Unless you are an only child, you will likely experience losing a sibling at least once in your lifetime. Some of us will grieve multiple times. Yet, when we talk about grieving loved ones there seems to be little discussion about the grieving process of adjusting to life without a sister or brother.
- Why do our sibling relationships seem to be the ones society expects us to soldier through with the least amount of sorrow?
- How is it we simply expect siblings to move on with less emotional pain or mental disruption than assumed with other loved ones?
- What do we miss when the condolences we offer a sibling have less to do with their grief and more to do with others (“I’m so sorry? Please send your parents our deepest sympathies”).
If you’re trying to cope with such a loss now, you know that, for good or for bad, siblings are our companions, competitors, influencers, and confidantes for long stretches of our formative years. And, regardless of whether your sibling relationship was close or combative, there were decades of shared memories, experiences, and loyalties that kept you connected for a lifetime.
To lose all of that can leave a painful hole within us. The natural order of things feels disturbed if your sibling preceded your parents in death. You may have envisioned that your connection would last longer, that it would be a reliable family thread through your past, present, and future.
To grieve honestly, and honor your relationship is the best way to cope. Examining the layered dynamics of losing a sibling recognizes that you may need more support than you realize.
Sibling Grief is Often Neglected and Minimized
When your sister or brother died you probably shared your loss with others. And they likely replied with some version of the following:
“So how are your Mom and Dad?”
“Is your brother’s wife doing alright?”
“How are your sister’s kids faring?”
Fielding these questions repeatedly can create the sense that your own loss is invisible or inconsequential. Or worse, that the actual relationship is inconsequential. There seems to be no space for sharing either as others simply expect you to be a support for your parents and your sibling’s family members. Thus, it’s easy to push grief down or away, neglecting your own need to mourn and honor your sibling’s role in your life.
So, what’s a healthy way to cope when your loss feels minimized?
First, pay attention to what’s going on inside you. Resist the urge to focus solely on your parents’ grief or sibling’s spouse and children. Your loss is real too. Regardless, of what others say or do, your sibling bond was just as precious and deserving of recognition. Give yourself the time to acknowledge it and be affected by its loss.
Then, know that it’s okay to hurt and say so. It’s okay that you feel more than people expect and express a need for more support. It’s healthy to share with someone trustworthy, nonjudgmental and understanding.
Losing a Sibling Means Losing Part of Your Family History
When it comes to your family and personal history, your brother or sister was more than an additional person sharing your parentage. His or her death hits hard, regardless of its timing, nature, or the degree of closeness between you, due to your combined record of the past.
Your years together were uniquely shared. Living alongside each other, you likely experienced a lot of firsts and strong emotions together. The complex push-pull of competition, mutual protectiveness, and solidarity are rarely simple or found in other relationships. The fact is, you are one side of a personal and combined interpretation of your family’s past.
There were moments in time and things about your life only your sibling was privy to. Only your sibling knew the inside jokes, recurring traditions, and adventures of your past together. Your sibling’s death can make your family history seem to fade and feel somewhat lost as his or her version of past successes, squabbles and secrets are silenced. Moreover, your connection to your family of origin may feel shaken or uncomfortable as your sibling’s stories and perspectives are lost.
So, what’s a healthy way to cope when losing your sibling means losing parts of your past?
The people, places, sights, scents, and events that make up your shared childhood and adult years are still important. Perhaps you’ll want to write down some of your favorite memories, highlighting your sibling’s way of relating them. Maybe you’ll wish to visit a few of the places that were special to you periodically to reminisce. Or you might just keep a memento nearby that symbolizes your life together.
Whether your sibling bond developed through profound friendship or significant rivalry, your relationship deserves reflection and commemoration in ways that feel appropriate to you and who you were to each other.
Friend or Foe, Your Sibling Helped Solidify Your Sense of Self
When such a significant person and part of your history passes away, it’s not unusual to feel less heard, seen and understood. Who you are suddenly fits less in the world.
After all, most of us prepare to lose our parents at some point. It is the natural order of things. But most of us think of our siblings as our family companions, even if we don’t get along well. We simply assume that we’ll travel through more of life together. If that doesn’t happen, the sense of lost time and connection may be significant.
Losing a sibling reveals how profoundly your identity was shaped by their presence. Your sibling likely related to you in ways that affected how you saw yourself. Were you an adoring little sister or brother or lost in their shadow? Perhaps you were a protective big brother or sister or frustrated by their constant presence.
Whatever the circumstances, losing your sibling creates a relationship vacuum. Your no longer that person’s sibling. The skills and strengths you offered or leaned on are no longer transferable. You might now be the only living child of your parents. And the sense of aloneness can be profound.
So, what’s a healthy way to cope when losing your sibling means losing parts of your own identity?
Your sibling was a support to you at various points in your life. Part of grieving is accepting the loss of that influence and future. Give yourself time to grow into your new self. Move forward with gratitude for the lessons and parts of yourself your sibling helped develop, acknowledging that new influences and experiences will help shape you going forward.
Be gentle with yourself and try to keep your heart and mind open to those who have strengths and knowledge to offer you. You may find that lessons learned from your sibling are valuable to those who come into your life later.
Losing a sibling is often linked to this anonymous quote:
“When a parent dies, you lose the past. When a child dies, you lose the future. Yet, when a sibling dies, you lose the past and the future.”
That once reliable thread of history, companionship, and future connection are gone. Mourning is appropriate. Commemoration is comforting. Give yourself permission to move through your own grieving process at your own pace.
Finally, reach out to a therapist if you find yourself struggling. You deserve this time. Your sibling deserves to be remembered. If you need help sorting through the pain of sibling loss, contact me. I can help you find your way.