How Losing A Sibling Really Affects You
My Psychology class in 2002 gave me an opportunity and an excuse to do something I'd been thinking about anyway. I wrote a paper on a topic that has been a major part of my life since the death of my only sister in 1996 and about as personal to me as one could get.
I wrote "How Losing a Sibling Really Affects You", for many reasons but mostly because I wanted other people to read and understand how we all feel. I want to be the one who tells everyone, "Siblings are an intricate part of our lives. They help make us who we are....Their death affects us in ways you could never imagine. Everyone's grief is different and as unique as each one of us and our relationship with our sibling, and yet having lost a sibling connects us in a way no one who hasn't been there could ever understand."
I chose to use the surveys to bring more than just my own experience into my writing. I never dreamed how many I would get, how many people from all over the world would reach out to me. All of our answers put together like this says a lot, more than it would to know how just one person feels. We are the forgotten grievers, and I think it's sad that there is hardly any support available for sibling survivors. I would like to educate people who don't understand what it is to have this void that we all live with every day, to honor my sister and her life in a way that might someday help another person somewhere out there, and to show others who are grieving that what they're feeling is normal.
Thank you for reading....I wish you all the best, and I hope that you're doing as well as possible. My wish for you today is that you can think of your sibling and remember the best moments you spent together...and smile as you do.
Sarah K. Davis
Not many people realize just how hard it is to lose a sibling. No one who hasn’t experienced it can understand how it changes your life and how it really affects you. This research paper was written by surveying 45 surviving siblings including myself. These grieving siblings are between 13-50 years old with the majority in their 20’s. They are from all over the United States, England, Canada, & Australia and have lost 1-2 Siblings, both Brothers & Sisters, Older & Younger Sibs between 4 mo. – 34 years ago, with the majority being 1-3 years ago. Most were sudden bereavements such as rare diseases, accidents, murder, and suicide. The other six were different kinds of cancer and other long term illnesses where their sibling was sick for a period of time before they died.
The Process of Grief: In most books about dealing with grief and bereavement, there are 5 “stages” of grief. They start with denial, and then lead one at a time into anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Supposedly, once you deal with and get out of one stage, you move into the next one. In this survey, the question was raised about whether or not these surviving siblings believe that grief really coincides with these stages. Only 3 said absolutely yes.
All of the rest disagreed in some way or another. Most agreed that there are stages but that we each go through them differently because each person is unique and no two siblings have the exact same relationship as anyone else. Some go through in a different order, skip a stage, go through one and then regress back to it later. As the surviving sibling grows and changes and has important events happening in their life such as getting into their teen years, graduating high school or college, passing the age their sibling was when they died, having a child of his or her own, getting married, it’s all reprocessed like starting over again in some ways; the stages become interchangeable with each other. Also, there is no set time for each stage to be complete, as most books would have people believe. In grief textbooks, it's almost as if once the grieving person is through with each stage, the grief is suddenly just over...Maybe that's what they call "letting them go". It’s more of a life long process of jumping back and forth between all of the "stages" and every place in between.
Denial: This is how many siblings cope with life after their loss. Denial comes in different ways for every individual. We survivors go from thinking that it’s just a bad dream, to not believing it could possibly be true, to referring to them as being alive, to actively making up fantasies and pretending for long lengths of time that our brother or sister is just going to college, on a vacation, living in another state, at a friend’s house, or in the Marines fighting a war....They’ll be walking in the door at any time. There simply isn't any other alternative. Denial is a way to get through, a way to block out the pain. The mind plays cruel tricks on all of us, making us think we see our sibling in public places...Someone who has their profile, hair, hands, nose. Looking twice just in case it might be even though we know there’s no possible way. Denial seems to lessen as we get more used to living our lives apart from our siblings...and to finally go away after things get back to “normal” (though it can never normal that way again). Usually it takes a lot longer, from a few months up to 2 years, to realize in our hearts that we will never ever see them again, that their life is truly over. And even after a good amount of time has passed, sometimes you'll just suddenly think of something, some tiny little thing and it hits all over again.
