Siblings and Loss

Sibling children can be the ‘forgotten mourners’. Parents who lose a child often say what a huge struggle it is to be loyal to the memory of the deceased child while caring for the needs of the living child(ren). Parents can be so consumed by grief that they do not recognise the sibling loss in the family. However, it is possible to parent well and grieve at the same time.

Siblings are special

They have a unique relationship:

Sibling relationships are complex, as is sibling loss. We don’t lose just a sibling’s presence when they die, but also the role they played in our lives: we witness more life events and life changes with our siblings than with anyone else. Siblings teach us how to function in society and communicate with others. These relationships may have had a mixture of anger, jealousy, fierce closeness and love. With siblings, it’s possible to be friends and enemies at the same time! Siblings compete for parental attention and love while wanting to be themselves as individuals. The roles siblings hold in our lives (such as the listener, the life and soul of the party, the confident one, or the trouble maker) hold unique meanings in our grief.

Sibling grief is not recognised:

The grief of a sibling may not be recognised because they see their parents in such pain that they shield their feelings and grieve alone. Family and community may not don’t give the same recognition to the grief of siblings as to the parents, which can feel isolating.

Family beliefs can be silencing:

In order to cope with loss, a parent may decide to avoid speaking about the child. This can leave everyone else in the family tied in an inexpressible silence and grief. Siblings can find themselves living in the shadow of the deceased, and feel isolated and invisible in their grief. This can have long term implications if not addressed.

Grief lasts a lifetime:

The loss of a sibling in childhood is carried right through the lifespan of the bereaved. Their absence can be very present at the milestone events of life, such as significant birthdays,
weddings, births etc. As the bereaved child grows older they may experience grief for the ‘might have beens’ of life.

Loss of confidence:

Children who lose a sibling may suffer from a loss of confidence. They may have had to separate from their parents for long periods of time if their deceased sibling had been ill and hospitalised. Sometimes siblings can feel that they are not good enough when they see the parents’ attention focused on the deceased child. If the sibling was their ally or confidante in life, the bereaved sibling may lack confidence to face life’s struggles.

It can affect their identity:

The loss of a brother or sister changes the position of a sibling in the family, which can mean a change in role in the family. Sometimes the eldest takes on new responsibilities – often for younger siblings – while their parents grieve. If the death has been traumatic, surviving siblings may feel the need to ‘parent their parents’ as a way of protecting them. A middle child may be the eldest surviving child, or a child may suddenly become an only child. Those left as only children may feel responsible for their grieving parents, especially if they are struggling with their grief. A twin who experiences twin loss can have a unique experience, even by comparison with other siblings in the same family.

How you can support a bereaved sibling

  • Reassure them that they are loved and wanted.
  • Siblings may deny their grief at school as it is easier to fit in that way. Teachers must monitor bereaved siblings to make sure that they are not losing concentration or changing behaviour.
  • Watch out for physical symptoms which may mask unexpressed grief.
  • Understand the unique meaning the loss of a sibling creates for the bereaved sibling.
  • Bereaved siblings need acknowledgement of the changes in identity that occur with change of role and family position.
  • Give them time and space to express their feelings.
  • Open communication about the deceased sibling allows for healthy family mourning.