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Grief after the death of a sibling

The impact of the death of a person in some relationships does not always receive the attention it deserves. Siblings are often referred to as the “forgotten grievers.”

The sibling relationship can often be the longest relationship individuals will have in their life, and that kind of bond typically takes longer to heal. In many cases, survivors feel that they have lost a part of themselves, and people do not simply move on from such a personal and permanent loss.

Young children

For a child under the age of ten, the death of a brother or sister can be a very confusing experience. The lead up to the death can mean that the child is filled with questions which may be answered or may not, depending on the emotional strengths of the parents. Some parents are able to include their children in discussion and activities around the dying sibling, others find it difficult due to the emotional turmoil in which they find themselves.

Where a childhood sibling dies suddenly, say from a car accident or other traumatic event the process for a child can be even more difficult. There will have been no preparatory discussions with parents and the other family members. There will generally be a state of shock and confusion for all family members. In this instance special attention should be paid to the child (children) by professional services or trusted relatives and/or friends.

Siblings are an important part of a child’s world; children grow in understanding of their identity as the result of their interactions with each other. They may want to be like their sibling, be protective, or feel challenged by them. “Sibling rivalry” is a well-known concept in child development: it’s the battleground in which children work out who they are, what their strengths are and what they need to survive in their families and their worlds. Alongside the rivalry there is most often a strong sense of connection, and when a sibling dies the surviving sibling(s) can be left in a place of confusing emotions.

Like any child who loses a close family member, surviving siblings may experience intense sadness or grief, crying, not wanting to spend time with friends or classmates, loss of appetite, sleep difficulties, decline in academic performance, and/or lack of interest in normal activities. Children may also feel strong feelings of guilt, even though they bear no responsibility for the death of their sibling, Younger children may search for the deceased person or ask questions about what has happened to this person.

Like adults, children may experience “pangs” of grief, which are sudden intense waves of painful feelings of loss that can seemingly come from nowhere, although, unlike adults, children may display these symptoms or behaviours more intermittently. Even soon after a loss, children may be observed playing or laughing, which can be confusing and perhaps disturbing to adults whose grief may be more constant. It is important to remember that children and teenagers may grieve differently to adults. In general, children can move rapidly from one emotional state to another, but this doesn’t mean that their grief is any less real or intense than adults.

Helping the younger child who has lost a sibling?

  • if parents are unable to deal with the child’s grief, because of their own, they should be encouraged to ask for the support of a trusted relative – grandparent, aunt, uncle or friend – to be with them
  • always be honest with a child about what is happening. They need clear information and direction, otherwise they may draw wrong conclusions and blame themselves. The overriding impulse is to protect children from difficult experiences, but they are there and need to be faced
  • be prepared for rapid changes in mood and behaviour
  • make sure that it is possible for children to take part in their normal activities

Teenagers

The death of a younger or older sibling in their teenage years brings with it a range of emotional issues which need consideration and attention. The teenage years are a significant time in the development of identity, and any trauma which occurs in those years may have an impact on the teenager’s view of themselves and their world.

If the sibling was younger, a family’s attention is often focused on the child’s parents and other younger children in the family. In this case the teenager can feel a strong sense of being left out or that their grief is unrecognised. They can feel overlooked by the people they most need. As with younger children dealing with loss, a strong sense of guilt may develop coming from a sense that the teenager failed to protect their sibling. This may be overlooked by family members amidst the turmoil of grief surrounding the death of a child.

Teenage years are characterised by the need to enquire, to define and assert personality, to test relationships with parents and other adults, all of which require parental and adult focus. This is easily lost in the family’s attempts to come to terms with the loss of another child.

Teenagers may feel responsible for their parents’ wellbeing and take on personal care of their parents. Some may stay around the home when that happens, so their normal process of separating from parents is influenced by this desire to remain at home and look after their parents. Others may feel the need for space and time away from the family, seeking support from their friends.

It is important to consider all the aspects of the relationship that the teenager had/has with the deceased sibling.

