When a sibling dies

Losing someone you love is never easy. Because each person in our lives plays a unique role, each death leads to grief. And while the loss of any relationship leaves a painful, gaping hole, the death of a sibling creates an especially tender void.

A poignant loss

Why is the death of a sibling different from any other loss? To begin with, siblings are an essential part of our history. Next to our parents, our brothers and sisters have known us longer than anyone, and they are central figures in many of our memories of life’s most significant events. When a sibling dies, you may feel as though part of your identity has also died.

A sibling’s death also casts a shadow on the future, as your brother’s or sister’s absence is sure to be felt at every family event and gathering. In addition, because your sibling is your peer, his death may cause you to confront your own mortality, and you may find yourself thinking more often about your own death.

If one or both of your parents are living, you may feel alone and overwhelmed in your responsibilities toward them, especially if you and your sibling shared those responsibilities while she was still alive. You may also feel obliged to set aside your own grief in order to care for your parents. Or you may feel guilty for surviving your sibling and try, somehow, to make up for your parents’ loss.

Managing your grief

Wanting to help your parents and other grieving members of your family is a normal, loving thing, but beware of becoming the family hero. Resist the temptation to get so involved with others’ grief that you neglect your own. Consider the following suggestions for dealing with your grief and taking care of yourself.

  • Acknowledge your grief. Sometimes siblings mourn almost invisibly, as sympathy tends to center on the parents, spouse or children of the deceased. Even young siblings, for example, may be encouraged to “take care of” their parents following the death of a brother or sister. However well intended, such advice fails to recognize the surviving sibling’s own grief. Be sure to acknowledge your own grief, and then allow yourself time and space to mourn.
  • Share your grief. Sharing your grief as much and as often as possible will help you to heal. Share your feelings with the rest of your family if you can. Talk to your friends for extra encouragement, or join a bereavement support group.
  • Forgive yourself. In the often complicated relationships between siblings, love and affection may coexist with rivalry and jealousy. As a result, you may feel guilty following the death of a sibling – guilty over unkind things you said or did, or guilty because you failed to mend or maintain your relationship in adulthood. You may even believe that you should have been able to protect your sibling from death. Nothing can change the past, however, and guilt is only useful if it provides motivation for positive change. Forgive yourself, and let go of the guilt.
  • Take care of your health. Getting enough rest, exercise, and proper nutrition will help you to cope with your grief and may also help to ease your fears about your own health stemming from the death of your sibling.
  • Remember your sibling. As your grief subsides, think of ways to keep your brother’s or sister’s memory alive. Consider making a family scrapbook with pictures, stories or other memorabilia contributed by various family members. Contributing to or volunteering with your sibling’s favorite charity is another excellent way to honor your loved one’s memory.