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The pain you feel after a sibling dies can be immense. 

Feeling grief or a huge sense of loss are natural responses to losing  someone important in your life. Losing a brother or sister is especially  challenging.

This  article will discuss why the loss of a sibling is different than other  types of loss, how sibling loss isn’t discussed much, reactions and  effects of sibling loss, how long to mourn and ways to help you cope  with sibling grief.

Why Siblings Are Special

Siblings  play a special role in our families. They can often act as our best  friends and become the people we confide in.1 We fight with our younger  siblings, learn from our older siblings, play with our brothers and  sisters and compete with them.

In  effect, we forge special relationships with our brothers and sisters.  These relationships differ than those with our parents, other relatives,  and even our own children.

Sibling Loss is Ignored

Practitioners  and researchers in the field of psychology have not devoted much  attention to the special relationship siblings have or how death impacts  siblings. Discussion of sibling mourning has been sorely neglected by  programs, services and associations, but that is beginning to change.

After  their son or daughter dies, the community will galvanize around the  parents to support them. Friends, neighbors and family members will  focus on bringing in food, making phone calls and helping the parents.

Outliving  a child is an awful and tragic loss that should not be dismissed or  given short shrift. But siblings are not allowed the time to grieve  themselves. They are told to be strong for their parents. Often,  siblings are involved in setting up funeral plans and helping their  parents get through such a difficult time.

Caretaking when you yourself haven’t had time to grieve is burdensome.

Common Reactions to Death of a Loved One

According to the CDC, common reactions after suffering a major disaster, death, traumatic event, or drastic loss include:

  • Shock

  • Disbelief

  • Denial

  • Anxiety

  • Distress

  • Anger

  • Periods of sadness

  • Loss of sleep

  • Loss of appetite

Experts also point to reactions that seem to fall into what is called the Five Stages of Grief. This is a framework developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist. The five stages include:

  1. Denial

  2. Anger

  3. Bargaining

  4. Depression

  5. Acceptance

But  Kübler-Ross herself said the process isn’t linear or predictable.  Emotional reactions and the grieving process will vary by the  individual. Your pain and your feelings are unique to you.

Effects the Death of a Sibling May Have On You

Whether  through a prolonged illness like cancer or a sudden death due to a car  accident, the loss of a sibling can be jarring. You may feel like life  is out of order or topsy-turvy. We are logically prepared for the loss  of older parents or grandparents. But our siblings are like our peers.

We’ve  experienced the daily rhythms of life with them growing up including  birthdays, holidays, and special events. They’ve witnessed our parents’  arguments, our moves into different neighborhoods and our difficult  times. We expected them to be there for us for future milestones, too.

A  sibling’s death can then have multiple effects on you. Beyond trying to  cope with your grief, you may have to contend with new challenges like  the following listed below.

Changes in the Family Dynamic

When  a sibling dies, roles and responsibilities may get shaken up. If your  brother was the leader in the family, who takes on that role now? Your  uneasiness with the new family dynamic might add more stress to your  grief.

The Loss of a Close Relationship

Because  siblings are often deeply connected, you may have lost both a sister  and your best gal pal. If you worked in a family business, the loss of  your brother might also represent the loss of your business buddy.

Profound Guilt

If  your baby sister passed away, feeling guilty for surviving is not  farfetched. Those who lose siblings often feel guilty about childhood  fights and not having the opportunity to apologize. If you were  estranged from your sibling as an adult, you might feel guilty because  it’s too late now to reconnect.

Dealing With Friends Who Aren’t Helpful

Friends  may avoid you as they don’t know what to say. Others may say the wrong  things like, “She’s in a better place” or “Let me know how I can help.”

In  these moments, if you're feeling up to it, you can suggest that your  friends come over and sit with you while you cry, bring you food, or  just hold your hand.

Fear of Also Developing the Illness

For  siblings who passed from cancer, for example, you might now need to get  tested. Especially if there’s a genetic probability that you may get  the same cancer. Added to your grief (and sorrow about any suffering  your loved one went through) is this new fear that you or another  sibling will also be diagnosed with a deadly disease.

How Long Is Too Long to Mourn?

There’s  no "normal” amount of time to grieve the loss of a sibling. As time  passes, the sadness should ease and you should be able to function. That  doesn’t mean the grief disappears completely. Nor does that mean you  won’t feel sadness or loneliness about the loss of your sibling.

It means you'll begin to find happy and joyful times again and return to your daily life.

Complicated Grief

For some, though, feelings of loss are so intense, they become debilitating. This is known as complicated grief. It’s also called persistent complex bereavement disorder.

In  complicated grief, painful emotions severely disrupt lives. Reactions  are excessive, obsessive and intense. With complicated grief, people are  incapable of resuming their lives in a healthy manner and need therapeutic assistance.

Coping With Grief After the Death a Sibling

For those bereaved after losing a sibling, here are ways to help you cope with the grief and find a way through your loss. Some suggestions are better suited for earlier in your grief journey, some for later on:

Be kind and gentle with yourself. As you’re learning, grief is a winding process.

Rest and sleep more. The bereaved may feel more exhausted physically and emotionally.

Don’t skip over feeling pain. Allow yourself the time to hurt so you can move through that.

Spend time with family and friends. Although you may want time alone, don’t remove or isolate yourself.

Do  small things that make you happy. Work in the garden, play games on  your phone, and integrate small pleasures back into your life.

Allow yourself joy. Don’t feel ashamed or guilty if you enjoy a meal or dance to a song that you liked.

Return to a routine as soon as you can. Eat regularly, go for a walk, and resume work.

Focus  on spirituality and creativity. It's important to shift your energy  toward doing the things that bring you joy. This is the perfect  opportunity for you to tap into your creativity. You could write poetry,  paint, or even write your loved one a letter.

Create a ritual in your sibling’s memory. This may be participating in a 5K  for breast cancer research every year if your sister died of breast  cancer.

Do  something to honor your sibling’s life. If your brother shot hoops and  played with friends in a neighborhood park, you can donate a bench as a  memorial. The goal is to honor your sibling’s memory.

Join  a supportive group. Others are going through what you are, too. Online  grief support groups can offer you a safe community in which to mourn. The Compassionate Friends and Modern Loss offer resources to help you deal with sibling grief.

Postscript from the author:

"I  personally lost my younger sister Risa so I'm not a stranger to grief. I  wear a bracelet with her name on it every day of my life.

I  still grieve her loss, but I love thinking about her, talking about her  and hearing stories about her. I try to find ways to remember her and  honor her."

A Word From Verywell

While we live in a culture that encourages us to move on, grieving the death of a sibling can take some time. It’s a very special loss and you have every right to feel deep pain. But there is light at the end of the tunnel and a way to live with and through the loss. Find professionals in your area or online support groups that can guide you through this difficult period.

Blog post reprinted by permission of Barbara Field. Published on November 2021.

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