I have two children. One is low key, mild-mannered, and has a half tooth. The other is high-key, wild-mannered and has a double tooth. Both are brilliant, beautiful and better than me, but one is living, and one is dead. Laura died from bipolar disorder in 2017 after trying every medication, years of therapy, residential treatments and hanging on to hope; unfortunately, hope stopped, and her life ended. And when she ended, part of me ended too.
My kids loved each other despite and through harsh words, high praise and a sense of family. They understood each other in a way that was almost private, laughing with a delight that was both suspicious and hysterical. They were each other’s fiercest cheerleaders and rivals. They knew everything and nothing about one another. Just as they were becoming friends and not just siblings, she gave in; she died. What happens to the beauty and complexity of a sibling relationship that abruptly ends and the mother goes AWOL?
My daughter Laura suffered from bipolar disorder and chose to end her life when she was nearly 24. To this day, it remains the most devastating moment in my life as nothing compares to the excruciating pain of losing her. I am still swimming alone in the ocean of despair haunted by flashbacks and memories, but I am no longer drowning though I often gasp for air. In the midst of this grief and anger, I fight and berate myself. I am a mother who failed to protect not one but two children. At least that is how I see it, and I see clearly. I let my son down while trying to win myself back from an unfathomable loss.
Since Laura’s death, my son may have felt invisible, alone and/or devastated. He may have felt relieved, unburdened and/or numb. Sure, I could just ask him. We are close, and talking to him is easy for me because his heart is like mine. But what answer to the question, “How are you?” can a grieving son and sibling give to a distraught mom? Where is there room for his pain? What does it feel like to lose a sibling? How do you help your parents in their darkest moments and ask for help yourself? He lost a sister to a terrible disease and a mom to terrible grief. I may have even been lost to him long before her death focusing on her episodes, her treatment, her recovery, her relapse, our boundaries, our promises both kept and broken. For years, Paul may have felt unseen as Laura’s mania and rapid cycling to depression consumed us. His world silently yet so loudly put on hold. I was there, but that doesn’t matter if he didn’t feel it or see it.
The parent-child relationship is full of miscommunication, misperception and a myriad of other misses. Did my kids feel I loved them equally? Was her illness killing us all? Was my son’s life slipping away from me as my own was becoming lost in her bipolar disorder? Her illness was part of her just as his hearing loss was part of his, and I knew they were both more than that. It was their lives, but still somehow mine. What I did and said could impact how they felt about themselves and maybe each other. Did I enable their sibling friendship or unravel all that I knitted to this point as I hyper focused on one child while keeping the other safely in my peripheral vision. I don’t know, but I sure wonder. What did my son feel, see, think as he watched me attempt to keep my daughter alive? Did he feel that there was room for all of him? Did I open the door?
Siblings of those with bipolar may feel forgotten as their parents get sucked into the cycles of this life-threatening disease. They may also feel lucky that they dodged the bipolar bullet. I love my son, more than anything in this world, even my beautiful first granddaughter. I didn’t experience his loss, but I hope he can laugh thinking of what he had with his one of a kind sister, what was just theirs. And maybe, he will come to know through the love he has for his own daughter, that I always carried him in my heart and still do. The door never closed. He wasn’t lost to me; I was lost to me. Thankfully his peripheral vision is better than mine. I proudly have two children.
And a grandchild of whom I will never lose sight.