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. And there may be guilt feelings related to unresolved issues with the sibling.
When adults lose a sibling, they often feel abandoned by society. Sympathy is extended to parents, or to the sibling's spouse and children, but brothers and sisters are supposed to "get over it" quickly so they can comfort others or “replace” the lost sibling. This is one reason why adult sibling loss falls into the category of "disenfranchised grief." When society fails to validate the grief and sadness of siblings, they do not receive the support necessary to heal. There is a tendency for the grieving sibling to then go into hiding with their feelings.
Life Changes in an Instant
When adults lose a brother or sister, the following are some of the issues they deal with and may need to resolve or work through:
Seeking a New Identity
When someone has been a part of your life since birth, they are part of the field or background from which you live your life, and as such they are essential. They make up part of the unbroken wholeness that defines who you are.
When the first child is born, he or she develops certain characteristics and talents. The children born later are likely to choose different characteristics to develop and to excel in so they will be different from each other. The first child may become a star athlete, while the next sibling excels in academics. The siblings support each other through their differences.
In doing so, siblings actually loan each other their strengths. When one of the siblings dies, that strength is lost, and the survivor's identity with it. 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 plague the surviving sibling on birthdays or holidays and other special occasions.
What prevents many bereaved siblings from processing their own grief is their 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. One of the most commonly noted responses to sibling loss is that surviving siblings learn to accept the grief of others. They are “compulsive caregivers”: They have been there—they know what it is like—so they can listen to others who are grieving.
This can be carried too far. Compulsive caregivers live on the periphery of their own existence, focusing so much energy outside themselves that they become empty, over-stressed and sometimes clinically depressed. They might appear "bristly," speaking in short, quick sentences while denying the underlying pain. The un-felt feelings then become a heavy burden that prevents the sufferer from becoming his or her best self.
To help resolve this compulsive caregiving, it is helpful to confront our own sadness and pain, own it and feel it as deeply as we need to. John Gray says, "What you feel, you can heal." This is the best route to growing through grief. You may need to talk about every detail of the death and express the associated feelings over and over until you wear out the pain.
One last comment: Don't be embarrassed if one of the thoughts that goes through your mind after the loss of a sibling is "Am I next?" When adult siblings die, it is natural to question your own mortality and wonder how many years you may have left on this planet. Our siblings are our peers, so it makes sense 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 on them. You yourself may have to educate the people around you and ask for their much-needed support. Assert yourself and ask for what you need.