Losing a Sibling

Support for Healing

The death of a sibling is the most neglected loss in adult life. Loss of a sibling means loss of someone who knew your formative past. It might trigger feelings of guilt over unsolved sibling issues or a sense of abandonment.

Adult sibling loss often falls into the category of "disenfranchised grief." Sympathy is traditionally extended to surviving parents, a spouse or children, yet surviving brothers and sisters are sometimes expected to "get over it" quickly so they can comfort others or “replace” the lost sibling. Siblings might not receive the support they need to heal, and they might hide their feelings from others.

Life Changes in an Instant

Common issues faced by surviving brothers and sisters include:

Seeking a New Identity

Someone who has been a part of your life since birth can serve as an essential part of the background from which you live your life, a piece of the unbroken wholeness that defines you.

The death of a sibling, however, upsets birth order within a family, robbing surviving siblings of the individual strengths, characteristics and identifies that are tightly linked to birth order. It takes time to learn how to live your life again. You have to grow within yourself the parts once carried by your brother or sister. You don't "get over” this as much as "grow through" it.

The Loss of a Future With Your Sibling

Not only have you lost the actual person and your relationship with them, but you have lost the part they would have played in your future. You go on to marry, have children, buy a house, succeed or fail, retire. Each event underlines the terrible reality that your brother or sister is not there. Forever after, all events, no matter how wonderful, have a bittersweet flavor. So-called anniversary reactions can arise on birthdays, holidays and other special occasions.

Caregiving

What prevents many bereaved siblings from processing their own grief is a desire to protect someone—perhaps their parents, spouse or children. The focus on "being there" for someone else allows them to put their own grief process on hold. It's not uncommon for surviving siblings to accept the grief of others or take on the role of “compulsive caregivers," always available for others who are grieving.

Compulsive caregivers might focus so much energy elsewhere that they become empty, over-stressed and sometimes clinically depressed. They might appear "bristly," speaking in short, quick sentences while denying the underlying pain. Their unacknowledged feelings can turn heavy and burdensome, preventing them from recovering and regaining a sense of identity.

To resolve compulsive caregiving, confront your own sadness and pain, own it and feel it as deeply as you need to. Author John Gray says, "What you feel, you can heal." You might need to talk about every detail of the death and express the associated feelings over and over until you wear out the pain.

Assert Yourself

One last comment: Don't be embarrassed if one of your worries or thoughts is, "Am I next?" When adult siblings die, it is natural to question your own mortality. Siblings are peers, so it makes sense and is normal to think in this way.

Society may not recognize the intensity of sibling loss, but bereaved siblings know that the loss has a real, sometimes devastating impact. You might have to educate the people around you and ask for their much-needed support. Assert yourself and ask for what you need.

Find out if hospice care could help your loved one.

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