The other day I asked our Facebook community to suggest resources for people who’ve experienced the death of a sibling. Although some were able to make recommendations, many were quick to point out their struggle to find help and support for their loss. One reader even said she dubbed herself the “forgotten mourner” after finding sibling grief was so often overlooked in the support world. Now, we can’t have that!
Obviously, this is just a post and it doesn’t substitute for dedicated organizations, movements, or other types of support – but it’s a start. Whatever you are able to contribute to the conversation in the comments and on social media, please do. The more voices we have speaking on the subject, the more supported and cared for other grieving siblings will hopefully feel.
This post is long, but the last thing we want to do is create another resource that is overgeneralized and unhelpful. At the end of the post, we’ll link to a resource page with suggestions for locating support locally and online. Got it? Good. Okay, let’s talk about some of the reasons why the death of a sibling (at any age) is really stinking hard.
Feelings and Emotions
You may be experiencing grief over the death of your sibling if you feel any of the following –shock, numbness, sadness, despair, loneliness, isolation, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, irritability, anger, increased or decreased appetite, fatigue or sleeplessness, guilt, regret, depression, anxiety, crying, headaches, weakness, aches, pains, yearning, worry, frustration, detachment, isolation, questioning faith – to name a few.
Okay, so those things aren’t specific to sibling grief, however, they might be experienced differently by someone grieving a brother or sister. For example:
You feel guilty because…
…you are the sibling that survived.
…you knew your sibling inside and out and yet you didn’t know about the struggles or hardships that led to their death.
…you weren’t able to protect them.
…there are things you wish you had said, but didn’t
You feel anxiety because…
…you know how fragile life is.
…you’re worried you may die in the same way as your sibling.
…you’re worried others in your family may die.
You feel lonely because…
…although you’re surrounded by people, you miss the one person who you could truly be yourself with.
I could go on, but the important thing is to understand that your feelings are unique and important. Good, bad, or anywhere in-between, your relationship with your brother or sister was different than anyone else’s and so you’ll experience hurdles, triggers, and hardships that others may not.
Your parents, siblings, and other family members may grieve in many of the same ways that you do, but in many ways, their grief may differ. It’s important to remember this because misunderstandings can arise amongst family members when people react differently in response to a death. It’s also important for people supporting bereaved siblings to keep this in mind so they can help validate and support the griever’s feelings and experiences.
This is just a guess, but I suspect a lack of sibling grief resources exists because sibling grief is often overshadowed. People simply cannot fathom the out-of-order-ness of a parent having to bury a child, so when this is the case their thoughts and concerns often immediately go to the parent’s grief.
Parents themselves may not be able to effectively attend to their children’s grief and outside family and friends may be hesitant to step in and offer support or suggestions. It might also be true that support and attention are first given to siblings who are younger or who are perceived to be more fragile. In a situation where any or all of these things are true, a grieving sibling may end up feeling as though other people’s grief is more important than their own.
This may be confounded by the fact that some people willingly allow their grief to go unnoticed by themselves or others. Raise your hand if you’re the sibling who feels like it’s your job to take care of and support the rest of the family. After a death, some siblings might quickly step in to take care of their younger children and/or their parents because they feel it’s their role or duty.
Sometimes this happens out of necessity, sometimes avoidance, sometimes expectation, and sometimes all of the above. It is important for all members of the family to recognize that no one’s grief should take complete precedence. Although family members might take turns supporting one another, at one point or another everyone’s grief deserves attention and needs to be attended to.
Changes in Family Dynamics and Support Systems
Families – functional or dysfunctional – often operate according to a set of norms, roles, traditions, and patterns. Each person has their place in the family system, so things can get thrown off balance when someone in the family dies. An important person is gone, and those who survive them are sometimes unable, unwilling, or disinterested in filling that person’s role(s) or carrying out traditions and patterns as they have in the past.
Shifting family dynamics can lead to the weakening of support systems. Parents and siblings who are grieving may be of less, little, or no help. If a person’s support system largely consists of family (which is often the case for children and teens), they may find they’re facing one of the hardest periods of their life without a safety net.
The support system may also be weakened if the person who died was an important source of support for surviving siblings. This may be true at any age, but if the death happens when the siblings are in older adulthood, the person who died may have been one of the surviving sibling’s few living family members
Comparisons and Expectations
You are special and you are wonderful (come on…you know you are). You have no one to live up to besides yourself, your goals, and your own potential.
Okay, I just wanted to say that as a reminder to anyone who feels like they’re living in the shadow of a deceased sibling. Feeling compared or overshadowed is common after the death of a sibling, and (although you may be hesitant to admit it) this experience can result in feelings of resentment or anger towards family and/or the person who died.
If this sounds like you, the first thing we recommend you do is to ask yourself, “Who is making me feel this way?” If the answer is your parents or other family members, then the next thing you might do is try to communicate with your family about how you feel. This might seem like a scary task because you don’t want to rock the boat or make anyone feel worse in their grief. If this is the case, or if you think your concerns will fall on deaf ears, you might want to consider talking to a counselor about how to approach the situation or enlist the help of a family counselor to work with the family as a whole.
Now, you may find that you yourself are responsible for comparisons and expectations. This might happen for a number of reasons including insecurity, guilt, or the feeling that you need to pick up where your sibling left off. If you think you might be the source of comparison, then some serious self-reflection is probably needed.
Acknowledging the truth of the situation is a good start, you’re in even better shape if you can identify why this is happening. As you search for answers, you might find it’s helpful to spend time in reflection, journaling, or talking to a trusted confidant, support group member(s), or counselor.
When a person dies, you are not only robbed of their physical presence in the here and now, but you (and they) also lose the chance to spend your tomorrows together. Your life after their death becomes filled with thoughts of “if only”, ” we would have”, and “I wish.”
This is obviously the case for missed opportunities in the future; the happy moments you wish you could have spent together like weddings, graduations, births, adventures, and family get-togethers. We talk a lot about how to handle these moments here and here and here. However, missed opportunities are also felt when people wish they could make up for all they didn’t do while the person was alive. For example, taking the chance to say “I love you”, “I’m sorry”, “I forgive you” and “I care”.
You miss the hell out of them
Sibling relationships obviously vary in their degrees of closeness, love, and amicability. Some siblings may be thick as thieves, others wonder whether they’re even really related. Regardless, siblings are our ties to family bonds. They have known us the longest. They understand our history and are the people with whom we have the longest running jokes.
They are our bridesmaids and our groomsmen. They are our children’s aunts and uncles. They bail us out when we’re in trouble, they loan us money, and then we loan it back. They are the most judgmental people we know. They are the most accepting and loving people we know. Siblings can never be replaced and when they are gone we miss the hell out of them.
As promised, you can find help locating sibling grief support on this page. Please comment below and share your experience with the death of a sibling and/or recommended resources.
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