My brother, Noah, was born a month and a half after I turned one, so I literally cannot remember a time when I wasn’t a big sister. Isaiah was born a year and a half after that, so by age three the title “big sister” was very much ingrained into my identity. This, combined with strong values of inclusion taught to me by my parents, has lead to a life of being a big sister, not only to my biological brothers, but to many brothers and sisters whom I have encountered.
This theme has become increasingly apparent in the passed 8 years. During my teen years I walked with friends (some younger than me, some not) through situations I could never have imagined dealing with at age 12; such as pregnancy scares, drug and alcohol abuse, abusive partners and parents, date rape, suicidal tendencies, depression, anxiety, as well as situations almost everyone faces during adolescence; crushes, low self-esteem, break-ups, etc. As a 12-year-old who didn’t even know what a blow job was, I couldn’t anticipate becoming the go-to peer guidance counsellor for half a dozen people at any given time during my teen years. To be honest it used to exhaust me. As a 13, 14 and 15-year-old I would lie awake at night trying to “fix” everyone’s problems or come up with the perfect advice that would make everything all better. I would cry to my mom because I had over-empathized with three different friends that week and I was feeling EVERYTHING. I would get frustrated because I didn’t know the answers to the questions people asked. I would wish they would talk to someone else, because I didn’t feel capable of dealing with their situation.
I would desperately explain to my parents that I didn’t go looking for this and I didn’t know what to do. Of course, as he often does, my dad had helpful insight into the matter. Turns out that this is another way in which I am very much my father’s daughter, and as something he’d dealt with from around the same age he’d wisely point out that if being a big sister is part of who I am, then the people who need big sisters will find you and you can choose to “accept your mission” or reject it. It’s not about being capable of fixing people, it’s not about making it all better, it’s about choosing to love people who need love, whether they are the easy people to love or not. This was something I felt called to. However, loving in a healthy way takes a lot of work and a lot of learning. To be honest, I feel like some of the most valuable things about my teen years were the lessons I learned about loving people and being a big sister. Such as:
1. As counterintuitive as it may sound, distancing yourself from the emotional center of the crisis is incredibly helpful if your goal is to love and support the person going through it. You can’t carry someone else’s emotional weight, trust me, I have tried, it simply can’t be done. The only outcome is that now you’re both exhausted and nothing has changed. One of the most useful things about being the person outside of the problem is that you don’t have the emotional weight so you are able to be calm, supportive and pragmatic.
2. Sometimes (read: often) people just need someone to talk to who they know will be supportive and caring, not someone who will try to fix them. A quote that I often remind myself of while caring for others is, “You cannot save people. You can only love them.” Which not only serves to remind me that the full responsibility is not on me and is, I believe an accurate summary of how Jesus showed us to live. As human beings we cannot save anyone, we can only love them and there’s a lot more power in that than we realize.
3. You have to be able to take space. You cannot be constantly available, physically or emotionally, it’s not healthy for you or for the people you care for. It’s very easy for boundaries to become blurred when someone is going through a crisis, but it is important for you to realize when you need space and to take it. This doesn’t necessarily mean simply taking alone time, I am very extroverted, so for me taking space means making time for my friends who don’t need me to be a big sister. Learning what taking that space means for you is very a very important part of being a healthy big sister. Nurture yourself as well as other people. Trust that you take time for you and the world won’t come crashing down.
4. Honesty is the best policy. Telling people what they want to hear isn’t helpful. Gently communicating, truthfully, how you’re reading the situation is more helpful then simply confirming everything people say. Sometimes an outside perspective is incredibly helpful.
5. Google is your friend. Yes, I know this one sounds out of place, but believe me, once you are as skilled at looking up the symptoms of viruses or where the nearest teen crisis shelter is, you will feel so much more prepared to offer solutions and resources when people need them. Plus, soon enough you will be able to answer questions like, “How does the morning after pill work, exactly?” and “Why are my lymph nodes swollen?” Which comes in handy a whole lot more than you’d expect.
6. Learn when to ask for further help. I’m not a doctor, I’m not a therapist, I am not a teacher or a parent, and sometimes there comes a point when I am not equipped to deal with the situation and just being a loving friend isn’t going to help this person anymore. That’s when you a) recommend a professional or b) contact a safe person who has the skills needed to help. You are NOT solely responsible for this person’s well-being.
7. Take your own advice. This is one I have to work on. It’s much easier to remind people to drink water, ask for help when they need it, eat enough food, try something new, allow themselves to feel their feelings, let people care for them etc. than it is to do that stuff yourself. But if you’re expending energy to care for others you deserve to care for yourself. In this same vein, be as kind, caring and loving towards yourself as you are to others. You truly believe they are beautiful, loved and that they will be taken care of? Great, guess what, the same is true for you. Make sure to remind yourself of that as well as reminding other people.
8. Remember that you don’t know everything. Sometimes, as much as we love people, we don’t know what’s best for them. People go through things that we don’t understand, things we can’t give advice about. However, people always need to be heard, so, listen, learn and love.
Accepting my big sister tendencies, including even the fact that I seem to draw people who need big sisters into my life, has definitely been (and continues to be) a journey and a learning experience. I have ceased wishing that I didn’t have to deal with it. However, embracing my role as a big sister doesn’t (as a previously expected) mean being “on duty” 100% of the time. It means learning to be gentle and care for myself as well, and learning to trust that I don’t have to save people, I just have to love them.