother or sister who shared the most significant amount of “life space” with the one who died.
Siblings who shared a room, played, or spent their spare time together are likely to be most profoundly affected. Just like adults, many children who lose a sibling can experience intense feelings of guilt. When a brother or sister dies, they may recall all the fights and name-calling, seeing themselves in their memory as the “bad” child and the dead sibling as the good one. This can result in feeling that they are not good enough, Bunt said.
At The Amelia Center, he added, “We work with families trying to decide as a unit, ‘How do you incorporate the person who died into the festivities?’ … [It helps to have] a plan, whether it’s lighting a candle or talking about their grief. Memories are one of the best legacies that exist after the death of someone loved, and holidays always make you think of times past. Instead of ignoring these memories, share them with your family and friends. … A lot of the time it’s the anxiety that the person is not going to be there that [can be] even worse than the actual day of the holiday.”
Bunt explained that a child’s experience of losing a sibling depends partly on their understanding of death, which is associated with age and developmental level. Some grief reactions cut across all age groups and developmental levels, and children may show their grief in many ways.
“For many families, there is a period of acute grief that can last 18 to 24 months after a significant death. During that period, grief counselors focus on helping clients handle a return to normalcy,” he said.
“Maybe their sibling was their best friend, or they were always together, [but] that’s not always the case,” Bunt added. “Maybe they weren’t that close in age, they weren’t that close, or they didn’t have [shared] groups of friends. You kind of see both, so it’s hard to say if a sibling grieves more.”
Opening its doors in 1997, The Amelia Center provides a place of hope for thousands of grieving children, parents, and families in the greater Birmingham region. Annually, The Amelia Center assists more than 1,100 individuals and 375 families in a caring, compassionate environment. To learn more about The Amelia Center, please visit their website: www.childrensal.org/services/amelia-center. To learn more about Strive Counseling Services, LLC, please visit their website: www.strivebhm.com.