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Sibling bereavement in childhood

Parental grief

  • Your parent’s own grief may have meant they were unable to support you with your own grief. You may not have had any support from either family or professionals.
  • Your parent/s may not have talked to you about your brother or sister when you wanted to know more about their illness, their death, or to share memories.

Guilt

  • You may have misunderstood the cause of death and felt guilty that you were in some way responsible for it.
  • You may have felt guilty about things that you did or didn’t do with your brother or sister.
  • You may not have had an opportunity to say goodbye in the way you would have liked.

Family life not the same again

  • You may feel that you also lost the family life you knew before your brother or sister’s death. Some families become very dysfunctional after a child’s death.
  • The relationship you had with your parents may have changed. For siblings of terminally ill children, this may have happened some time before the child’s death.

Complicated grief

  • Some siblings find the original bereavement of their brother or sister is intensified or relived following the death of another relative, friend or pet, and that their reaction to a subsequent death is, in their view, out of proportion to the loss. This is a frequent experience for siblings who have not had the opportunity to grieve openly for their brother or sister.
  • Childhood sibling loss can affect how adult siblings raise their own children, for example experiencing fear when their own child reaches the age their brother or sister was when he or she died.

Sibling bereavement in adulthood

Disenfranchised grief

Grief is a response to loss. It is different for everyone and each bereavement you experience will feel very different. You may find yourself coping differently this time around to how you did with a previous loss.

Adult siblings often experience disenfranchised grief i.e. the way you grieve is not considered socially acceptable or the grief isn’t considered worth it. Loss of a disabled brother or sister sometimes means that their death and its impact are not fully acknowledged – some deaths seem to be less valued than others in society.  People may say things like: ‘Well you knew they were ill..’ ‘Her health has always been bad…’ ‘He wasn’t expected to have a full life expectancy…’ ‘It’s for the best, you won’t have to be his carer now’.

A continuation of earlier grief

Siblings who have grown up with a disabled brother or sister may experience grief at different stages of their life. For example, grief for the brother or sister they did not have, or grief for a brother or sister they might lose one day. You may have experienced the death of another family member recently too.

Other family members grieving

At a time when you need the support of parents or other family members, you may find that they aren’t able to be there for you because they are grieving too.  You may feel the loss of this support very strongly. You may feel guilty because the grief of others seems more justified or that your grief is trumped by the grief of others.

You may be supporting your parent(s) with their grief and not had the space to grieve. You may feel you have to help your parent find a new purpose in life, if all of their energy and purpose was around looking after your brother or sister. You may be very concerned about how they will cope and if he or she will be motivated to look after themselves properly.

Adult siblings are often used to putting their needs second place to another person and you may find it difficult to acknowledge your own grief and your need for support with this.

Loss of role and identity

You may have been one of the main caregivers for your brother or sister and may feel a loss for the caring role you undertook.

Many adult siblings’ identity is closely connected to that of their disabled brothers or sisters and you may be asking ‘Who am I without them or without this part of my life?’ You may have often been referred to as someone’s sister or brother since childhood. The work you do or the social networks you have may have been influenced by your identity as a sibling.

You may also have unfulfilled expectations. For example, your parent may now want to get on with their own life at a time when you had hoped that they would be able to spend more time with you.

Feelings

Intense feelings

At different times you may experience acutely intense feelings of grief – these may be happening a lot or may be triggered off by something you see, hear, smell, etc. or may happen when you have a family gathering or around a specific date or occasion. Some people struggle to cope with upsetting intrusive thoughts that they cannot get out of their head, especially at night.

Anger

You may feel very angry that services or treatments were not available for your brother or sister, or that he or she was treated with less dignity than others in hospital or a care home. There may have been neglect or negligence in your brother or sister’s care leading to their untimely death and you want to seek justice on their behalf.

Guilt

You may feel guilty about things like – how much time you have spent with your brother or sister; resentment about care tasks; relief that you will not have to care in the future; having survived…

Loneliness

You may be the only sibling left in the family and begin to question your own mortality. As well as missing the time you spent with our brother or sister, there may be no one else in your family now with a shared history of your childhood and all the unique things that your family did.

Your position in the family may have changed – perhaps you have become the eldest or the youngest sibling. It is often difficult to find the right words to the question ‘How many brothers or sisters do you have?’

