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The Heartache Of Sibling Loss

It is said that friends change, lovers leave but siblings are eternal. Growing up with siblings can be both a frustrating and entertaining experience but a blessing nevertheless.

Siblings make life interesting. Regardless of whether you share a love and hate relationship with them. We love to hate them but for the life of us, cannot think of life without them. While they annoy us, they are our best friends.

From fighting over which cereal to open or what cartoon to watch, to blaming the youngest for everything, being the little group's bossy leader – life will never be dull with siblings to fight with, makeup with, cry with, and laugh with. Our siblings resemble us in more ways than we can count. They are an extension of ourselves.

Therefore, losing a sibling can change everything. It not only changes you, but it also affects your dynamics with the rest of your family. No matter what kind of relationship you shared, whether it was a deep connection or one of constant bickering and conspiring, there was a certain rhythm to it that also gets disrupted. 

Understanding Sibling Grief

Whether the loss of a sibling is because of a prolonged illness or a sudden, tragic event, it is both painful and shocking. It throws your life in disarray. In the normal order of things, most of us are prepared for the loss of older relatives, from grandparents to parents, uncles, and aunts.

When it comes to our siblings, since we consider them an extension of our own lives, they’re supposed to make it to the end with us. We see them sharing in both, the big and small milestones of our lives, from weddings and the birth of our kids to birthdays, graduations, the illness and deaths of our parents, etc.

Siblings grow up with the reality that their parents sooner or later will also pass on. But when it comes to brothers and sisters, everyone has this expectation that growing up together 'forever' is what siblings do. They are the pillars of our lives and losing them can make our lives go off balance.

Our brothers and sisters are meant to be there with us from the dawn of our personal lives to the inevitable dusk. It doesn't matter if you’ve been like two peas in a pod or whether you both saw eye to eye on almost everything. It does not matter whether you lived close to each other or stayed far apart. The loss of a sibling will bring on feelings of emptiness that can be overwhelming.

When this loss occurs, a lot of people fail to recognize the grief that the surviving sibling or siblings go through. They’re ignored because people feel that "they are just a brother or a sister." As a result, surviving siblings often become the forgotten mourners.

The Realities Of Sibling Loss

Many people fail to understand that death also impacts the sister or brother left behind. Since the feeling of loss is centered on the "immediate" family like the parents and the spouse and kids if any of the deceased, the surviving siblings are left to cope and deal with their grief independently.

Once the shock of the loss wears off, they are left with an almost visceral pain that is a result of the loss. Many surviving siblings find themselves grappling with feelings of guilt too.

Here are some realities of sibling loss:

SIBLING GRIEF IS MOSTLY MISUNDERSTOOD

It is unfortunate that the grief of a sibling is mostly misunderstood not only by immediate family members, but also by friends, and at times even counselors and other surviving brothers and sisters. There is too much attention directed to the parents of the deceased or the spouse and children of your sibling. But as siblings, where do you stand?

Does the loss of a brother you grew up with, played ball, and discussed girls and date plans with not count at all? Or what about the loss of a sister with whom you shared a room for half of your life – does this have no bearing at all?

Siblings, regardless of the relationship status, will always be siblings, and if a sibling dies, the surviving brother or sister faces the future alone. It’s not just the parents or the spouse of a deceased who deeply grieve and experience the loss.

Siblings, no matter what, are always a reminder of your childhood. Your brother or sister is always an automatic friend and ally. Having a sibling means you'll never be alone and the death of one takes all these away from you.

SIBLING LOSS CAN LEAD TO SOMATIC INDICATORS

When a sibling dies due to a life-threatening illness, the siblings left behind, especially the younger ones, might manifest the same symptoms that their deceased siblings had.

Headaches, stomachaches, body pain, digestive issues, nightmares, and sleep issues are the most common ones usually 'felt.' These are symptoms of grief that cannot be expressed.

These somatic symptoms need to be addressed too and not medically. Instead, family and friends need to come together to help siblings cope with the trauma and find a way to come to terms with their loss.

It is imperative to have someone who can guide siblings especially children through the loss and their own unique grieving process. Sometimes, there is a need to assure them that it wasn't their fault. In most cases, this doesn't happen.

SURVIVING SIBLINGS EXPERIENCE DOUBLE LOSS

Sibling loss when you’re still kids becomes a double blow. When a parent loses a child, it is said a part of the parent dies too. 

Unfortunately, the surviving children usually end up taking the fall-out from their parent’s emotional blow-ups and neglect. More than losing a sibling, they also lose their parents for the time being or sometimes even permanently when a parent is not able to recover from the grief of losing a child.