Helping the teenager who has lost a sibling

  • include them in family discussions and support
  • don’t assume that they are “strong” because they don’t speak about their feelings
  • don’t assume they don’t care when they ‘disappear’ to be with friends
  • make time to find out about their relationship with the lost sibling and to talk to them about how they feel
  • be aware that any direct attempt to enquire into their feelings may be rebuffed. However, leaving a space and creating activities where conversations can begin and feelings may be shared (e.g. gardening, driving) can see them raise discussions on what they are feeling

Adults

The face and nature of the nuclear family has changed in recent times. In the past, families retained lifetime relationships with each other with a clear sense of relationship between siblings and cousins. Due to increased national and global mobility, siblings may or may not be physically or emotionally close to each other as they mature and establish their lives.

Where there are close sibling relationships, the death of a sibling early in life can be difficult to deal with, and must not be overlooked. A sibling plays a specific role in a family, which may have been established very early in the family’s life, and the loss of that role can have significant effects on the way the family is able to function.

In addition to occupying a familial role, siblings in adult life may be very good friends to each other – as important as any other type of friend. There is a sense of connection which is unique because of genetic connection, but also because of the emotional and intellectual perceptions which are at the heart of a deep and close relationship.

However, if siblings have not been close, or have had a difficult relationship, the loss of the sibling can result in grief for what could or should have been and a recognition that it is now too late to change.

Adjustment to sibling bereavement requires close attention and recognition of the unique part that siblings play in each other’s lives.

Loss of twin siblings

And then there are twins. The death of a twin sibling presents significant challenges for the remaining twin in terms of adjusting to life without their sibling and the grief that they are dealing with.

Twins can be either identical or fraternal (i.e non-identical). Research has indicated that identical twins experience the death of a twin somewhat more intensely than fraternal twins, although there is considerable overlap – the loss experience may be just as devastating for some fraternal twins. There is also evidence of less grief reduction on average, over time, for identical twins.

It has also been found that the loss of a twin is associated with greater grief than the loss of any other relative, with the exception of a spouse.

A twin loss study in 19931 identified a number of specific issues associated with the loss of a twin. This study identified a number of specific issues for twins losing their siblings including the extreme loneliness that the survivor can feel after the death of a twin. Everyday reminders (e.g. a song or a smell) can reawaken the fact that the twin is no longer present. Other issues identified were:

  • the uniqueness of each person’s recovery process. People cope with their loss in individual ways and according to individual timetables
  • the lack of understanding that some family members may unknowingly display toward bereaved twins. The process of recovery may take longer for twins than for non-twin relatives who can become impatient with twins’ enduring grief

Loss of siblings in later years/old age

Old age is a time in which people are able to review their lives; to see what they have achieved and to reflect on their achievements, regrets and disappointments and the joys and the sorrows they’ve encountered. They are sometimes able to see things differently and to re-evaluate long-held beliefs, prejudices and ways of seeing the world. It may also be a time when death awakens a sense of loss and grief for relationships that should have been.

It is a time of dealing with a number of griefs including the grief of reduced physical function and activity. Elderly people often have to give up their homes to live in smaller and more manageable places, which might be in aged care facilities, where they have to share space and services with other people of their age. It’s not always a choice that they wish to make. It’s a time of reduction of life, to which it can be difficult to adjust. It’s also a time of reduction of relationships.

In addition to emotional support, siblings often provide a sense of continuity and familiarity to people in old age. Siblings are most often the people who have known a person for the longest time in their lives. After the death of a spouse, the person who is closest to, and knows more about, the surviving partner is a brother or sister, and they are the ones the survivor turns to most naturally for support.

In later years, it may well be that a person will lose, or have lost, all of their siblings, in addition to their spouse. This is a huge challenge in the grief process for such a person. The loss of siblings can, therefore, be a very difficult grief for elderly people to endure.

One of the greatest gifts to give elderly people in this grief, as in all griefs, is a listening ear, and a lively interest in their history. Give them the opportunity to talk about their families, families of origin – perhaps including parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and their own families – spouses, children and grandchildren.

It is important to recognise the part their siblings have played in their lives.

References

1Segal, Nancy, and Thomas Bouchard. “Grief Intensity Following the Loss of a Twin and Other Relatives: Test of Kinship Genetic Hypotheses.” Human Biology 65.1 (1993): 87-105. Web.

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