When a sister or brother dies, your world can change in a heartbeat. When such a loss occurs, others may fail to recognize that you, the surviving sibling, face many emotional challenges.
When your parents die, it is said you lose your past;
when your spouse dies, you lose your present;
and when your child dies, you lose your future;
However, when your sibling dies, you lose a part of your past, your present and your future;
The loss of history
Your family has its own special history and shared bonds. Now that your sibling has died, the bonds are changed, and the family history has a void that cannot be filled. As you grew up together, you and your siblings developed certain characteristics and talents. Some sisters and brothers tend to complement each other by having a balance of interests and skills in different areas. Because you have lost your sibling, you may find your role in the family is changing, and miss the special contributions of your sister or brother in various ways.
The loss of future
After the death of your sibling, special occasions will be different in the future. There will be no more shared birthday celebrations, anniversaries, or holidays with your sister or brother. There will be no telephone calls to announce good news or to seek support. The sharing of life’s unique and special events will never again take place with this person, and you may feel the pain of loss deeply each time a holiday or anniversary comes around again. In addition, plans that you made together for helping each other with family concerns such as care of elderly parents or shared property will now be lost.
Siblings can be the “Forgotten Mourners.”
Sisters and brothers who have lost a sibling are sometimes referred to as the “forgotten mourners.” When a sibling dies, much of the support from family members may be focused on the grieving parents, spouse or partner. The loss of a child, spouse or parent is indeed a very painful experience, which most people recognize. Yet you may experience a lack of understanding for your grief when you have lost a sister or brother. Because you may not receive adequate grief support as the surviving sibling, you may hide your feelings from others, and experience depression, resentment, or alienation.
What siblings may feel:
Guilt and regret: You may have said or done things in a moment of anger that you now regret. Perhaps you were unprepared for the death of your sister or brother, and now wish you had spent more time with her or him. As you became adults, your relationship may have changed from the closeness of childhood. Perhaps your communication became difficult, and you had ambivalence or hostility towards each other. Yet now you may feel guilty because you did not reconcile differences with your sibling and feel regret that there has been a lack of closeness in your family.
Anger: You may feel anger that you have lost one of your best friends. Or you may resent how the family roles have changed with new expectations and obligations placed on you. Perhaps you will now have the primary responsibility to care for aging parents, or you may become the guardian for your sibling’s children. Other family members may look to you for guidance and emotional support. These changes may feel overwhelming and add to a sense of anger and resentment after your sibling’s death.
Fear of mortality: When a sister or brother dies, it is natural for you to look at your own life. You may question how many years you have left, and how your death will impact the family.
Sadness and grief: When you have lost someone you grew up with, who was perhaps one of your best friends, a void may be created in your life that cannot be filled. You also may struggle with sadness and loneliness as you feel the absence of your beloved sister or brother in so many ways.
Senior citizens who lose a sibling:
When you are a senior and your sibling dies, your loss can deeply wound your heart. If your spouse and others important to you died before your sister or brother, the grief from the death of your sibling may be more intense. You may be left without the feedback, support, comfort and remembrances you relied on, and feel very alone in your grief. Possibly you will sense from others the belief that there is no need for special acknowledgement or comfort for your loss since it is “normal” for aging people to die. In reality, whether the sibling who died is nine or ninety, the loss can be very painful, and you need compassionate understanding.
Healing from the death of your sibling:
- Continue your connection with your sister or brother. Even though your sibling has died, a connection still remains in your heart. Surviving sisters or brothers think about, talk about, and remember their sibling at special times such as birthdays, holidays, and the anniversary of her or his death. Possibly the family may create a memorial or have a ceremony on these special days. You do not have to give up your connection to your sibling to move forward with your life.
- Be open to your grief. It may be that you are putting your grief process on hold as you try to support others in the family such as parents, the spouse of your sibling, or your nieces and nephews. In order to heal, you need to accept your own feelings of sadness and pain. One motto that may be helpful to remember is: “What you can feel, you can heal.”
- Look for support in your healing process. Many siblings find help by talking with others about their brother or sister. Some communities offer sibling support groups, and adult siblings are welcome to attend grief bereavement groups at your local hospice. In addition, you can find support on the Internet: “The Sibling Connection:” http://www.counselingstlouis.net offers various links regarding healing from the death of a sibling.
Adapted from “Surviving the Death of a Sibling” by T.J. Wray, “Adults Grieving the Death of a Sibling” and “Death of an Adult Sibling” by The Compassionate Friends, “Loss of an Adult Sibling” and “Experiencing the Death of the Sibling As a Child” by P. Gill White, and “Helping Bereaved Siblings Heal” by Alan D Wolfelt.
Provided by Gerard’s House, a grief support center for children, teenagers and their families in Santa Fe, New Mexico. For more information please contact us at (505) 424-1800 or gerardshouse.org.
This article was published in “The Grieving Heart,” written and edited by Bob Dorsett, LLC, www.silentseas.net