Adolescent sibling program creates lasting connections

There are many words to describe Maryjo Saliba – strong, resilient, courageous, positive, ambitious.

‘Bereaved sibling’ are two more words that also sadly describe Maryjo.

She is part of a unique group of young people who have experienced the death of a sibling and are supported by Very Special Kids.

In 2011, Maryjo was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of cancer mainly affecting the bones of young people under 25 years of age, and in Maryjo’s case it was in the left orbit. Following treatment, and surgery to remove her eye, she is now clear of cancer and is in the fortunate position of needing only annual maintenance check-ups to keep on top of the condition.

However, only months after receiving the all clear, Maryjo’s younger brother James was diagnosed with the same condition. For the Saliba family it was very different dealing with James’ diagnosis. “By then, we knew how all the treatments and appointments worked” she said

James’ cancer quickly spread from his leg, to his lungs, and was deemed life-threatening. Towards the end of his life he was still mobile, in good spirits and the family managed his pain to keep him comfortable. James died at The Royal Children’s Hospital in 2015, just a few months shy of his 15th birthday.

Maryjo and James were always very close, and their identical diagnosis brought them even closer. “We were closer to being twins, not just siblings. We always had a good connection that way” she adds.

While James was undergoing treatment, Maryjo had a unique understanding of what he was going through. “I would say to him, is there anything you want to tell me? He wasn’t much of a talker, but always knew I was there” she said.

At only 16 years of age, Maryjo wrote her own eulogy for her brother, a challenging process for anyone to undertake. She wasn’t able to deliver it on the day of the funeral but knowing James would have wanted it to be heard, a family member kindly read on her behalf.

The Saliba family are supported by Kevin, one of Very Special Kids’ team of Family Support Practitioners. They have access to counselling through our bereavement program and have attended weekend camps, both as a family and specifically for bereaved parents. Maryjo has recently connected with a trained family services volunteer for support – they share an interest in medicine and whilst they are still in contact during COVID-19, they look forward to catching up face-to-face when restrictions allow.

Very Special Kids has an extensive sibling support program, and in 2019, Maryjo attended the annual adolescent weekend – a opportunity for young people who have, or have had, a sibling with a life-limiting condition to connect with others in a similar position. The adolescent program caters for young people aged 12 up to 20, Maryjo was 20 at the time.

Maryjo attended the program in the hope to meet someone like her and her hopes were fulfilled when she met two young people of a similar age, both also bereaved siblings. “It was so cool to find someone in the same position as me. So many similarities, our siblings passed at the same age, both our siblings played football, won the same awards. To find someone like that – it was spooky, but so refreshing in the same way” she said.

A year later, the three new friends keep in touch, even though this year’s camp couldn’t be held, and restrictions have prevented them from meeting. “It’s a friendship that you want to keep forever. We got to know each other through being bereaved, but also as a normal person” she adds.