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Loss of a Sibling

The grieving process after the loss of a brother or sister ...

While everyone will experience the loss of a loved one at some time in his or her life, and no loss is easy, losing a brother or sister is especially difficult because of the bond formed between siblings. More research and attention is now being placed on the sibling grieving experience.

Siblings are commonly referred to as the “forgotten” grievers. When someone passes, whether from disease, natural causes or accidental death, counselors and family members rush in to help. They are concerned about the children, the surviving wife or husband, the parents, the physical realities of the loss - the house, the funeral, the insurance. But sometimes the siblings are the last to be considered, especially as adults.

Bereaved siblings should be allowed the time to process their grief as normally as possible, by accepting the loss as real, and by developing coping and remembrance strategies for moving forward. Of course, reactions are highly individualized, and contemporary research on grieving indicates that everyone processes grief in his or her own way and time frame.

The nature of the sibling relationship determines the intensity of emotions and ability to move through the normal stages of grief (see article on Stages of Grief). The sibling relationship can often be the longest relationship individuals will have in their lifespan, 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. When the siblings are twins, the bond can be even stronger. Much like a married couple that has been together for 40 years, their lives are sometimes inexplicably intertwined.

How traumatized someone is by the death of his or her brother or sister is determined by a number of other factors as well. Birth order, closeness in age, affinity to the sibling, time spent together during childhood, and time spent together during adulthood all affect the grieving process. Whether or not the parents are alive also affects the deepness of the sibling bond, and therefore intensifies the loss.

Emotional reactions—and subsequently the counseling provided—vary with a person’s age or cognitive development. Adults are better equipped to deal with the loss of a brother or sister because of their life experiences and ability to process thoughts. However, the length of the relationship will add to an adult’s grief. Adults are more likely to be aware of their emotions, recognize the various stages of grieving, and allow the normal grieving process to take place.

Symptoms of grief

Typically, younger individuals lack the cognitive ability to be able to associate their emotions with the death of a brother or sister. Their emotions simply come out in the form of anger, withdrawal, or difficult-to-diagnose physical symptoms. As defined by the Children’s Grief Education Association, young people typically experience the following symptoms of grief:

  • Denial
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Nightmares
  • Sense of presence of the deceased
  • Thoughts about the deceased

If any of these symptoms go on for extended periods of time, if the surviving child appears to be obsessed with the lost sibling, or seems to believe the sibling is still alive, then grief therapy should be sought out. It is important that parents and counselors are honest with the surviving sibling, that the counseling is age-appropriate, and that there is a supportive system of sharing and open communication that allows the child to grieve.

According to Child Grief Education Association author Mary M. Lyles, PhD, children react to the death of a brother or sister differently depending on maturity levels. Children also perceive and understand death differently at different ages (see sidebar). Children will also revisit the loss over time, processing it with new coping skills and maturity they gain as they age.

Proximity in age between siblings is another important consideration in sibling grief. If siblings are close together in age, a death often raises questions of the survivor’s own mortality. It might cause prolonged periods of denial and shock, as the surviving sibling may not have expected the loss.

Intensified guilt is another likely emotion in children concerning a sibling’s death. Children in particular are likely to feel guilty because they don’t understand or comprehend the reasons for death. They might have said or thought something about “wishing they were dead,” and then experience extreme guilt and misunderstanding over the loss.

The study “The Pediatrician and Childhood Bereavement” states that surviving siblings need to be reassured that they did not cause the death. Published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the study also emphasizes that children must understand that they cannot bring back the person who died. Younger children are more likely to struggle through the “bargaining” phase of grieving as they attempt to comprehend what has happened.

In general, children go through the same stages of grief, and have the same range of emotions, as adults. In fact, children’s emotions are often more obvious than an adult’s, as they do not have mature coping strategies or an emotional framework for their grief. Whether the situation involves an adult surviving sibling, an adolescent or a child, grief must be dealt with openly or the pain will never fully go away.

If you or someone you know is interested in making a difference in the lives of those dealing with grief, consider a career in mental health. Mental health counselors are in demand nationwide and work with people from all walks of life.

Most sates require post-secondary education such as a master’s degree to practice as a mental health counselor. An externship or period of supervised training in a clinical setting is also typically required. For more information, contact schools offering degree programs in mental health counseling or related counseling degree programs.

Explaining death to a child

A child’s age affects his or her concept of death and therefore how he or she processes grief. Grief counseling provided to children must be age-appropriate for it to be effective. Understanding how children perceive death at different stages of development is important in understanding how they will process information about death and grieving.

Children should be told about the death of a loved one in an honest and straightforward manner, bearing in mind that child’s ability to process death, and how that affects the child’s reaction and subsequent grieving process.

According to the article “The Pediatrician and Childhood Bereavement” in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Pediatrics, children’s concepts of death change as they age. The AAP summarizes children’s perception of death into four age groups:

  • Zero to age two. Children have no ability to process the concept of death. It is perceived as abandonment or separation. Death causes a disruption in care-taking leading to despair in the child.
  • Ages two to six. Death may be perceived as punishment to them. A child believes that the loved one isn’t really dead, that they can be brought back to life. Death is viewed as a temporary state.
  • Ages six to 11. Children six to 11 years of age begin to understand that death is final and irreversible. At this age, children have the cognitive ability to reason and understand cause and effect; although, their own mortality and the death of a specific loved one is still hard for them to understand.
  • Ages 11 to 18. Children over the age of 11 have the ability for abstract thought. They grieve more like adults, going through periods of disbelief, denial and bargaining. The idea of their own death is still very far off, but they understand that death is unavoidable and universal.
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