Anger: Everyone experiences their anger in different intensity levels and at different times in their grieving period. There is no set time for when it becomes the worst or stops. There were only 2 out of the 46 surveyed who said they did not experience anger. They said they felt mostly overwhelming shock and intense sadness instead. The most common answers about who/what directed their anger were: at God (some stopped believing in God for this reason), anger with the world and life in general, being angry with themselves for not being able to do anything to stop their sibling’s death, their parents, and also at the sibling for dying. The other common answers were specific people like the sibling’s spouse, the driver of the car who caused the accident, the doctors who couldn't save the sibling, etc. who were a part of their sibling’s life and/or cause of death.
The question was asked about when their anger was the most extreme. Immediately following their sibling’s death was the number one answer, but many also agreed that it never really goes away for them or that it goes away for a long period of time and then suddenly comes back. Some were angry about the circumstances that occurred after their sibling died. For instance, flocks of friends and relatives arrive as soon as a person dies; cards, notes, and letters arrive in the mail. Food is delivered at the door, neighbors come to wish the family well and show their sorrow at the loss. With the funeral, great numbers of people arrive to offer comfort and support to the family. Then in the days and weeks after, they all slowly disappear, there is no one there and the immediate family is left to grieve all alone. For many people, their anger came back again after 2 years or when reality sank in and they realized that their sibling really wasn’t coming back (when the shock wore off). Special events such as birthdays, heavenly anniversaries, and holidays are also cause for anger, the best and worst times when we need our siblings here with us. Also the every day things that they should be a part of, shopping for school supplies, family vacations, dinner time, and watching family members grow and change; those are very hard for so many.
Guilt: The guilt that comes hand in hand with losing a sibling is overwhelming. Siblings have a very special relationship. Loving each other, not being able to stand each other, competition, rivalry, growing up together, knowing each other inside and out, teasing, and defending each other are all just a tiny piece of this. As the surviving sibling, we dissect every thing we can remember having said or done and wonder how it could have been better. Those childhood fights and arguments turn into these horrible things that we did, the awful siblings we were. At some point, most realize that the things they were feeling guilty for happen to everyone. Those "bad" things would have been forgotten or laughed about in later years if our sibling hadn’t died. Most guilt is irrational, something that we have to cling to and wonder about. Worrying about how we could have stopped their death, changed the circumstances surrounding it, knowing for sure that we did something wrong or caused it.
There is also survivor guilt, feeling guilty for living when your sibling didn’t get to grow up or finish their life. Eating, dating, going for a movie, having fun with friends, any sort of pleasure brings intense guilt along with it. Thinking that it should have been you, that you didn’t deserve to live if they couldn't. Knowing that the things you’re experiencing should be what your sibling has too, getting married, having children, buying a house. Usually this is immediately following the death when it is totally consuming. It takes a lot of time to go away completely if it ever does.
Regrets: There is a very fine line between guilt and regrets. A lot of the things we feel guilty for are also the things we most regret. Every single sibling surveyed had regrets, at least one. Each surviving sibling has different regrets depending on the circumstances and their relationship with their sibling. The most common answers were not being able to say goodbye, taking them for granted and assuming they’d always be here, not saying how much they loved their brother/sister, not spending more time with them, fighting too much, not being able to do something to prevent the death, not being there when they died, and not appreciating the time they had together while they had it.
For those of us who lost our younger sibling, many of us regret how we reacted about our “baby” brother or sister following us around and copying us, "our little shadows". We knew that they did it because they loved us, but we didn’t want them around and couldn’t understand the reasons for that at the time. At the same time, "baby" brothers and sisters feel guilty for being the little shadow...For doing the following, bothering their older sibling, being a pest on purpose...For all the tattling and trying to get the big brother or sister in trouble. Younger surviving siblings have a lot of problems feeling like they need to step into their siblings footsteps, follow with what their sibling was doing at the time of their death. They take the same courses in school, not because it makes them happy, but to be closer to their sibling. They feel bad when they pass the grade in school that their sibling didn't make it through...younger surviving siblings also have high expectations to live up to with their parents but especially to themselves. Their older sibling suddenly becomes a standard to live up to, the things they accomplished seem bigger and brighter than anything the survivor can manage to do.
