Sibling Grief

This one is for parents trying to get a handle on how to understand what their child is going through after losing a brother or sister. Read on and let us know if this was helpful.

SIBLING GRIEF

by Diane Snyder Cowan, MA, MT-BC, CHPCA and

Director, Elisabeth Severance Prentiss Bereavement Center

Sibling relationships are like no other. There is a commonality that does not often exist in other relationships. When a sibling dies, the loss can be overpowering. Siblings are often thought of as the “forgotten mourners.” Friends, neighbors, and other family members offer comfort and support to Mom and Dad, and often neglect siblings which can disenfranchise their grief.

Sibling relationships are usually the longest lasting relationships in a person’s life. Time spent with siblings in the early years is often greater than time spent with parents. Siblings share a sense of genetics, family, belonging, and culture. Siblings teach each other how to function and communicate with the world.

Siblings share a special bond and a special history. When a sibling dies, this history is shattered and a void is created. The future is altered. Special occasions will never be the same. Birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays are often bittersweet. A sibling cannot shout across the room or pick up the phone and call her sister to tell her the “good news” or the “bad news.” And while siblings do adjust, life is different. It is forever changed.

GRIEF REACTIONS

Based on their developmental age, children will have different grief reactions. Younger children may experience magical thinking. They often feel responsible for their sibling’s death.

  • I was so mad that Levon got all the attention that I wished him dead… It’s my fault.
  • I want to go to heaven to visit Deidre.
  • What time will Deidre be home?

At the other end of the spectrum are adolescents. Teens in the midst of individuation may be moving away from their parental system. This can lead to regression and/or challenging behaviors. Adolescents often want to protect parents from additional pain and, in fact, may not exhibit any grief responses until the family routine is re-established and parents (Mom particularly) are more stable. While everyone’s grief is unique, common emotions that impact siblings when a brother or sister dies include the following:

Abandonment – When a sibling dies, there are often secondary losses. In addition to the death of their sister or brother, children may feel that they have lost their parents for a period of time or even permanently. While many parents are able to model healthy grief, some parents retreat into their grief or into their work and are unable to parent. They are unable to attend to their surviving child’s grief. This can profoundly change family dynamics.

Increased responsibility – When parents are unable to parent, the surviving sibling often doesn’t just feel a sense of increased responsibility, he/she may actually assume more duties such as managing the household and caring for younger surviving siblings.

Loss of innocence – World views are shattered. The permanence of death is revealed for the first time. There is a marked sense of maturity in children who have experienced the death of a sibling.

Guilt – In addition to survivor guilt, siblings may feel that they could have done more in the care of their brother or sister. If their sibling was seriously ill, they may feel guilty that they are now glad to get their parents to themselves. They may feel guilty about being happy to have their own room. If the death was sudden or due to suicide, they may feel guilt for not having recognized any signs and symptoms even if there weren’t any.

Anger and resentment – Many siblings feel anger after the death of their brother or sister. Most of the anger is a direct result of the death and the changes that have occurred in their life at home, at school, and with their friends. Sometimes the difficulty accepting the loss makes it easier to focus on anger. It can be a way to avoid the enormity of the loss. It may be easier to focus on who is responsible in an attempt to have control over a situation that cannot be controlled. Time is needed to work through these angry feelings to prevent anger from becoming toxic.

Fear and anxiety – Siblings often report that they are fearful of death or getting sick. This fear and worry can persist for years. For sibling survivors, the fragility of life is real. Brothers and sisters look at their own lives and wonder if they might be next. Who else might die? Will it be Mom and/or Dad? Who will care for me?

Reluctance (withholding own needs) – Because they do not want to add to their parent’s burden, older siblings often withhold their own needs. They allow their grief to go unnoticed. It’s almost as if they disenfranchise their own grief. Somatic symptoms including symptoms that mimic those of the deceased sibling – Headaches, stomach aches, changes in eating and sleeping are usually signs of grief in younger siblings and also still need to be checked out.

POSITIVE CHANGES AND GROWTH

Despite these intense grief reactions, positive changes may also occur after the death of a sibling. Older surviving siblings can begin a period of deep self-reflection and begin to make significant life changes. For siblings of all ages, maintaining a connection with the deceased sibling often brings comfort. Siblings will often talk to their deceased brother or sister. They can sense their presence as well as their absence. They often perform rituals. A four-year-old wanted to step on the backyard deck and access a ladder to the sky so she could converse with her brother. An eight-year-old created “heaven” under a cluster of trees where she held a tea party