Parents tend to retreat into their own grief; sometimes, depression kicks in, leaving the other children to grow up on their own and grow up fast. The loss of a brother or sister produces a huge transformation in a kid’s environment.

The odds of marital collapse are higher after the death of a child. In some cases, the parents may try to substitute the dead child by having another baby.

The parents would dote on the new baby, thus giving lesser attention to the surviving sibling. In some homes, the parents unconsciously try to force the surviving sibling into the responsibilities and role of the dead child. When this occurs, the surviving child either rebels or creates another personality just to accommodate the parents. No child can ever live up to the idealized memory of a dead sibling. 

While the loss of a family member requires the family to come together and be strong, the reverse happens. The loss of a child especially has been known to change family dynamics negatively.

Effects Of Sibling Loss

Grief will always be a normal emotion when you lose your brother or sister. Adult siblings are the forgotten mourners because other family members' sorrow usually overshadows their grief.

Whatever type of relationship you had with your departed sibling, other people, including your parents, won't have a clear and deep understanding of their role in your life. With a sibling’s loss, these are some effects of it on a surviving sibling:

FEELINGS OF GUILT OR REGRET

Like all relationships, sibling relationships are also complicated. Sibling love and kindness are given, but there are also arguments, jealousy, and rivalry.

When your sibling has passed on, especially when you witnessed his or her battle with a complicated medical health condition that led to the passing, you would experience nagging guilt about things you might have said. 

There might also be feelings of regret that you did not maintain a closer relationship with each other.    This is where the "what-ifs" and the "if-only" questions become a cruel mind game. Additionally, you might also experience what is referred to as "survivor's guilt," where you ask why your sibling got sick and died and not you.

PERMANENT LOSS OF A RELATIONSHIP

Brothers and sisters, especially those of close ages, have a deep connection. They have been physically, emotionally, psychologically, and mentally there for each other, going through the setbacks and comebacks of life, usually without the parents involved.

Most are mourning the loss of a sibling and the permanent loss of a confidant, motivator, ally, best friend, protector, and critic. You can be immensely overcome by sadness over the memories of the past relationship and the sense of missing out on this bonding in the future.

Even another sibling cannot replace the relationship you once had with your departed brother or sister. For parents and spouses, the definition of a relationship is clear, but for siblings, the depth of the relationship roots from the good and the bad.

FORCED REDEFINITION OF FAMILY DYNAMICS

The changes in family dynamics are unavoidable. You were a family of five then, and now there are just four of you. You used to be a party of four, and now you've become an only child.

Families have their own unspoken rules and roles in the household. There is a pecking order silently established and respectfully followed between siblings, and if one dies, this without choice needs to be altered. You might need to take on new responsibilities and be the leader and decision-influencer moving forward.

If the sibling who died was taking responsibility for your parents or their primary caregivers, you might need to make huge adjustments to your life to accommodate the new role, like going home or relocating somewhere closer to them. Or you might become new guardians of your niece and nephews.

These changes in the family dynamics might cause you to feel resentment during your grieving process. You don't like making decisions, or the idea of everyone asking for your guidance before major decisions is not your cup of tea. You might not feel prepared for it physically, emotionally, mentally, and financially. 

It might also lead you to doubt your capabilities, especially knowing that you have a stellar example to live up to. It is unchartered territory for you, and you have a lot of angst about what will become of everyone with you stepping up.

DEVELOPING A FEAR OF DEATH

When you witness the pain and struggle of a sibling slowly dying before your eyes because of a disease like leukemia or cancer, you tend to start being paranoid about your own well-being.

You have this unspoken fear that you will end up the same way sooner or later. You understand that you and your brother or sister share the very same genes.

This can impact how you live your life because every discomfort and slight pain makes you conclude that you will soon go through the same experience as your departed sibling.

DWELLING ON MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

When your sibling's battle against a life-threatening illness finally comes to an end, you are now without a brother or as a sister. Eventually, the reality will sink in that you are not only robbed of your sibling's physical presence but you also lost the chance of your many tomorrows together. 

Your life after your sibling's demise will be filled with wonders and thoughts of "we could have," "what if," and "I wish." There is that hole that only siblings can fill in like graduations, weddings, family reunions, births, travels, and family get-togethers.

However, more than the shared future, the surviving sibling may focus on the missed or lost  opportunities. Opportunities of mending a relationship that may have been broken, the lost opportunity for a reconciliation, appreciative and loving words that were not spoken, hugs that were not given, etc.

