What is Sibling Loss?
Sibling loss is the loss of a brother or sister, be it by blood or by marriage (such as step-sisters or step-brothers.)
It's unfortunate that our society doesn't often regard the death of a brother or sister as devastating as other types of loss. It's an untrue misconception: children and adults who suffer the loss of a sibling are just as likely as other family members or loved ones to experience ongoing and profound grief. They are also more likely to have their grief overlooked, which can make the grieving even harder.
Read more about grief.
If surviving siblings enjoyed a particularly close relationship with their deceased brother or sister, they can be left feeling emotionally adrift as one of their closest friends and confidantes is now gone.
No longer can you e-mail your sister that hilarious dancing baby video and crack up together. Your brother won't be teasing you about your gray hair at Thanksgiving next year, or ever again. Even siblings who were not especially bonded can experience deep grief, guilt, and regret at how the relationship they had while their deceased sibling was alive.
For child survivors of sibling loss, they may think they somehow caused their sibling’s death by thinking perfectly normal things such as, “I wish I was an only child!” when their brother or sister teased them.
Read more on talking to children about death.
Surviving children may also believe they should have been the ones who died, rather than their better behaved/star athlete/straight-A student sibling. It is incredibly important for a parent to reassure the surviving sibling that he or she was in no way responsible for the death of his or her sibling.
Surviving siblings, child or adult, can sometimes feel as though they need to take care of their parents or other family members, repressing their own sadness to "be strong."
Read more about survivor's guilt.
What Is Loss?
Loss is the involuntary separation from something we have possessed and perhaps treasured, or someone we love and care about. Everyone experiences a loss at some point in their lives - whether it is major or minor.
Loss is universal.
Loss involves emotional pain. Significant losses produce emotional upheaval. Loss requires change and uncertainty and adjustments to situations that are new, unchosen, and uncertain.
Major losses can lead to feeling overwhelmed, sadness, pain, or numbness.
You do not have to be "strong" after a loss to protect others around you. Expressing emotion is how the body and mind process and relieve the pressure of intense or overwhelming emotions.
No one can tell you how you should feel about loss, or how to express your loss. Anyone who tries to tell you that how you are feeling is wrong is wrong.
Sudden Losses are losses that happen due to accidents, crimes, or suicides which does not give us any time to prepare for a person's passing. These types of losses often shake us to the core, make us question the stability of life. The loss can feel immediate, severe, and agonizing. It can be difficult to sort through many feelings at the same time, and it may take time and space to adjust to the loss.
Predictable Losses, like those due to terminal illness, allow for us to prepare for the loss. However, death is always difficult to prepare for. This type of loss also creates two layers of grief: anticipatory grief (the grief related to the anticipation of the loss) and the grief related to the loss.
How To Cope With Sibling Loss
The most common reaction to a major loss like the death of a sibling is grief.
Grief is typically seen as progressing in stages:
- Denial - Common themes include feelings similar to: "There has to be a mistake. They've got the wrong person." or "This isn't happening. This is all a bad dream."
- Anger - Mourners may feel angry at other family members or loved ones, themselves, at God, and even the deceased person.
- Bargaining - "Just take me instead. I'll do anything, ANYTHING, if you just bring her back."
- Depression - Mourners may lose interest in normal activities, cry or feel sad most of the time, feel hopeless, and/or experience changes in sleep patterns and appetite. While this stage is natural, symptoms that are very severe, keep worsening, or which last several weeks or longer could indicate clinical depression. Seek a therapist's help if this seems to be the case.
- Acceptance - Mourners understand that their loved one is gone and there is nothing they can do to change the situation. This is less about "getting over it" and more about learning to live one's life in the constant presence of the loss.
Read more about the Five Stages of Grief.
Everyone experiences grief in their own way. Some people experience repeated episodes of the same stage, some move through certain stages quickly and linger at others, some may skip stages entirely. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, and no timetable. Children who are grieving may also show their grief differently than adults, exhibiting behavior problems at home or school, withdrawal, regressive behavior (such as soiling themselves when they were previously toilet trained), physical symptoms like stomach aches, or problems sleeping or eating.
Tips For Helping Yourself Grieve Your Sibling:
- Allow yourself to grieve fully and in your own way. You don’t need to “be strong”; suppressing your grief will only keep it at bay for so long before you accidentally run over a squirrel and spend three days crying.
- Do something to memorialize your lost sibling. Plant a tree, hang a favorite picture in a special place, participate in a charity event in his or her honor, whatever works for you. This can be very helpful for children; it gives them something concrete to focus on when they grieve and remember.
- Don't feel guilty for how you're grieving, or compare your grief to anyone else’s. You may feel numb, while your other sister is completely hysterical; both reactions are perfectly normal. Just as you don't need to put your feelings aside in favor of your parents or other loved ones, you don’t need to feel badly for not acting "sad enough".
- Talk about your lost sibling. Share stories, look at old pictures. Remember the happy times and happy memories you created together and as a family.
- You may find it helpful to journal your feelings. Whether there were lingering resentments in your relationship, or if you are simply struggling with your loss, sometimes writing it down can help you sort through those emotions and deal with them in a specific way. For children, writing about or drawing pictures of their lost sibling may be very therapeutic.
- Take care of yourself, no matter how hard it is. Get out of bed, get dressed, and eat regular meals. Get some exercise and fresh air.
- If you are unable to cope with your feelings on your own, or if a child’s behavior or other expressions of grief or anger become too severe, seek the help of a grief counselor or therapist. It's good to ask for help when you need it. It doesn't make you weak or mean you're destined to endless therapy sessions for all eternity.
REMEMBER: IT'S OKAY TO BE SAD WHEN YOU LOSE A BROTHER OR SISTER!
Additional Resources For Sibling Loss: