By Colleen Shannon, LICSW, Associate Program Director – Youth & Community Outreach,
and Emily Carson Dashawetz, MFA, Former Communications & Marketing Coordinator
Siblings are often among our first friends, rivals, and connections. They teach us and we teach them. Together we learn how to share, how to fight, and how to navigate the complexities of our families and the larger world. They play a pivotal role in our lives. They share our history; they often share our hopes for the future.
It is no wonder that when a sibling dies, the surviving sibling or siblings are left to navigate a world that is forever changed. Their lives change, and often, so do their identities. It is no exaggeration to say that, when a sibling dies, a grieving sibling asks in many different ways, “Who am I without my brother or sister?”
Our siblings are the people who are supposed to be with us for the long haul. We expect them at the breakfast table, kicking our feet when mom or dad aren’t looking. We plan for them to be at milestone events, like our birthdays, weddings, and graduations. They are the people with whom we were supposed to confide in, roll our eyes with when our parents are being ridiculous, and cry with when our family is struggling. When a sibling dies, all of these moments die with them. The loss of what could have been, and what we hoped would have been, can sting as deeply as the loss of our sibling’s life.
The death of any important person in childhood can significantly impact a child or teen’s sense of self and being. For bereaved siblings, the death of a brother or sister has unique impacts on their lives and grief process. Here are some common feelings that may arise for a grieving sibling and some ways you might help if you’re supporting them.
Some common threads of grieving a sibling
One of the most common feelings for those grieving a sibling is isolation—that others “just don’t get it.” Grieving siblings often find that their peers and the adults in their life don’t know how best to support them. While so much attention is directed to the parents, who are grieving a child, a grieving sibling can be left feeling that his or her own grief “doesn’t matter” in relation to that of their parents. An unintentional minimizing of their grief can happen by both their peers and the adults in their life. Surviving siblings may feel neglected or forgotten in their grief, unsure and anxious about where to turn for support. A grieving sibling’s isolation can feel particularly intense; although they may very much want to turn to their parents for support, it can feel difficult to do so when the parents are often struggling to cope and support each other in their own grief.
Surviving siblings not only grieve the death of their brother or sister, but in many cases they also experience important secondary losses. The entire family dynamic has been changed by the death, including the surviving sibling’s relationship to their parents. The reconfiguring of relationships that naturally occurs after a death is an often an unacknowledged aspect of grieving a sibling, but its impact on the surviving sibling should not be overlooked.
Sometimes depending on their ages, surviving siblings may feel guilt for various reasons. Older children may wonder directly why they survived and their sibling did not. Young children, who think in very concrete terms, may believe that they somehow caused the death of their sibling simply because they had hurtful thoughts about them at some point.
Sometimes a surviving sibling may feel guilt for acting out or misbehaving in response to feelings they aren’t sure how to manage. They act out, but they do not want to be the “bad sibling,” and so they feel guilty when they make mistakes, or when they say what they perceive to be the wrong things to their parents.
Surviving siblings may also feel an internal pressure to “be” the deceased sibling in addition to being themselves. They may feel a burden to carry on the sibling’s legacy or personality traits. They often experience the enormous difficulty of feeling the pressure to “live for two,” even while their own individuality is still being formed.
Ways to help support a grieving sibling
- Honor the surviving sibling’s relationship with the person who died. It may feel more natural to ask a surviving sibling about how his or her parents are doing, or even to ask an older sibling how another younger sibling in the family is coping with the death. However, taking time to ask a surviving sibling how he or she are doing is an important step in showing your support. Even if they don’t respond, that’s okay. Asking them how they are can be an important validation that it’s okay to grieve, too, even while their parents are also grieving.
- Say the name of the person who died. Honoring the person who died by naming them, especially on holidays, anniversaries, and birthdays can be very important for the surviving sibling. In addition to grieving the relationship and shared history as siblings, it’s important for the surviving sibling to feel comfortable grieving the person.
- Make time just for them. Make a concerted effort to do things with the surviving sibling that he or she enjoys. You might also spend time together doing activities that the person who died loved to do in order to honor them, or find ways to incorporate new rituals that honor the person who died into regular activities. It’s important to share time with the surviving sibling or siblings and let them know, implicitly or explicitly, that their feelings about the death and grief are welcomed whenever they are ready to share them.
- Understand that this grief will be a lifelong process. Our culture’s instinct to put a time limit on the grief process can fall particularly hard on grieving siblings. When a sibling dies, there might be extra internal or external pressure to “move on” or “get over it.” Remember: there is no time frame. Grief is a process, not a final destination. You are the expert of your own grief, and there is no one “right” way to grieve.