When a sibling dies, the entire world changes immediately for the members of the family who remain. The relationships and roles that each sibling plays to the other and to the family are unique. The number of siblings, the age difference between them, and the gender of each are just a few factors that will affect the bond that you shared and the way that you will grieve the loss.

Some grief professionals refer to siblings as “the forgotten mourners” because so little support is given to them. Yet grieving the loss of a sibling can be very intense. Many compare the impact of the loss of a sibling to that of losing a parent.

While each person grieves each loss in a unique way, there are certain feelings that many who have lost a sibling share. How the loss of a sibling is handled will depend on a variety of circumstances and personal abilities to cope.

Common Feelings When a Sibling is Lost

  1. The feelings of guilt for the survivor are intense. Brothers and sisters usually have a very close relationship, even when physical distance separates them. There is a real sense that siblings protect each other. When one dies the others may ask why they survived. They may also feel that somehow they failed in the task of protecting the sibling. Other emotions that the surviving sibling may feel include abandonment, loss of innocence, displacement from the family and other anxieties about security and the future.
  2. There may also be feelings of guilt for how the relationship has changed over the years. Distance may obviously contribute to a feeling of estrangement. Usually, no matter how good the relationship had been, the survivor often believes that it should have been better.
  3. Sometimes the surviving siblings may feel anger over the redefining roles within the family.
  4. When a brother or sister dies, it is natural for the remaining siblings to sense the fragile nature of their own lives. They may begin to wonder when they will die, and what their death would do to impact the surviving family.
  5. Support for the grieving sibling is often neglected. The attention is often turned to the parents of the child to provide comfort for them. When the individual is older, efforts are given to assist the spouse and children. The sibling is often overlooked, but may be experiencing some of the most intense grief.

Age Differences Affect Grief

Grieving is a unique experience and is dependent on many factors. The depth of the relationship shared by the siblings will alter how intense the grieving process becomes for the surviving sibling.

  • No matter what age the person is when a sibling is lost, the sorrow and sadness are real. The way grief is processed is dependent upon the age of the survivor and often mirrors the developmental stages. The confused four-year-old gives way to the frightened eight-year-old who turns into the teen who is afraid they will never live up to the standard set by the deceased sibling who eventually becomes the adult that senses a loss of the past while forever changing the future.
  • Grief is also affected by the age-difference between the siblings because often the relationship is different. The person who has a ten-year difference in age will most likely remember the sibling as one who was away at college and would come home on the holidays. A two-year age difference probably means that the siblings were rivals and shared many experiences. A four-year difference may have demonstrate the characteristics of hero-worship from the younger and of the protector from the older. The depth of the relationship and the bonds that the sibling shared will affect the depth of the grief.

Helping Children Cope with the Loss of a Sibling

It is common for adults to assume that younger children do not grieve. Recent studies have shown that even infants respond to the loss of a caregiver in a pattern that resembles grief. Toddlers and preschoolers respond to death in ways that most adults do not understand.

Younger children may respond to death with regressive behavior. The toddler may revert back to wetting the bed or soiling themselves. They may desire to breastfeed or use security blankets and pacifiers that had been given up. They may throw temper tantrums, demonstrate aggressive behavior towards other children, or cry and scream.

Elementary aged children may experience the acting out symptoms. Because of their very literal understanding of life, they may ask the same questions over and over. They tend to see death as physically leaving the home. It is common to hear “When is Tommy coming home?” many times.

Children of any age will need to learn coping skills to deal with the death of a sibling. The parents will be the main source of support, but grandparents and teachers can also provide a tremendous amount of comfort and encouragement. Death almost always results in feelings of surprise and shock and sadness. Preschool and elementary aged children will need the most sensitive help. Any discussion with the child should be age appropriate and should be consistent with what other adult caregivers are providing.

Six Tips to Follow to Help a Child Cope with a Sibling Loss

  1. Try to inform the other children of the sibling’s death as soon as possible. It is a good thing if the parents will sit down and comfortably talk about the loss. Children need to know that there is nothing so scary that they cannot discuss it with their parents.
  2. Use simple, straight-forward language as you talk. Answer their specific questions as best you can in age appropriate language. Try to avoid euphemisms like “gone,” “asleep,” or “passed away.”
  3. Relate the concept of death to them in terms they will understand. Younger children can relate to flowers or leaves fading, a dead animal alongside the road, or the death of a family pet.
  4. Help the child see that being alive means breathing, walking, eating and other things and that death means that these things don’t happen anymore. Do not equate death with sleeping because this may lead to sleep disturbances.
  5. Maintain as much structure and normal routines as possible. Children are reassured by these foundational support mechanisms. Returning to normal bedtimes, meal times and other family events is very helpful.
  6. Although there is debate about this subject, many psychologists are advising that if the child is old enough to discuss the loss, they should be allowed to attend the funeral service. Decisions should be made based on the circumstance and maturity of the child.

Coping with the Loss of a Sibling as an Adult

If you have recently lost a brother or sister, you may be wondering if things will ever return to normal. It may seem like every holiday or birthday sends you reeling into a flood of emotions. Here are a handful of things to remember to help you through those difficult days.

  1. Don’t be afraid to talk about your grief with other family members. Your entire family will be grieving this loss in a unique way. Talking about your feelings will help you work through the pain and suffering together. You will sense that the burden is being shared by all equally. You will gain a closer bond with your family members as you walk this difficult path together.
  2. Look beyond your family for support and perspective. If you only spend time grieving with your family, it will be difficult for you to find a proper perspective on your growth through the grief process. Close, trusted friends may also feel sorrow for the loss, but they can help provide you with a voice outside the immediate family. Some people consider talking about the loss with a clergy member or a grief counselor because of their experience helping many who have gone through the grieving process.
  3. Find concrete ways to remember your sibling. Finding ways to honor your brother or sister can be instrumental in keeping the memory alive. Flowers at a tombstone, memorials given to a favorite charity or organization, or an online tribute may help you feel connected to the lost loved one. Others find the crafting of a memory book with pictures and stories of the past important. You may want to keep a cherished gift, or the sibling’s favorite book or memento in a special place.
  4. Forgive yourself. Siblings can be closer than almost any other person, but they can also be greater rivals than most others. Forgive yourself for unkind things said, for ways that you challenged for attention or position, and for not maintaining as close a relationship with the sibling as you wish you had. Let go of things that you wanted to do but simply didn’t have time or inclination. These things are natural and do not diminish the love that you shared.

There is no perfect timetable for processing grief. Healing happens gradually. Some people begin to find a sense of normalcy in a couple of months. Others may take a year or longer to feel stability and progress. Whatever the circumstance, be patient with yourself as you continue to allow the healing process to develop.