Support: Most friends are supportive right after a sibling’s death. For the lucky siblings who were left behind, their friends stayed that way. Many were not so lucky. No one knows what to say after a death, but for a sibling who was left here to deal with life without their other half, childhood playmate, and best friend, this is even worse. People just don’t understand that losing a sibling is a lifetime journey, something that will never stop. They expect you to just be suddenly over it and fine within a few months or even weeks. At this time, the surviving sibling truly finds out what kind of friends they have. Most people just cannot comprehend that by listening to your feelings, letting you cry, and allowing you to reminisce and talk about the wonderful memories and times of the past without being ignored or having the subject changed is what we need. So many people back away and can’t handle the emotion or just don’t know how to act or what to say, they're so scared of bringing on tears or making things worse. They don’t understand the depression, loneliness, and guilt that has some of us backing away from friends and having fun. These people and many others are just the “fair weather” friends, there when it’s sunny and bright, out of sight when the storm clouds roll in, and it becomes gloomy. Most of the time the ones who are very supportive stay that way, some who aren’t realize what they need to do and become better or they’re lost forever. Friends become strangers and strangers become friends. It’s a difficult time, not only is your sibling now gone but many of your closest friends are too. Losing a sibling while you're young and still in school is especially trying. Teenagers aren't the most understanding anyway...And most young people definately can't cope with our loss. So many who lose siblings during high school end up feeling totally alone, emotionally older than everyone else, completely different and just can't seem to fit in no matter what. This makes the depression and loneliness become even worse.
The members of our extended family are grieving too. Not all of them know how to show it or talk about it and many of them don’t want to feel the pain that comes with remembering that person who used to join in at holiday get-togethers. They also don’t want to see the surviving family members hurting or in pain so they take the wrong route many times and just try to pretend that it didn’t happen, that everything is fine. They talk among themselves but don’t share their feelings with the immediate family in fear that they’ll bring up bad memories. What they don’t usually realize is that we are hurting anyway. We lost our buddy, our pal, that person that kept us sane during the long conversations with Grandma and our cousins running wild all over. Our parents are grieving even more than us…and when our aunts and uncles and cousins try not to mention our loved ones name, that only hurts us even more. We need our sibling to be included in the festivities, to know that someone else remembers them and still feels their loss. We need to know they care and understand and that they miss them too, we need someone who also loved our sibling to talk to. We may cry, but that’s ok, it happens anyway. It’s better to do it with someone else who cares also than all alone. Too many family members wait for someone else to bring it up so that they don’t cause any pain or turmoil. What grieving parents and siblings need is that extra touch, the reassurance that they’re not alone, that they really are there for us without having to ask for help.
Everyone needs to talk about their innermost feelings involving their grief. Losing a child is definitely the "worst loss", but losing a sibling has a special grief all it’s own. Not only does the survivor lose their sibling and have to grow up faster than anyone ever should, but they lose their parents in a way also because they are so overwhelmed with grief themselves. Each sibling surveyed has a special place where they get the most support. The most common answer was other surviving siblings, people who had been through the same thing and could truly understand, mostly online. This is like heart to heart counseling, talking to someone who has had the same tragic loss and some of the same experiences. Parents, other close friends, husbands/boyfriends, and God were also numerous answers.
Professional Help: Many surviving siblings get help from professional therapy. Twenty-one of these siblings have had some sort of therapy, either group sessions, individual, or family counseling. Each of these has seen 1-4 therapists each. It’s hard for so many to find someone that they feel they can relate to and are comfortable with. They all went to therapy from a month to 2 ˝ years, and some go just when they need someone to talk to. Twelve said they felt like they were helped, that the therapist helped them see that what they were feeling was normal and let them open up about their feelings. A few others said they felt that they were helped a little bit or sometimes, and the rest said no, not at all.
Depression: Twenty-six, or just over ˝ of the siblings, say they have suffered from depression. But most of the ones remaining suffer from varying degrees of depression depending on the day, what’s happening in their lives, the time of year, and on how you define depression. Seventeen of these grieving siblings have been on anti-depressants, which doesn’t even include the ones on other medications for anxiety, panic attacks, and problems with sleeping. Celexa, Paxil, Zoloft, Wellbutrin, and Valium are the most common. The period of time that they’ve been taking them varies from 2 months to 5 years.
