Dr. Eileen Callahan, Ph.D.: Sibling Loss

Dealing With Sibling Loss

Adapted from Rocky Roads: The Journeys of Families Through Suicide Grief by Michelle Linn-Gust, Ph.D.

The sibling relationship is complex, no matter where in the lifespan we are. In our childhoods, we typically spend more time with our siblings than anyone else; we teach each other how to communicate and function in the world; and we share more DNA and culture with them than anyone else. This does not mean it is an easy relationship, though. We argue with our siblings. Sometimes we physically fight them. We can be so much alike that we want to hurt each other, or we are jealous of each other. And when one dies, we react with a sense of heightened mortality because someone that close to us in age is not supposed to die young or leave us.

But it also is a relationship we take for granted.

Some of us who have lost a sibling to suicide never had the chance to grow up with them. We will spend the bulk of our lives carrying this loss with us. There are siblings who never knew each other because the older one died and then the younger one was a product of the parents’ wanting to create another child. That sibling grows up in the shadow of someone he or she never met. These siblings know what happened to the sibling they have “replaced” and they wonder if they also will die by suicide at that age, or at any other time.

People often tell siblings to be strong for their parents. They do not mean to say this; they want to say something and simply do not know what else to say. They want to ease the pain in some way. What they do not realize is that the sibling might then wonder what his or her own grief is worth if he must put it aside for the parents. This question might set the sibling up for complicated grief.

Siblings are called the “forgotten mourners” or “double orphans” after they lose a sibling to suicide because not only have they lost a sibling, a playmate, someone with whom they shared a lot of memories, and someone who knew a lot about them, but they also have lost their parents for some time as the parents struggle to grasp the idea that they have lost one of their children. They also might have lost an ally to partner up against mom and dad or some other siblings. Perhaps the sibling who died was the one who protected the surviving sibling. Or the one who died was the one the surviving sibling protected. In either case, she surviving sibling might feel guilty for not keeping the brother or sister alive.

However, the siblings also might be relieved that the sibling died. It could have been that the family revolved around that sibling’s mental illness. The family might not have had much structure because the parents were forced to constantly cope with unexpected episodes, outbursts, and/or brushes with the law. The surviving siblings have grown up in a home much like that with an alcoholic parent where what they think is normal probably is not for the majority of other families they know.

Even if they are children, siblings will feel the need to protect their parents. They see their parents hurting, possibly crying, and they do not want to see them hurt anymore. They realize that this hurt has changed the family. They choose not to tell their parents when bad things happen.           

For many, the suicide will define their lives and choice of career. At school, if they were the younger sibling, they might feel stereotyped as “so and so’s sibling.” While this might have happened if the sibling were alive as well, now it has a different meaning since the sibling has died by suicide.

The sibling loss experience often shapes the romantic relationships these siblings will have. Some siblings will choose not to have children because they fear the experience of their parents. Or perhaps they feel as though they failed at keeping their sibling here on earth and do not believe they should have a child.

There are several types of sibling relationships, as I wrote about in my book for siblings after suicide (Do They Have Bad Days in Heaven? Surviving the Suicide Loss of a Sibling, 2001). Even less than ten years after Denise’s death, I saw how distinct the relationships were. One was what I call the parent-sibling relationship. That is where the sibling who dies is much younger than the surviving sibling.

Then there is the role model relationship where the sibling who dies is much younger than the sibling who survives. In that situation, the sibling who survives usually looked up to the older sibling as a role model even though there might have been parts of that sibling’s life either that the surviving sibling never saw or that were hidden from him or her. When the older sibling dies, the sibling left behind is bereft of a role model. And that sibling might fear that he or she will die at the same age as the older sibling.

The friend-sibling relationship is the one I felt I shared with my sister Denise. We were less than four years apart, we shared a room for ten years, and growing up we did everything together. I see this relationship quite a bit on my web site in the guestbook, particularly for male-female sibling relationships. There are many females who are particularly saddened by their brothers’ deaths because those brothers were integral to their world, their best friends. The loss leaves a huge void in their lives.

Finally, siblings who simply did not feel close to the one who died have a distant-sibling relationship. For several reasons, the surviving sibling may not appear to be grieving for the sibling who died. Perhaps the age distance between the two kept them from having much of a relationship (because the older sibling left home while the younger one was growing up) or because life in the family was very different (for financial or emotional reasons) when each one was growing up. Or it might be because the family unit as a whole was distant emotionally. This surviving sibling might not feel the need to grieve deeply for the deceased sibling. Instead the sibling might grieve for the relationship he or she realizes never existed.

The loss experience will be unique for each sibling in the family. While the siblings may share the same genes, they most likely will have been raised at different stages of the family’s life, and the environment may have been different for each of them. Sometimes the siblings who survive a suicide may wonder how they are different from the sibling who died by suicide; the environment and experiences that each had will partly explain the difference.

Sometimes a sibling loses someone he or she detested (like a step sibling) because the family changed with a parent remarried. The surviving sibling in this case may feel guilty for such a reaction.

Twins have a unique relationship—about as close as two people can get without being the same person. But that does not mean they want to share everything. These two people, especially those who look alike, may have struggled in their lives to be separate, even to the point of alienating one another. In this case when one twin dies, the other realizes he or she may have missed out on something. If twins are very close, they can be each other’s best friend because they can share everything. When one of such a pair dies, the survivor can feel a hole as well as a sense of survivor guilt, wondering why the other twin died and not him or her.

Half siblings do not always grow up together or know each other. They share one parent, but that doesn’t mean they share the same lives. The parent they share might have had very different relationships with each of them, especially if there is a large age difference. But some half siblings are brought up together and are close in age. When one half sibling dies by suicide, the reaction to the suicide might depend on how much contact they had. If they were not very close (in several different ways), the surviving sibling might feel disconnected from the suicide, especially if he or she did not know the half sibling very well (or at all).

Step siblings do not always live together or they might be raised together, the same as half siblings. They, too, might feel disconnected from the sibling who died and/or the whole event since they are not biologically related and/or have little contact. They also might never have met the step sibling who died. Even though there will be a disconnect, the family dynamic will be affected by the suicide because the stepparent, the biological parent of the deceased, will be grieving.

In some families, there are people we call siblings who are not our parents’ children. There are cultures that call cousins siblings. Or for some people, it might be best friends, people with whom they have been raised. For people who do not have any siblings (or do not get along with the siblings they do have), a best friend is someone they will say is “like a sister” or “is like a brother.” While these relationships do not share the same biological connection as two siblings who are the product of the same two parents, they are relationships that need acknowledgment and should be respected when a person is grieving. And the bereaved person should not be afraid to say that he or she lost a brother or sister, because the relationship is unique. Returning to the beginning of this section, family is who we define it to be.

While usually included in extended family, siblings-in-law also should be included in this relationship category. For some surviving siblings, the in-law they lose could have been the only brother or sister they had. Suddenly, they too are siblingless and saddened that they have lost the brother or sister they had always wished for but did not get until they were adults.

This site cannot be used to initiate emergency contact. We cannot respond on-line to crisis situations. If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 (TALK)

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