The thoughts of these missed opportunities might fill the surviving sibling with tremendous guilt.

CREATING A POSITIVE LIFE PERSPECTIVE

The loss of a sibling may also have a positive effect on the surviving sibling, although this may not happen immediately after the loss. Seeing and learning from everything that the departed sibling experienced may inspire one to turn over a new leaf.

This is especially true in cases where your sibling may have succumbed to a long drawn illness. The tendency is to have a complete 360-degree turn-around when it comes to your own health, whether mental or physical. You become more active and exercise becomes a part of your daily schedule. You eat healthier and take the time to invest in your health and become proactive in your overall wellness.

Aside from aiming to become healthier, you also build a stronger character. Your emotional strength becomes more reliable, and since your loss, you also become more independent.

There is also a tendency to find a new purpose in life associated with what your sibling went through. You become inspired to work in the medical field or become a therapist. Sometimes, you become a leader and advocate of projects that took the life of your sibling.

Impact Of Sibling Loss To A Twin

If you are the surviving member of a twin, your twin brother or sister's death can be uniquely devastating. What once was two is now one!

Twins have that unique and special bond between them, given that they have shared everything all their lives – from their mother's womb to birthdays and everything in between. Twins enter this world as a pair, and they go beyond the sunset as a pair. It is felt that twins share a psychic bond that connects them closer than other siblings, family or friends.

Based on studies, the surviving twin is always left with the sense of being incomplete – halved – after their twin's death. The feeling of being incomplete will always be there, and the mourning process is more difficult. You now become a “twinless twin.”

The psychological impact of losing a twin is more apparent compared to regular siblings. Twins are connected since they were conceived, and losing that connection makes the surviving twin vulnerable and at risk.

Loss of an identical twin is perceived to be the deepest grief by their surviving twin compared to fraternal twin loss or non-twin siblings.

The logic behind this is associated with the genetic makeup of twins, where identical twins share their whole genes while fraternal twins only share 50%.

The loss of a twin can cause risks to the mortality of the surviving twin. After the loss, the lone twin would have to become one, an independent individual who needs to give up the life of being a twin and instead start building a world of sole independence. A high level of pain and apprehension goes hand in hand as both perspective and lifestyle changes are required. 

The surviving twin may resort to withdrawal and place restrictions on themselves socially, while some can be swallowed by deep depression and loneliness.  Understand that twins have a special connection where one can empathize and understand the other.

From the beginning of the grieving process, the surviving twin will need all the support he or she can get. When one twin dies, the bereaved twin loses everything, including his or her identity, and it requires tremendous courage to emerge out of the depths of grief and face the world alone.

Age Difference & The Grieving Process

One of the many factors that impact the grieving process is the age gap or age differences between the siblings. The depth of the connection with siblings that are just a year apart is different from the bond one shares with a sibling who is five to seven years older or younger than you.

Due to this, the intensity of your grieving process varies. The age of the surviving sibling also plays an important factor. Kids can find it very difficult to come to terms with the death of a sibling as opposed to an adult.

SADNESS & SORROW

Regardless of age, when a sibling dies, the surviving sibling will be affected by sadness and sorrow.


AFFECTS GROWTH

The methodology of how your grief is processed is different. An example would be if you lost a sibling at a young age. A confused and frightened four-year-old paves the way for an anxious eight-year-old who grows up to an insecure teen who is afraid of not living up to the standards of the deceased sibling. Living in the shadow of a departed brother or sister is hard because you are caught up in living a legacy while having your own life.

Experiencing the loss of a sibling if you are older provides you the maturity to comprehend what's going on. If you have witnessed your sibling's battle with a long-drawn illness, you may find a semblance of comfort from the fact that their suffering has ended. It doesn't make the pain lesser, but there is that likeliness that you will see a silver lining in the situation.


CAN BE HARDER

Grief like we mentioned above is also influenced by your age and that of your departed brother or sister. If the age gap is only two years old, you are BFFs and rivals sharing most experiences as opposed to a 10-year age gap where you are strangers to one another.

The loss for close-ranged age gaps can be harder because of the time spent together compared to someone you barely shared any time with.

Common Grief Responses Based On Age

As mentioned, everyone has different ways of responding to grief, and the loss of a sibling may trigger odd behaviors and cause new dispositions to be developed.