Suicide: Twenty-nine of the siblings surveyed have thought about suicide as a way to escape the pain. Most of them said they’d never actually do it, a few because of the pain it would inflict on parents and family members who are already hurting and some because thinking of suicide is like a fantasy that lets them dream about being close to their sibling again, not something that they would realistically do. Eight of them have actually tried to commit suicide at least once.
When Death Strikes: After losing a brother or sister, death becomes more of a reality and an everyday part of life. The surviving sibling then realizes that if it could strike once, it could again and begins to worry about losing other siblings or family members. This goes between a couple of extremes - where it becomes a conscious fear, very scary when it overpowers everything else, and it’s worried over and thought about all the time. At the other end of the spectrum is the few who said that they didn’t worry about it because they knew that if they did lose someone, they would be in Heaven, happy and together again with their sibling. Most are somewhere in the middle and worry sometimes, wonder who will be next in their family to go, or just worry if they would be able to handle it if anything else happened. They get more attached to their immediate family, start telling them they love them more often, and appreciate them more.
How Others React: There are probably hundreds of different things that people say when they find out that someone has lost a sibling. Some of them are wonderful and comforting and others just make us want to scream. In the survey, I asked them each to give the best and worst thing for people to say when they find out. The answers for the best things to say or do include: Just be there, listen, let them talk and cry, share memories, realizing that they cannot “fix” things, do something small for them such as the dishes or cooking a meal, the question "Would you like to talk about your sibling?" Be honest with whatever is said, just a plain "I’m Sorry" will do if you can’t think of what else to say. The 2 most important things that almost everyone mentioned not to say is that they understand when they haven’t been in the same situation or that it’s time to move on and get over it. Those are by far the worst and coming in second is ignoring our sibling and our loss by changing the subject, falling silent, or walking away. They existed; they were a part of our lives and always will be.
The others that people say that just make us feel worse and more upset include these: offering advice on how to deal with it and the question, "How are your parents?" That takes away from our grief like it is nothing, we hurt too. Don’t complain about your own problems with your siblings, we lost ours, will never see them on this Earth again, and don’t want to hear it. Don’t say that time will heal, you’ve never been there and have no clue or you wouldn’t say it and even if time does heal, we’re in the present so that doesn’t do us much good, and we're more than likely not ready to hear that anyway. Don’t ask, “How are you?” or “how are you dealing with this?” unless you really want to know the truth. And last of all don’t tell us that it was meant to be, that God wanted them with Him, or that they’re in a better place now. We may know all of those things but it doesn’t help, it doesn’t stop the pain, it doesn't change anything, and we'll more than likely very angry.
Signs From Our Siblings: The idea that those of us left behind can receive signs from our siblings that they’re out there and watching over us brings so much comfort to many of us. Thirty-five of these surviving siblings definitely believe that this is true. Four believe it’s possible but are not sure, 2 think that God can give signs or allow our siblings contact with us, and the other 5 either have extreme doubt or don’t believe. Twenty-nine of the siblings surveyed believe that they have received signs and a few others say that they either haven’t but believe one day they might or that they have an experience where they’re not sure if it was their sibling.
What do you wish everyone could know about losing a sibling? Because no one who hasn’t been there understands how it really affects a person to lose a sibling, this question was asked. The answers were many different things and included are many of them; it was just too important a question to leave much of anything out. You can never know how much your sibling means to you until they’re gone. You cannot possibly realize how much influence your sibling has on your day-to-day life or how many small things you love about your sibling until they are no longer in your life. You lose your part of your past and your future as it “should have been” with your sibling, and there’s a hole there, an emptiness that will never again be filled. It wasn’t “just” a brother or sister, they were a part of us, that one person who has known us from birth until death, and we miss them and grieve for them every day and always will. Siblings are the forgotten griever, but our pain is very real and intense. It doesn’t just happen to that other person, the neighbor or a stranger on the news, it can happen to anyone and does. The pain is infinitely worse than any imaginable, and the pain never goes away. Your life is forever changed, the way you see everything in the world is utterly and completely altered, nothing is unaffected. And even though we know that certain things such as looking through pictures, listening to songs, or watching old home videos are going to upset us, we’re going to do it anyway because they bring comfort along with the tears. Over all, appreciate and treasure your sibling, never take them for granted, live each day like it could be yours or their last, it very well could be.
© 2004 - Sarah Davis
Visitors Since May 11th, 2005
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