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Comprehending the Loss of a Sibling

The connection between siblings is one of the few types of relationships that generally start in childhood and that we expect to last well into old age. Our brothers and sisters are the fellow guardians of our childhood memories, our partners-in-crime, our best friends and the people we turn to when we have trouble with our parents.

Or… not. Sometimes brothers and sisters are our childhood bullies, our barely-welcome holiday guests and/or a source of anxiety and worry.

Regardless of what your relationship with your brother or sister was, when a sibling dies it can lead to serious and often misunderstood grief. If your sibling dies when you’re a young adult, you’ll likely be the first person in your social circle to experience the death of a close family member. It might be the first time you’ve encountered grief yourself.

If you’ve recently lost your brother or sister—or if he or she died years ago and you’d like help understanding and processing his or her death and the changes it has led to—professional counseling and support groups will help you work through your grief and rebuild your life in a way that honors and protects your sibling’s memory.

Here are some of the issues people who have lost siblings often have as they work through their grief.

Overlooked Grief

Sibling loss is one of the least-studied types of grief. People who lose siblings often find the focus is on their parents, their sibling’s spouse and his or her children. All of those people experience deep grief, but siblings can find themselves constantly asked to support other family members without getting any support themselves.

At the same time, your friends might not be able to understand your grief. Siblings often have separate social circles and might live hours away. It’s hard for friends to understand the loss of someone they’ve never met.

If you feel like your grief isn’t taken seriously, it can poison your relationship with other family members and with your friends. Counseling and support groups can help you find the right words to communicate your grief with family and friends. Both counseling and support groups can also help you find the right way to respond to comments from friends and family that minimize your grief or imply that your grief is less valid or deep than other family members.

Changing Role in Your Family

No matter how large or small your family, losing a sibling will change your family’s dynamics. Here are some ways people often see the family dynamics change after a sibling dies:

  • You might be asked to step in as a parental figure to younger siblings because of your parents’ grief;
  • You might now be the youngest or the oldest in the family;
  • Your parents and/or other siblings might become extremely anxious about your health and safety;
  • You might have to take on more responsibilities for caring for your parents, both because of their grief and due to normal aging;
  • You might find each member of your family grieves differently, creating tensions between you, your parents and your other siblings;
  • You might be asked to become the guardian for your sibling’s children;
  • You might have substantially more or less contact with your nieces and nephews.

These changes in family roles can be particularly acute if your only sibling dies, leaving you solely responsible for your parents’ wellbeing.

Health Problems and Concerns

In addition to the (sometimes crushing) concern about your health you might find coming from your parents, it’s not uncommon for people whose brother or sister dies young to worry about their own health. This is especially true if your sibling died as a result of an illness rather than in an accident.

These concerns are not irrational. If your sibling’s died as a result of something like heart disease, cancer or diabetes that might have a genetic component, you should make sure to discuss your concerns with your doctor. However, worries about your health shouldn’t overwhelm your life or become all consuming.

If you’re both grieving the death of your brother or sister and trying to support your parents, in-laws and nieces or nephews, it’s easy to neglect your own health. In addition, grief can cause sleep problems, changes in your appetite and energy level as well as social isolation.

Working with a counselor on processing your grief and related anxieties is an important part of self-care for people who have lost a sibling. A processional counselor can help you maintain as healthy of a lifestyle as possible, given the circumstances. This will not only help you feel better, but is also important for maintaining long-term health.

Moving Forward

It is possible to rebuild your life after it’s been shattered by the loss of a brother or sister. Here are some issues many people who have lost a brother or sister encounter as they work on moving forward with their lives:

  • This can manifest itself as regrets about arguments or about the general state of your relationship with your sibling, both immediately before his or her death and over the course of your whole life together. Some people also feel like they should have done more to prevent their sibling’s death;
  • Feeling like the “wrong child” died—that the deceased sibling was their parents’ favorite child;
  • Grief surrounding events and milestones—weddings, the birth of new children that your sibling will never meet, professional accomplishments;
  • Struggles about how to best honor your siblings’ memory for decades to come.

The grief after losing a sibling can be intense and debilitating. The lack of recognition by family and friends can lead people who’ve lost a sibling to suppress their own grief, sometimes to the detriment of their own mental and physical health.

I work with young adults who have lost a sibling in both individual counseling sessions and through support groups.

Individual counseling gives you personalized attention and a private place to work through all of your emotions regarding the loss of your brother or sister. Individual counseling sessions can give you an outlet for thoughts or emotions that you are afraid to voice elsewhere.

Support groups give young adults who have lost a sibling a place to connect with others who “get it.”. Professional moderation ensures that these groups stay on-topic, that everyone’s experience is respected and focus on helping all of the participants understand and work through their own grief.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve, no timeline for being back to “normal.” No two people will experience or grieve the death of a sibling in the same way. Individual counseling and support groups will introduce you to a suite of tools to help you recover from the loss of your sibling as well as help you decide which techniques are best for you and your situation.