SURVIVING SIBLINGS UNDER 5

  • Intermittent grieving where one moment, the sadness is too much, and the next minute, the child is playing happily.
  • Go back to younger habits like unable to sleep alone at night and wetting the bed
  • Ask all possible questions about death
  • Kids this age are usually resilient and can bounce back faster. Given their tender age, they are able to move on with their lives.

PRIMARY AGED SIBLINGS

  • Get anxious about being the next one to get sick and die
  • Ask questions about burial, cremations, and dying
  • Goes into isolation from other family members

SURVIVING TEENAGERS & YOUNG ADULTS

  • An immense feeling of guilt
  • Avoiding the topic of death and grieving
  • An overwhelming feeling of loneliness 

Helping A Child Cope With Sibling Loss

With more awareness now about the family's forgotten mourners, the parents should find the courage and strength within themselves to help the surviving siblings go through the mourning process while coping with their own loss as well.

TELL THE CHILDREN ABOUT THEIR SIBLING'S DEATH AS SOON AS POSSIBLE

It is ideal to have everyone sit down and share information about the loss. This creates a secure environment for everyone, especially younger kids. An open discussion also allows them to freely talk about and vent their emotions.

Dealing with grief after the loss of a child


USE SIMPLE LANGUAGE DURING THE FAMILY TALK

Answer all the questions of everyone if possible, using straightforward language. The discussion should clear all the information to avoid false expectations. 

Euphemisms and sugar coating won't work for this kind of talk. Don't use words like "gone," "moved on" or even "asleep." Using "asleep" to replace death may cause some sleep disturbances in the younger ones, and they can get the idea that their sibling will “wake up” come morning.


ASSOCIATE DEATH WITH EVENTS THEY CAN COMPREHEND

You can use the example of a flower wilting or the death of a pet to help them understand. This can give them a sense of reality that their young minds can connect with.


VALIDATE THEIR FEELINGS & QUESTIONS

Children will not only need reassurance but answers to their questions. Expect some of these questions from the young ones:

  • Did I cause the death of my brother or sister?
  • Am I sick, or will I get sick too?
  • Will I die in the same way as my brother or sister?
  • Who will care now that my brother or sister is no longer around?
  • Will you still love me now that my brother or sister is no longer around?

TRY TO MAINTAIN HOME DYNAMICS & ROUTINE

Children find comfort in routines and habits, and these become their support mechanisms. When things slow down, go back to the normal bath and bed hours, eat meals together, and go back to the new normal as a downsized family.

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Involving Surviving Siblings In The Funeral

Many family members and friends may suggest keeping the younger siblings away from the funeral because it is too upsetting for them. However, in many instances, attending the services of their sibling may help a child acknowledge their loss and say their good-byes.

Counselors suggest that siblings who are old enough to want to be there should be there in attendance. The remaining siblings should choose if they want to be there and witness the funeral. As long as proper expectations are set, every sibling can take this time to say goodbye and have closure and come to terms with the changes in the family structure. 

If older, you can be more involved with the process to make the service a personal tribute to your deceased sibling.

Tips & Hints To Cope With Sibling Loss As An Adult

Everyone copes with the death of a sibling differently. There is no learning module to guide you on how to go about it. The feeling of loss never goes away. Over time, the pain lessens, but it will always be there.

The most difficult part is accepting the reality that your brother or your sister is gone, and you have to move on with your life. It's hard, and there will always be a part of you that resists the very idea of moving forward, but as they say, "life goes on." Here are some tips that can help you cope with the loss of your sibling.

ALLOW YOUR TEARS TO FALL

This is pretty obvious but don't hold back the tears. Have a good crying session, and through your tears, release the pain, loss, anger, regret, and everything you're holding in.

You owe it to yourself to cry. You just lost your sibling. Cry your heart out. Never suppress your tears, and scientifically, this has good benefits for you. It appears that emotional tears – entirely different from the tears our eyes produce when irritated or to keep it lubricated, have hormones that are related to stress. 

A cathartic and heart-wrenching cry is a means for your body to release all those pent-up energies, negativity, and stress.

WORK YOUR GRIEF WITH THE ENTIRE FAMILY

Your entire family is mourning, and every member grieves differently. Talk about your grief and share what you are feeling. Doing this can help every member go through the sadness and pain together, and in the end, strengthens the relationship. 

As much as possible, do not retreat into your own sadness. Do not succumb to depression. More than ever, the loss of a sibling should make you stronger and united, each being each other’s support system.

SEEK AN EXTERNAL SUPPORT SYSTEM

Some members of your family may not be able to provide support and consolation during the grieving process. Consider opening up about your loss and your current state of mind with a trusted friend, a church mate or even a grief counselor.

