Forgotten Mourners: Siblings Cope With Loss

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Adults whose siblings die in war are sometimes forgotten mourners. Their grief may not be as visible as a parent's or child's. On this Memorial Day weekend, host Jacki Lyden visits with a group of people who've lost brothers and sisters to war, but also found community with each other. They met through an independent organization called TAPS — Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden. This weekend, towns and cities across the country are mounting parades and holding ceremonies to honor those who have died in military service. Today, we're going to start not far from where I am now, at a Washington area convention center with a group of people whose soldiers were intimately known and loved. Ami and Kendra(ph) have both lost brothers to the war in Iraq.

Unidentified Woman #1: Hi, good to see you.

Unidentified Woman #2: You've got to go get her checked in still?

LYDEN: They met through an independent organization called TAPS, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. Each Memorial Day weekend, TAPS brings together hundreds of children, parents and widows of service members for peer-to-peer support. There's a camp for children called the Good Grief Camp, but there was also a workshop for people who are often the forgotten mourners, adult brothers and sisters.

Ms. AMI NEIBERGER-MILLER: Yeah, grab your coffee, and we'll go this way.

LYDEN: Ami Neiberger-Miller remembers where she was and what she was doing the moment she heard of her brother's dead, U.S. Army Specialist Christopher Neiberger, killed in Iraq in August of 2007. But being 14 years older, she also remember the day he was born.

Ms. NEIBERGER-MILLER: I remember his whole life, really.

LYDEN: Like the time their mom coaxed him to eat his vegetables.

Ms. NEIBERGER-MILLER: Mom was like, come on, Chris. Eat the broccoli. It's just like eating a little tree. And Chris said, no, mama, that's dinosaur snot. I won't eat that. And the whole family laughed. And he was like that his whole life.

LYDEN: Another sister, Kendra Lynn(ph) is from Scranton, Pennsylvania. Her oldest brother, Staff Sergeant Stephen Tudor(ph), was killed by a mortar in Baghdad two years ago.

Ms. KENDRA LYNN: All of his comrades, I always say, you know, tell me something about my brother, like how he was over there, and they're, like, his laugh. He always smiled, and he always put everybody first. He'd often work double shifts so his troops could rest, so they'd be rested up for the next day. He was just an amazing person, and I miss him so much.

LYDEN: Sibling grief can feel disenfranchised, grief not recognized as easily of that as a parent or child. Beth Anderson came from San Francisco to mourn her only sibling, Staff Sergeant Phillip Anderson, killed last year in Balad Ruz, Iraq. The questions don't go to siblings, she says, the questions go to others.

Ms. BETH ANDERSON: How are your parents doing? Oh, how is your mom, you know? And I think people just don't realize because it's such a not-talked-about issue that when you lose a sibling in adulthood, you lose your past, your present, and your future. Your past because there's so many memories that only that person knows. You know, in the present, you lose being able to share kids together, nieces and nephews. And the future, you know, it hit me one day driving home. I had to pull over and just break down crying because I realized that I have to bury my parents alone.

LYDEN: Chad Weikel traveled here from Colorado Springs. His brother was Captain Ian Weikel of the U.S. Army, killed April 18, 2006 by an explosion in Baghdad. The two were very close.

Mr. CHAD WEIKEL: There are so many things that I feel like I'm going to miss out on. You know, Ian and I had plans of getting old and fat and watching our kids, you know, run around the pool. And I know I'm not alone on this, but even after my brother was killed, I've picked up the phone and called him dozens of times, you know?

LYDEN: To hear his voice on the answering machine?

Mr. WEIKEL: No, it's not there anymore. But yeah, just to have that number, and yeah - no one's ever - no one's gotten that number again. It's still dead. I hope no one gets it because that will be an awkward conversation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Chad Weikel has had a very hard time. Ian Weikel was the West Point grad with the Army career. Chad dropped out of the Air Force Academy after a year. But after his brother's death, he decided to enlist in the Army at age 31. He says his parents are not on board with that.

Mr. WEIKEL: I don't get to talk to my parents much anymore. You know, Ian was really the glue of the family, and we didn't know that. I didn't know that until we lost him. You know, it's - that's a typical story. You know, mine's a typical story. Our family has really been torn apart by it. Yeah, my wife is divorcing me, and a lot of it is the Army stuff. And, you know, there are some other stuff that - one of the things we talk about is, like, you know, secondary losses.

So, I lost Ian on that day, but also on that day, I lost my parents, you know, to some extent, and I lost, you know, a relationship with my wife and a lot of other things. So yeah, it's been really, really tough.

LYDEN: Tattooed onto his forearm is an inscription - I fought the good fight -above a portrait of his brother, permanent. Chad's sense of mission also won't go away.

Mr. WEIKEL: I would want nothing more than to not have to enlist, not have to have that, you know, inside me. So, you know, these relationships wouldn't be ripped apart, but it's just something I have to do.

LYDEN: The siblings here, he says, don't judge his decision. He found them through TAPS online support group. About 150 siblings participate. Chad has found the healing, writing hundreds of words, getting those emotions out is such a huge deal.

TAPS and the experience of her mourning drew Ami Neiberger-Miller in so profoundly that she's now a consultant for the organization. She knows that her brother Christopher's death has left an incomplete picture in her life.

Ms. NEIBERGER-MILLER: I think sometimes of, you know, some day, when I die, I'll get to see, hopefully, all of my family together, but that I'll never get to see all of them together again in this life. And that is very sad to me, that I can't see all three of my brothers together, that my parents can't, because I know they want that very much.

LYDEN: But in the faces of the others, these bereaved brothers and sisters see kindred spirits who listen as they talk, recalling the men and women who shared their childhoods and gave their lives for their country this Memorial Day weekend.

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