Milly Jupp tells Sibling Support about her big brother Dan and how she remembers him, ten years after his death.
Abandoned on a bus in Jamaica when she was 18 months old, Milly was adopted by a British family who were working and living on the island. Her parents’ oldest child, Dan, became her protector, her friend, her inspiration - her big brother, two years older than her. “There was no adoption question at all,” said Milly. “He was my sibling inside and out. He still is, even though he’s not here”.
The family moved to Bangladesh and Milly spent most of her childhood there, playing with Dan and their friends, whizzing around on rickshaws: “The colours, the smells, the vibrancy, everything was absolutely amazing”.
When her parents divorced, Milly and Dan grew even closer. “Dan was a real guardian to me, because when my dad left, he almost felt like he had to be the man of the house, even though he was also growing up.”
Most of all, Milly admired her brother’s creativity and warmth. “Dan was, and I never used this word lightly, a genius. He was a phenomenal artist and thinker - he could take his hand to anything. He was also great with people and could just tap into how they were feeling.”
Dan had suffered with mental issues for a while, but after moving to Latvia his family could see that something was wrong. “We knew he was very ill, we could see it in his face. He was just very anxious. He had a lot of issues going on, he was throwing things. It was very, very traumatic.”
Milly had no idea that it would be Dan’s last visit. “When he went back to Latvia, he went missing. In the back of my mind, I knew that something was wrong. Unfortunately, a week later we were told he had taken his life.”
“When I got the news that he’d died, I remember running up the stairs saying ‘it can't be true, it can't be true’. I kept saying it over and over.
“I remember falling onto the floor and everything was just this blur. I didn't want to believe it, although I'd heard it so audibly. I didn't want to believe that Dan could have done something like that to himself. Those moments, and even the following months, dragged on and on.”
Milly struggled with Dan’s loss, grieving her brother, friend and her support. “When he passed away, it was really, really difficult. I’d lost my safety net in a way. That sibling relationship is so paramount, because they're the one who has known you for the longest. I had this notion that he would always be there supporting me.”
Her grief was complex too. “There was also that shame, that my brother had taken his life.There was a real sense of not knowing how to talk about suicide, or how to bring that awareness.”
Counseling helped Milly to talk through what she was feeling. She said: “We used to just talk and talk. The counselors work with lots of people who have also lost somebody, so they can really identify with the experience that you're trying to share and release.” But, Milly also wanted to speak with people who were themselves feeling just like she did, “who had that experience of losing a sibling”, but couldn’t find anything.
Over the years, Milly has developed coping mechanisms to help her when her grief hits hardest. “Hugs are really important, hugging myself. I also like to remember his laugh - this ridiculous manic high pitch laugh, the same as my dad. So it's lovely when I'm talking to my dad, I can hear Dan's laugh in there.”
Dan’s belongings bring Milly comfort too. “I sometimes take out his jumper from this bag of things that I have. Dan was very scruffy and he had thumb holes in the sleeves, which I look at. But once, when he was ill, somebody embroidered inside the label ‘Remember, I love you’. I don't know who it was, but it’s lovely.”
Music helps Milly to express her emotions and take some time to reflect. Two songs are particularly powerful: “Dan was into a gypsy punk band called Gogol Bordello and there's a song called ‘Undestructable’, that reminds me of him. Then I play ‘Vincent’ by Don McLean, in order to touch base with who Dan was. It gets me very tearful actually, but I do that deliberately, to release emotions and feel that real closeness.”
“The song is also about how we should support those with mental illness, like Dan had. Last year, for his anniversary, I put together a video with the song. It was all of Van Gogh's pictures, interspersed with Dan's paintings and sculptures as well.”
Anniversaries are especially difficult for Milly. “It's a really hard time. The anniversaries start coming, birthdays start coming. Each bit is a landmark and you think you're going to get through this, but then there’s another landmark to get over as well.”
For every anniversary, Milly lights a candle for Dan and tries to have moments to remember him throughout the year. Ten years on, there are still good days and bad days.
“Healing is a really gradual thing. You go through life and think you’re now coping with it. But then it hits you, it hits you hard, and you find yourself going back to the moment you found out that he took his life.”
But, Milly feels stronger and knows how to find comfort during those dark times. “What you have is your resilience, your strength, your memories, and those around you. Memories are what carry you through. People always say to stay in the moment, but sometimes that's not helpful. Sometimes it’s good to go backwards, to imagine the best times.”
“I have amazing memories, right through our childhood. It's something that you just don't ever let go of, and you shouldn't have to let go of it, either. It's a part of who you are, part of your identity, even though he's not here anymore.”
Now, Dan’s memory lives on in Milly’s creativity. Her designer shoe brand, Milly J Shoes, creates styles for celebrities, including singer Kylie Minogue, featuring everything from chocolate and sweets to peacocks and yellow taxi cabs. Her work is vibrant, fun and colourful.
Milly decided to open the shop after Dan’s death. “After he passed away, I really wanted to do something for the community, to try and give something back to what Dan had given me. It took me a long time to harness my confidence. But Dan was the one who kept saying, ‘you're really bright, just go for it’. I think his death actually unlocked that sense of confidence just to go for it.”
Her advice to others who have lost a sibling? “Give yourself time. Do not force it, you have to stay true to your feelings. Remember that core of who you are and know that one day, you will be okay.”