Having a support group outside your family can work wonders in the grieving and healing process. Some may have gone the same road before and can offer you the guidance and advice you need to make the loss less painful.

Grief Retreats, Conferences, Cruises & More

BE KIND TO YOURSELF

The guilt and regret won't do anything to alleviate the misery you already feel. Stop dwelling on the what-ifs. Siblings are known to fight, argue, challenge, compete, and be mean to each other. This is what siblings do.

It is said that siblings are the only enemies that you can’t live without. Forgive yourself for all those hang-ups. Forgive yourself for all the unkind words and things you said. For not putting in enough effort to mend a broken relationship, and for not spending enough time with your sibling.

Remove any traces of blame. Forgiving yourself is the healthy way forward. Whatever the cause of death, your sibling dying is not your fault.

MAKE YOUR HEALTH A PRIORITY

You’ve seen how your sibling’s health deteriorated because of an unforgiving ailment. Be proactive and take care of your health. Ease your fear by going through a thorough physical check-up. If your sibling died because of cancer, consider any cancer risks, and focus on maintaining a healthier lifestyle.

Schedule regular check-ups and have lab works done when recommended by your GP. Check any medical health history of your family and be honest with your doctor. Share the awareness with your other family members too.

DON'T FORGET YOUR MENTAL HEALTH

The turmoil of emotions you feel during your sibling's loss is normal. The extreme sadness, feeling of numbness, and a loss of interest in day-to-day activities are expected in the days and weeks following the death.

But sometimes, these feelings of depression only increase. Additional feelings of being lost, hopelessness, anxiety, and anger seem to weigh you down.

These feelings are not normal, especially if they negatively impact how you live your life. Consider seeking medical help and reach out to family or friends for support.

Coping with loss, depression, and anxiety is difficult and dangerous, especially when done alone.

REMEMBER YOUR SIBLING

Your sibling is physically gone, but that doesn't mean that you stop remembering him or her. As mourning goes to the phase where it is easier to talk about your departed sibling, you can start freely talking about them with family and friends while feeling good about it. It is entirely up to you to keep your sibling's memory alive and not allow that connection to end.

Investing in memorial jewelry is also a good idea. Other options would include photo engraved jewelry or a photo memorial pendant or a keychain with your favorite picture of them. These photo engraved jewelry can also carry some text that has special significance to you. 

You can also opt for cremation jewelry in remembrance of your sibling. Using their ashes in jewelry like a necklace or cremation rings and cremation bracelets will allow you to keep a part of them close to you.

You can also have a memory book project where every member of the family contributes a memento. You can also consider doing volunteer work for a cause close to your heart and related to your sibling's death, like a cancer-related foundation or charity.

Or you can cherish your brother and sister by living your life to the fullest. Having witnessed your sibling's demise and passing may open your eyes more clearly to the fact that life is beyond your control. 

Just like the movie and book ‘Me Before You’ advised, “You only get one life. It’s your duty to live it as fully as possible.”

Will The Pain Of Sibling Loss Ever Go Away?

Death is hard on the ones left behind and it takes time to come to terms with the loss of a loved one. Does the pain ever go away? No, it doesn’t. It will always be there, but the intensity of it will reduce over time. During the initial phase of your loss, your grief will be like a roller coaster. There will be days you may feel nothing at all and days when you feel pain.

As time goes on, you gradually come to terms and learn to reconcile with your loss. You will accept the new realities of your life. You will have to consent to your sibling’s medical condition and hold on to your personal faith. 

Over time, you may feel that you are well already, and you have moved on from the loss of your brother or sister, but in truth, remembering them will always trigger pain and sadness.

There will also be days when life smiles at you. You are thankful for the present as well as the memories of the past. While it is not easy to surmount the loss of a beloved family member, you just start living with the sad reality and make the best out of the situation.

A Sibling's Love Stays With You

Hang in there. Do not set a timeline for your loss. In the eyes of many, you might just be the forgotten mourner. Nothing can take away from the deep connection of siblings who grew up together. The emotions that you are feeling are all part of your grief.

If you have other siblings left, now is the time to re-group and become a stronger unit. When you are past all those negative emotions brought about by your grief, you will soon realize that there are underlying life lessons that you can get from experience.

Further reading:

How to make an online memorial

Top 20 memorializing trends of 2020

2020 holiday memorial gift giving guide

January 27, 2021 by Jeri K. Augustus