Monday, May 25, 2015

Sibling Loss: When Grief Goes Unacknowledged

[Reviewed and updated May 26, 2024]

To the outside world we all grow old. But not to brothers and sisters. We know each other as we always were. We know each other’s hearts. We share private family jokes. We remember family feuds and secrets, family griefs and joys. We live outside the touch of time.  ~ Clara Ortega

A reader writes: My older brother and only sibling passed away suddenly at the age of 30. This is selfish, but what I hated most during the funeral and days to follow were people telling me to:
  • Take care of my parents.
  • Be there for my parents.
  • Watch out for my parents.
It was weird; it was like my grief did not/does not exist. I hate the fact that sibling grief is something that is usually not acknowledged. I mean you can usually find more information on parents losing children or children losing parents or even when you lose a pet -- but hardly any information on the feelings of siblings losing siblings.

My response: I want to thank you for having the courage to share your thoughts about what you hated most during the funeral and in the days following the death of your beloved brother. I also want to assure you that your reaction is not "selfish" at all. Your reaction is normal. When we are reeling from the loss of a loved one, we are especially raw and vulnerable to the comments of others, most especially when those comments seem so hurtful and insensitive. Dealing with the insensitivity of others can be one of the more difficult and troubling aspects of grief, and I suspect that nearly everyone who has suffered a loss can recall an incident when we felt just as discounted and disenfranchised as you must have felt when these comments hit your ears. Had I been in your shoes, I would have wanted to scream, "What about me? What about my grief? How can I take care of my parents when right now I can't even take care of myself? And if I couldn't save my own brother from death, how could I possibly save my parents? For that matter, how can I save myself from dying too soon?"

While some folks really are thoughtless and don't think before they speak, it is also true that many well-meaning individuals have yet to experience a significant loss, so they really don't know what grief feels like, or how to respond, or what to say. They aren't deliberately trying to hurt us. When we encounter such people in the future, we can choose to bear with them, we can enlighten them about what we know of grief, or we can look to others who are more understanding to find the empathy and support we need -- such as the fellow mourners we would find in a grief support group (whether that is "in person" or online).

I truly believe that online grief discussion groups offer each of us a rich opportunity to share and to learn from one another what really helps and what hurts, so that through our own grief we can educate others who have yet to walk on this path -- and in the process, we can grow more compassionate toward one another. After all, none of us is immune from loss, and sooner or later we're all going to find ourselves on this difficult journey called grief, whether we want to be here or not. As my friend and colleague Deirdre Felton has written, "Sorrow is a matter of taking turns. This year it's yours. Next year it may be you setting the table for someone else who feels they cannot cope."

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross said it this way: "If you truly want to grow as a person and learn, you should realize that the universe has enrolled you in the graduate program of life, called loss."

If loss is the "graduate program of life" and we are all enrolled, may we share with one another what we have learned along the way, and be as much teachers as we are students.

Unfortunately, I don't think there is any way that we can immunize ourselves against the insensitivity we may encounter from other people when we are in mourning. It may help to know that eventually the rawness and vulnerability you're feeling right now will ease, and the day will come when the thoughtless, trivializing comments you may hear from others will not hurt as much. In the meantime, know that your deep sense of loss is a natural response to the death of your beloved brother. Your grief is a legitimate manifestation of your attachment and your love, and you don't have to explain that to anyone.

Finally, I want to acknowledge your observation that sibling loss differs in some important ways from other kinds of loss. As stated in the introduction to the online Loss of a Sibling forum that I moderate:

Special issues arise when our brother or sister dies, no matter how old we are at the time. We may feel as if part of our own identity is lost. Whatever part our sibling would have played in our future is lost as well, casting a bittersweet shadow over everything that happens to us regardless of how wonderful it may be. Because our sibling is our peer, we're suddenly acutely aware of our own mortality, and we may be wondering how many years of living we have left. We may blame ourselves for our sibling's death, or even feel guilty for being the surviving child. We may suddenly feel totally alone in our responsibilities toward our parents as they grow older - or feel somehow obligated to set aside our own grief for our parents' sake, as well as for the other family members our sibling has left behind . . .

Please know that there are many wonderful, caring resources on the Internet aimed specifically at those whose siblings have died. See especially the sites listed on the Death of a Sibling or Twin page of my Grief Healing Web site, as well as the Related Articles and Resources I've listed at the base of this post. Know also that I am sending you my heartfelt condolences at this sad and difficult time. 

Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below.
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