Being the little sister

Abbey previously wrote an amazing blog about how programs like The Club have helped her piece things together. In this blog, she shares in more detail her experience as a six-year-old little sister to a big brother with cancer.

Abbey as a little girl with her brothers Caleb and Gabe

The big feelings I remember


Thinking back to six-year-old me, I felt confused. I knew something big was wrong, and that it was a huge thing that I couldn’t get sick, or if I did get sick, I couldn’t pass it on to my brother Caleb. I felt scared because Caleb wasn’t home, nothing was normal, and I didn’t know what was going on. I’m sure I had tummy aches the entire school year.

Questions that I would never voice swirled round my head. Where’s mom? Why am I having a sleepover on a school night? Why am I at grandma’s house now? Why can’t I play with Caleb? When Caleb’s sick, he gets to be with mom and dad. When I’m sick, I can’t be around them. Why?

There was nothing my amazing family could have done differently. Even still, there were times I wondered why I was the one who had to always be somewhere else, or why I couldn’t be with my mom. It was a feeling of exclusion, but it was never purposeful. The hardest thing to this day is that there’s nothing to blame and no one to place it on. None of it was anyone’s fault, but it was so hard.

The pressure I felt


I didn’t talk about any of it for a long time, because I thought, “If I’m perfect, they won’t have anything else to worry about.” The two routes I see siblings go down are to act out, or to be perfect because there’s so much the family’s worried about already. If I don’t cause any trouble, everything will be easier and everything will be fine. That need to be perfect, to prevent anything else bad from happening, caused me such high anxiety.

I remember some kids thinking I was contagious and avoiding me. Caleb’s friends would come up, ask how he was doing, then run off. I would want to yell, “I’M ALSO FINE!” Even adults would ask me, “How’s your brother doing? How’s your mom doing?” But not “How are you doing?”

Imposter syndrome


Siblings can desperately need to talk to someone but not feel able to because “I’m being selfish” or “I don’t have anything to complain about, my sibling is literally being poked and prodded and all these things are happening to them, and I’m just not getting attention.”

I didn’t want to compare what I went through with what my brother went through. But you can’t compare them, because they’re completely different experiences and we’re different people. I didn’t realize that other people weren’t comparing our experiences, and that what I was going through mattered too.

The support that mattered


Despite it all, it’s moments of love and support that have stuck with me the most. One of my most vivid memories was my mom coming home one day with a box in her hand. I thought it must be something for Caleb and I offered to put it in his room, but mom said “No, this is for you Abbey. I know things have been hard. This is for you.” It was a CD player and two CDs with music that she knew I would like. It was this small thing, but in that moment, I knew that she saw me and that I mattered. I will always keep that CD player because it meant the world.

My teacher was a cancer survivor. She found out what was happening and invited Caleb and dad in for “show and tell.” This gave our family the chance to explain what was going on to my young classmates, to help them understand. Our school also created a whole lunch program for me, so a different family brought lunch for me every day. I remember feeling so cared for. That was the first time I ever had a Lunchable!

My parents got me into play therapy, which helped me to talk about things and understand how our family’s cancer experience was impacting my life. When I did start talking about my experiences, that’s when I realized that a sibling’s experience is no less valid. I think every sibling should be able to access therapy.

It feels special to have been involved with WCK over the past four years. It wasn’t until I started  volunteering that I really started to unpack my own experience. Then WCK’s program for young adults, The Club, popped up at the perfect time for me and equipped me to make sense of what happened all those years ago and how it impacts me to this day.

Abbey in recent days, standing with her family (mom, dad, and brothers Caleb and Gabe)

How things are today


You’ll be pleased to hear Caleb’s doing really well now. I can now see how so many parts of my personality are tied to my experience all those years ago. I’ve definitely become a “worst case scenario” person. For example, if anything is wrong with me, I immediately think I need an MRI or something medical is wrong. I never let myself go on WebMD, otherwise I’d spiral. I can set such high expectations for myself and if I don’t meet them, I’m devastated. I’ve seen people experiencing intense survivor’s guilt. Loss is something linked into my family’s and all other families who have gone through this experience’s lives.

But it’s also made me an incredibly independent and capable person, and I’m learning the tools to manage the harder things (you can read more about that in my other blog). I’m also learning to ask for help when I need it.

With WCK there’s no expiration date on how long you’re allowed to be upset about what happened, or feel a certain way. There are so many ways to both support and be supported, and you can do it on your terms.

We can’t understate how important it is for siblings to meet each other, be together, and be supported. By including siblings in their programs for kids, youth, and young adults, WCK is seeing and hearing them, validating their experience, and constantly providing the space to ask that precious question: “How are you?”

You can help

Please, if you can, donate to WCK. Let’s keep building the programs and resources that help siblings to make sense of the big scary things, and that remind them how much they matter too. 

Love, Abbey