Do We Recognize the Grief of Losing a Sibling? This Emotional Life - PBS

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Grief and Loss / Blog

    Suzanne Phillips, PsyD

Suzanne Phillips, PsyD's Bio

Dr. Phillips is a licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomat in Group Psychotherapy and Co-Author of Healing Together.

Do We Recognize the Grief of Losing a Sibling?


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It was some time after spending weeks in ICU with our youngest son, that I realized - If we had lost him, we would have also lost his brother.

In times of crisis, we too often overlook the bond between siblings and the unique but unrecognized grief suffered when a brother or sister dies.

Karen Hickman, founder of Gold Star Siblings shares that when her brother was killed serving in Vietnam, she felt like an outsider at the funeral,

“I had to grieve alone and where my parents couldn’t see me because I had to be strong for them and my younger brother.”

Author, T.J. Wray describes that the year her adult brother died she forgot how to breathe – but no one noticed. People tried to console her with comments like,

“Thank goodness, it wasn’t your husband or one of your children.”

Certainly, not all siblings are cherished family or beloved kin. Sibling rivalry is a reality and a mix of love and hate is often what people feel when they have had no choice but to share a life and parents with each other.

That said, rarely are siblings “neutral” to each other. What happens to one impacts the others in some way. Whether the sister or brother is an astronaut or a person struggling with drugs and asking for money, siblings share a genetic, familial bond that ties them emotionally and invites conscious (and unconscious) identification. Despite age, gender or reason for loss, the death of a sibling is felt. Too often it is pain that is faced alone.

A closer look at some aspects of the death of a sibling offers more understanding of the many siblings whose grief has been unrecognized.

Childhood Loss

Mike was in his late 50’s when I met him. He came after the sudden death of a close friend. What he spoke about, however, was the murder of his 11 year old brother in a town park when he was 7 years old. Sent to stay with an Aunt immediately, he was never told and had no clear memory of what had happened – just the lifetime feelings of terror and loss.

Need for the Parents

  • Of particular concern for a child who has lost a sibling is the potential emotional loss of his/her parents. The pain of losing a child, however, is more than most parents can ever put words to. As much as they love their other children they are blinded by grief and heartache.
  • Often they think it best or someone suggests a plan of sending the child or children to others who can love them for a little while. It is important to know that families heal best together.
  • After the loss of their sibling, children need to see their parents and be with them in some way. They need to know that they have not lost everyone, that they are not to blame, and that they are still loved.
  • A recommended support tool for bereaved parents is to have family members or close friends stay with the children while they remain in the house – responding to their needs, picking up the schedule, being there to support parents and children.

Developmental Differences

No matter at what age a child losses a brother or sister, the loss is registered and echoes in different ways at different developmental stages. The bewildered four year old becomes the frightened 8 year old and then the teen unable to live up to the ideal of the lost sibling or yearning to have that sister or brother in the years they needed them most. This does not mean that there can be no healing, joy or growth after the childhood death of a sibling. Rather, it underscores the reality that children grieve in different ways with different developmental needs. What is recommended is that parents and family recognize the importance of “making meaning” of the death in age appropriate ways by listening to the child or teen’s feelings, fears and thoughts as they emerge at different times (the holidays, birthdays, anniversary events), bearing witness to the loss and giving permission to embrace the memories while going on with life.

No Way and Nowhere to Feel

When I met Nancy she was lost in a sea of feelings. At nineteen, she described her teen years as being stolen. During those years her brother who was five years younger was terminally ill. She could neither get near him nor connect with her parents. Her father devoted all his non-working time to his son and her mother was simply unavailable. At times she felt like she hated them all. Shortly after her brother died – her parents’ marriage dissolved. She had lost them all – she had no anchor.

Many who have experienced the loss of a sibling or have worked with sibling death underscore that there is often a mix of feelings that the sibling carries that need to be recognized and validated. The mix of feelings is often referred to as the four families of emotions:

  • Mad- for the death, the way the news was given, for life going on as normal for others, for being forgotten, for not being let in, for being left alone, for having to compete with someone described after death as perfect.
  • Sad- for the loss of a companion, of innocence, of loneliness, of the way it was, etc.
  • Bad (guilt and anxiety) - because of the fears, guilt, distrust, self-destructive behavior, for never being good enough.
  • Glad- for being a survivor, for carrying their sibling with them, for living for both, for appreciation for life and more.

Combat Loss

There have been 6,049 casualties since the War on Terror began in 2001. That leaves at least as many siblings. For many the feelings are complex and difficult to share. As one man described,

“Losing my brother is like being in a vice – I’m proud that he served his country and I hate that he ever went.”

Many feel the impossible task of doing something to make it ok for their parents. Some feel they have little to say compared to a young wife who has lost a husband or children who have lost a father/mother. Some wonder if they have the right to live if he/she is gone. Some feel guilty resenting that it had to be their brother who was so trained, so talented and who was different than anyone else in their life.

Programs like Gold Star Siblings offer groups of other siblings who share from the same place. TAPS offers grief seminars and on-going peer-based support for any family member of a fallen military.

Siblings after Suicide

Trauma experts Kari and Tale Dyregrov refer to those who have lost a sibling to suicide as the “forgotten bereaved.” Echoing much that has been said about the disenfranchised grief of siblings whose loss is not openly acknowledged or publicly mourned, they underscore how this is further intensified for siblings after suicide.

Given the fear of stigma, the shame and self-blame, families in the aftermath of suicide often hesitate to reach for the usual networks of support or even share their feelings with other family members.  This locks all family members out of the necessary care and support they need, and has been found to complicate the grief reactions of all family members.

Research by Dyregrov & Dyregrov suggest that one group at particular risk are adolescents living in the home who must deal with the suicide of their sibling and their parents’ anguish. They read their parents lack of communication about the death as an imposed code of silence. Even if they themselves are upset and want to share, the fear of further upsetting the parent is cause for silence. Given the nature of the death, they rarely risk seeking outside support, nor find others reaching out to them. Suddenly when they need their peers, they are outside the circle of support. Often the closer they were to the sibling that they lost, the more information may have been revealed to them in confidence. This leaves them guilty for not protecting their sibling, at times feeling responsible for the death and often carrying a secret that is too burdensome to handle.

Help For the Family Equates to Help for a Sibling

What is recommended is support and outside help to enhance family communication and closeness. A family’s engagement, expressiveness and togetherness after a suicide support healing. Outside help to support the parents, a listening and therapeutic ally for the sibling, support for the siblings by school personnel and a goal of sharing and understanding  the death together as a family can make moving through grieving possible.

We need to have the world bear witness to the pain of losing a sibling, and we need to carry the memory of that connection well beyond the bounds of time.

For Further Reading:

Dyregrov,K. & Dyregrov,A (2005) Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 35(6) December 2005 @ the American Association of Suicidology