When a sister or brother dies, the world of surviving siblings is changed forever in ways not anticipated. Although every loss is difficult, siblings face the most misunderstood grief. It’s no wonder – because even professional literature and research on the subject is lacking, which explains why the mental health field even misunderstands sibling grief. As it turns out, losing a sibling is among the most complex in terms of recovery.
What is a Sibling?
Sibling relationships are more than just companionship during childhood. These relationships, in fact, help to make us who we are, and who we will become in the future. They are expected to BE a part of our future, forever. Every thing about their behavior affects us – both positively and negatively – and serves as a teacher in our own lives.
Our sisters and brothers are an intricate part of our lives, unlike any other relationship. When we grow up in the same home during our childhood years, siblings naturally come to know each other better than anyone else. These years form bonds and behaviors that are un-mistakenly ours alone. Many of our life’s lessons are learned as a result of something a sibling did or said. They are teachers of both good and bad and they help us make our own choices, simply because they are influential.
No matter how dysfunctional or functional a family unit, we model our behavior after older siblings and usually look up to them. We tease the younger ones, we tell secrets and share dreams for our futures, we support one another, we fight with each other and get over it, we dance and play together, we learn new life skills together, we take vacations with the family, and we celebrate holidays and family traditions together. Some of us change the diapers of new siblings born after them – even watching them take their first step. We learn songs on the radio that mark moments in time never to be forgotten. We are competitive and get jealous of each other. Some siblings become parents to the younger ones in certain situations. For all of these reasons, and more, sisters and brothers influence our journey that shapes our world. What is different about sibling loss? If you have experienced losing a brother or sister, or more than one, you will deeply understand the three points below.
1) The Ignored Grievers
When someone dies, each family member has their own personal experience of loss based on the relationship with the deceased. A mother and father, a spouse, a son or daughter – all have innate “rights” claimed to the decedent. As such, they are the recipients of the most support in their recovery. But the people who knew the decedent the longest and shared a lifetime of memories, the sisters and brothers of the decedent, often feel as though they have no claim. It's as though they are somehow less important in the grieving process because they are “Just” a sister or brother. This is in part due to society’s accepted norms. Because the focus of attention is on the parent, the spouse and the children of the decedent, surviving sisters or brothers are often not considered to have experienced as devastating a loss as the mother who lost her child or the wife who lost her husband. Even surviving siblings themselves don’t understand their grief and will minimize it, just as everyone else seems to do. It can feel as though siblings feel ‘trumped’ by the grief of others. This can be a dangerous time for a surviving sister or brother. It’s important to find ways of feeling support from people who will listen when you need to talk about the memory of your sister or brother.
2. Loss of your Shared Future
You can never know how much a sibling means to you until they are gone. The effects of day-to-day life changes in a million tiny ways. No more phone calls or long talks. No more sharing of your child’s antics. No more laughter.
Siblings have as much to lose in their future without the person they counted on. This reminder can create an emptiness and sadness that lasts forever. It is especially difficult when a survivor wants to share something with their sibling, only to be reminded they are gone. Even though healing occurs, sibling death is never forgotten and leaves a void in the family.
3. Survivor Guilt
When a sibling dies, surviving siblings realize they didn’t get to finish their life. Survivors may wonder, “Why not me?” They ask themselves, “Why do I get to live longer, and their life was cut short?” Guilt is an insidious and powerful emotion, often needing to be helped along with grief counseling.
Guilt doesn’t stop there, unfortunately. It can pervade daily thoughts. It can make one feel badly over saying something mean to a sibling, not being there when they died, not understanding how bad things were, or not getting to say goodbye and “I love you.” These feelings are very real and cause stress on the health and wellness of survivors. When we continually dissect things we said or did to our sibling we wish could be taken back, it is best to seek professional counseling, from someone experienced in sibling death. Reading stories and books others have written about sibling loss (when they have been there) can be helpful in letting go of guilt.
Sibling survivors see the world in entirely different ways. Surviving siblings have questions about their own mortality and often change their outlook about life. Real or imagined, survivors often think of their own death and question whether they will live long.
The complexity involved in recovery from sibling loss is very real. Siblings deserve to feel this important and deeply personal loss without judgment from others. If you know someone who has experienced this loss, allow him or her the room to discuss memories if the subject comes up. It’s important for them to recall their sister or brother and keep them in their hearts… because they existed. They lived.
And they’ll always be a part of a surviving sibling’s life.
Article Submitted by:
Tim Dinan, Owner, Cook Family Funeral Home & Cremation Services