Meaning in bereavement: A sibling journey

By Dr. Abigail Rolbeiecki

Tombstone and bereavement
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

In this months blog, Dr. Abigail Rolbiecki, PhD, bereaved sibling caregiver, shares how she found meaning in bereavement. This is her journey to healing and growth after the death of her brother shapes her research and practice agenda. 


As a young person, I learned quickly about the quest for meaning in bereavement. I had faced many adversities as a child, including the death of my oldest brother, my senior year in high school. Here I was, in the midst of trying to figure out my life plans, having to navigate grief. I tried to make sense of how my grief and response to the loss would fit in the overall family grieving process. It was tough. I ended up stuffing my emotions deep inside for many years. 

A lack of emotional support

A lack of emotional support

I grew up in a rural town in North Texas. We had few options for emotional support in our school district. This was especially true when it came to support for young people who experienced the death of a family member. To my knowledge, there was one other person in my cohort of students who had experienced the death of a sibling. Still today, she and I connect over a shared experience. 

Our school district also lacked adequate college prep for students who tend to follow non-traditional paths to pursuing higher education. I began college with little understanding of what I wanted to do with my life. Little did I know my experience as a bereaved sibling would actually pave the way of my entire professional career. This experience set the stage for my research agenda and plans for clinical practice. 

I brought my luggage to my high school graduation have returned “home” only a handful of times. This year, I revisited the grave of my brother for the first time since the initial months following his death. It was healing, and further supported the work I was doing on a personal level to find meaning in his death.

Value of tombstones in bereavement
First visit to my brother’s grave in almost 15 years

My search for meaning in bereavement

I entered the world of the unknown the day I graduated high school, and embarked on a quest for discovery. In my initial days as an undergraduate student, I felt out of place among my peers in my program. Not knowing what I wanted to do with my life created some distress early on. However, I had always found myself asking three questions: 

  1. In what ways does someone find meaning in their life? 
  2. How do the good people survive the bad things in their lives? 
  3. How are they able to find meaning of these experiences, and make sense of and find purpose in them happening? 

As I continued to ask myself these questions, my path to discovery led me to the field of social work. I entered my social work program with the goal of helping women who’d experienced military sexual trauma find  healing. This was largely due to my own experiences growing up in the military culture. I had increased awareness of the issue of military sexual trauma. Again, the search for meaning has always been a part of my intellectual curiosity. 

Exploring grief with digital storytelling

As I continued this journey, I entered a trauma-informed therapy course that emphasized the use of storytelling as a healing tool for those who had experienced adverse life events. This class introduced me to Digital Storytelling, a therapeutic intervention approach that combines oral tradition (in the form of verbalized narratives) and chosen artifacts into a three- to five-minute video clip. 

Our instructor encouraged us to create a Digital Story about an adverse life event. Surprisingly, I used the assignment as an opportunity to finally explore the grief I had experienced after my brother died, to identify meaning in bereavement. I wanted to make sense of his lifelong illness experience. It required fleshing out the reactions to being the “different” family because my brother could not talk, and spent his life in a wheelchair. Piecing together the meaningful and challenging experiences I had growing up with a terminally ill sibling made these experiences fit in the overall context of my larger self-narrative. I knew if I could do this, if I could finally share the story of my brother’s death, I could begin to heal. 

After we completed our Digital Stories we were instructed to show them to our fellow classmates as a final form of healing (GULP!). Up to this point, I had shared very little about my experience as a bereaved sibling caregiver. Most people in my social and professional networks were unaware I had these experiences. I never even shared my true feelings of grief and loss with my own family, including my other surviving brother and my mother. This was a big step. 

The benefits of storytelling

The experience of writing, reading, and sharing my story allowed me to approach my feelings about brother’s illness and death with choice and control, finding meaning in bereavement. It allowed me to begin to make sense of the illness experience, and also better understand the purpose it had in my life. Before this, I struggled to fit my experiences as a sibling caregiver, who eventually became bereaved, into my overall life narrative. This was distressing, and led me down a path of complicated grief and some post-traumatic stress. 

After completing my Digital Story, I became fascinated with the idea that storytelling could be healing for me, the storyteller, and also for those who bear witness to these incredible life narratives. Like, for example, my mother. Sharing my digital story with my mother created new opportunities for us to talk about our experiences with grief and loss and together, find meaning in bereavement. The Digital Story broke the verbal barrier, and provided so much therapeutic benefit, in an intangible sort of way. 

An innovative approach to discover meaning in bereavement

My work using Digital Storytelling as a bereavement intervention is novel and innovating. However, narrative theorists have long described the role of storytelling in helping individuals organize their memories of adverse life experiences in a chronological and coherent timeline.

 Evidence suggests that piecing together broken memories of adverse life experiences:

As a social work scholar, I seek to better understand the lived experiences of individuals who are bereaved. I do so through the use of innovative narrative techniques like Digital Storytelling. There is a rich literature and history of using story to heal. However, I feel the technological innovations of Digital Storytelling add powerful tools and skills to helping individuals shape their stories of grief and loss. I am currently working on several projects designed to further test the impact of Digital Storytelling as a bereavement intervention. I look forward to future research in Digital Storytelling and other innovative storytelling methodologies, and hope to establish an evidence base for this type of work. 


One of the primary resources I use to inform my work in Digital Storytelling is Story Center Story Center is devoted to helping individuals and communities share their stories through Digital Storytelling and other community-based media approaches. Story Center offers a variety of free, public workshops and trainings, as well as several more in-depth and immersive workshops to develop facilitative skills and deep listening. 

Thank you for being part of this journey with me. 

About the Author

Abigail Rolbiecki, Family and Community Medicine

Dr. Abigail Rolbiecki is an Assistant Professor of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Missouri, School of Medicine. Her work focuses the use of narrative interventions as a way to foster posttraumatic growth and meaning-making among the bereaved.

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