Coping strategies

Remind yourself that you are resilient. No matter how difficult this is or has been, you are here today and you have been leading your life since the loss, and that you will find the strength and resources to be able to continue to do that.

Feel your pain and express your grief

It’s important to allow yourself to experience the pain of losing your brother or sister. As a sibling you might feel that you should just ‘get over it’. But unfelt feelings don’t disappear – they will only come up again at other times. We need to experience the powerful and painful feelings, in order to find a way of living with the loss.

Some siblings express their grief by talking about it. Finding a listening ear from a friend or family member to talk about your feelings of sadness is a good way of processing your grief.  It is important to share how you feel.  You may feel the need to talk about some aspects of your grief over and over.  This is normal.  It is also important if you can to have a good cry either by yourself or with others.  It is an important part of the grieving process.

Some siblings find talking about their loss too difficult or that it doesn’t help them and it may be useful to find other outlets for your grief.  You might need to shout, scream or cry. Keeping a diary for example, might help you process your feelings but is also a good way of seeing how things are going for you over time.  You might express your grief through music, art, or perhaps putting together a memory box to remember your brother or sister.  Remember your grief is unique to you. You may behave in ways that you don’t recognise, but difficult experiences call for different methods of dealing with them.  Focus on what you need as much as you can.

Keep healthy

Looking after your physical health is a good way of keeping you mentally healthy. Take regular exercise and make sure you eat and sleep as well as you can. Exercise is a good way of releasing endorphins, which can help improve your mood. Walking, running, yoga, swimming and gardening are things to try and you may have other activities that work for you. Remember that relying on drugs and alcohol will only give you temporary relief and can lead to future dependence.

Be kind to yourself

It’s OK to take a break to do something nice for yourself – grieving can be hard work.  Remember it is perfectly OK to laugh and enjoy yourself even though you are bereaved.  Life does go on and grief is best described as a rollercoaster – there will be ups and downs.

And it’s important to keep being kind to yourself too. Try not get bogged down in regrets about what you might have done differently in your relationship with your brother or sister, or what you did or didn’t say.  If you can let go of these regrets it will help you to focus on some of the good memories and the positive things.  Some grief is complicated because of negative relationships or the manner in which your brother or sister has died – you may need extra support to process these feelings.

Give yourself plenty of time. There is no set time or pattern for grief and it varies for all people. Be patient and take the time you need, without feeling pressure. Also, it is best not to make big decisions soon after brother or sister has died. Give yourself the time and space you need before returning to these.

Maintain a bond with your brother or sister

Although your brother or sister has died, this doesn’t end your relationship with them. If you were used to regular contact with your brother or sister (for example, telling them your news) then perhaps continue to do this by emailing or writing this down. Many people continue to have conversations with the person who has died. Some have a sense of their presence or experience them in dreams.

Find meaning in the loss

  • Some siblings may need to find out more details about how their brother or sister died. This will be a particular challenge if your brother or sister’s death was unexpected or preventable.
  • Some siblings find it helpful to look for meaning in the loss. This could be by recognising how your relationship has shaped you and the strengths you have developed as a sibling.
  • It can help to re-imagine the future. Allow yourself to think about ways in which parts of your future may be positive for you. It will be a very different future but with aspects that are now possible for you that were not previously possible.
  • Spend just a few minutes each day to notice three things that you are grateful for in your life at present. These may be small everyday experiences like ‘enjoying a nice cup of coffee’ to ‘feeling glad that I have a close friend who cares for me’. For the small amount of time invested, this activity is surprisingly effective at improving wellbeing.

Seek extra help

If you feel you might be developing anxiety or depression in addition to the grieving process, it’s important to talk to your GP about this. Some people can get very ‘stuck’ in certain feelings – such as the feeling that grief will always be this painful and that there will never, be anything, good about life again. Talking therapy can help you explore these feelings and move through them.

Some people find peer support helpful. Being with people who understand what it’s like is can be both supportive and empowering. Hearing about the coping strategies used by others can give you the permission or motivation to try similar things.

Bereavement support

Books on sibling bereavement

White, P,G.(2008)
Sibling Grief: Healing after the Death of a Sister or Brother
iUniverse

Farrant, A (1998)
Sibling Bereavement: Helping children cope with loss
Cassell
(Adult siblings share their experiences of sibling loss in childhood)