Losing a Sibling
The death of a sibling is the most neglected loss in adult life. Loss of a sibling means loss of someone who knew your formative past. Siblings are often our emotionally closest relatives. For that reason, “Survivors Guilt” and guilt over unresolved issues like rivalry with the sibling might linger for a long time.
When adults lose a sibling, they often feel abandoned by society. Sympathy is extended to parents, or to the sibling’s spouse and children, but brothers and sisters are supposed to “get over it” quickly so they can comfort others or “replace” the lost sibling. This is one reason why adult sibling loss falls into the category of “disenfranchised grief.” When society fails to validate the grief and sadness of siblings, they do not receive the support necessary to heal. There is a tendency for the grieving sibling to then go into hiding with their feelings.
When someone has been a part of your life since birth, they are part of the energy field or background from which you live your life, and as such they are essential. They make up part of the unbroken wholeness that defines who you are. When the first child is born, s/he develops certain characteristics and talents. The children born later are likely to choose different characteristics and excel in different disciplines in order to be distinguishable. If the first child wants to become a great athlete, the next sibling might chose to excel in academics. The siblings support each other through their differences. In doing so, siblings actually loan each other their strengths and divide their “territories”. When one of the siblings dies, that strength is lost, and the survivor’s identity dies with it. You’re no longer the “older sister” or the “goofy one”. It takes time to learn how to live your life again. You have to grow within yourself the parts once carried by your sister or brother. You don’t “get over” this. You change, grow and become a new person.
Not only have you lost the actual person and your relationship with them, but you have lost the part they would have played in your future. You go on to marry, have children, succeed or fail. Each event underlines the terrible realization that your sister or brother is not there to share it. Forever after, all events, no matter how wonderful, have a bittersweet flavor. So-called anniversary reactions can plague the surviving sibling on birthdays or holidays and other special occasions.
What prevents many bereaved siblings from processing their own grief is their desire to protect someone—perhaps their parents, spouse or children. The focus on being there for someone else forces them to put their own grief process on hold. One of the most commonly noted responses to sibling loss is that surviving siblings learn to support the grief of others. They become “compulsive caregivers”: They have been there—they know what it is like—so they can listen to others who are grieving.
This can be carried too far. Compulsive caregivers live on the periphery of their own existence and strength, focusing so much energy outside themselves that they become empty, over-stressed and sometimes clinically depressed. They might appear harsh, speaking in short, quick sentences while denying their own underlying pain. The un-felt feelings then become a heavy burden that prevents the sufferer from becoming his or her best self.
To help resolve this compulsive caregiving, it is helpful to confront our own sadness and pain, own it and feel it as deeply as we need to. John Gray says, “What you feel, you can heal.” This is the best route to growing through grief. You may need to talk about every detail of the death and express the associated feelings over and over until you wear out the pain.
A common worry after the loss of a sibling is “Am I next?” When adult siblings die, it is natural to question your own mortality and wonder how many years you may have left on this planet. Our siblings are our peers. Experiencing them die comes close to experience our own death. Society may not recognize the intensity of sibling loss, but bereaved siblings know that the loss has a real, sometimes devastating impact on them. You yourself may have to educate the people around you and ask for their much-needed support. Assert yourself and ask for what you need. It does get easier.