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Forgotten Mourners – Losing a Sibling During Childhood

Siblings are often referred to as the “forgotten mourners.” When surviving siblings are children or teens, they are generally overlooked as attention and comfort are usually given to the parents or grandparents. When anyone experiences the death of a loved one their world changes. When a childhood sibling dies, it can be the person you have known the longest next to your parents. Families have their own special history and unique story. When a sibling dies, those shared bonds are broken and cannot be replaced. With any death, our society encourages us to “hurry-up” our grief – “get over it, move on.” This is an impossible task, as no one can “get over” a death and when the importance of losing a sibling is ignored, it can lead to prolonged grief and possibly depression. 

John (not his real name) lost his sister when he was 16 and she was 13. For years they were a united front. “I remember it was school and my sister. It was all we thought about. When Tara died, our family fell apart. People tried to distract me, but no one would talk with me about my sister. Maybe they did not want to interfere, thinking it was my parents who would talk with me… I don’t know.” The only person John could talk to about his sister was his grandfather. 

John remembers constantly thinking of his sister. “I felt a lot of guilt. If I wanted to go out, I felt bad. If I wanted to stay after school or play sports, I felt like I couldn’t. I felt like I had to go home and stay with my mother.” John thought about his sister constantly and he felt like a part of him died with his sister. 

When John’s grandfather died a few years ago, John said he felt like he was struggling to breathe. “Everything about my sister’s death came back like it was yesterday.” At that time, John had a wife, children, and a job. John spoke with his primary care doctor about his inability to sleep and concentrate. It brought him little comfort to know these were symptoms of grief and as his sleeplessness and poor concentration continued, he was referred to a psychiatrist. “The psychiatrist helped me with my depression, and he suggested a support group.” I was feeling some relief and did not want to join a group because I did not want to take time away from my kids and wife. I remember the struggles of feeling forgotten when my sister died, so when my wife encouraged me to try the group, I did.”  

John did not think anyone would understand how the death of his grandfather could elicit such vivid memories about his sister. When it was time to tell his story he was surprised how easy it was to share with others who were brave enough to share their story with him. There is an old saying, Grief shared is grief diminished. Telling your story in a safe environment and realizing you are not alone can play a big part in healing. John learned in group that every death brings up every past loss. Grief is an ongoing process and seeking support at different life stages can be helpful. Once John understood the connection between his losses, he was able to grieve both for his grandfather and his sister. “All of a sudden, the feelings I had were put into a context I could work from. I felt normal again.” John is not implying that his grief dissolved, in fact, it is just the opposite. Instead of worrying that he was “losing his mind” and his ability to cope, understanding the connection made it easier for him to concentrate on grieving. 

Everyone’s grief journey is unique. However, there are some common reactions when experiencing the death of a loved one. John’s feelings of abandonment when his sister died and the depression he experienced when his grandfather died are not uncommon. Grief programs are a safe place for people to tell their story and find comfort from people who have endured the same type of loss. 

So, what can adult siblings expect when they lose a brother or sister as a child?  

  • Responding to questions like how many siblings do you have can be difficult. Survivor guilt is normal and can be triggered by well-meaning questions. 
  • Often the surviving siblings will think about things they could have said or done differently. In grief work it is called the woulda, coulda, shoulda’s.  
  • It is natural for surviving siblings to reflect on their own mortality. This can lead to over-protectiveness of their own children and excessive concern about their surviving siblings. They may experience anxiety about their own mortality and their children’s mortality. 
  • Siblings may feel the need to take on some of the attributes and interests of the deceased. Siblings often choose to do different activities to define themselves in their family. One may choose to play sports and their sibling may choose to make movies. It is not unusual for the surviving siblings to take up something that the deceased brother or sister was involved in. Why? Connection!  
  • Surviving siblings find comfort in retelling family stories and discussing their loss. Friends and co-workers may tire of hearing about the loss and may unwittingly make healing more difficult. Grief triggers may arise at life cycle events. Weddings, birthdays, even assisting aging parents may cause renewed pain and grief. Periodic support throughout a lifetime can be a valuable tool in dealing with the loss of a sibling. 

Death ends a life, not a relationship. A connection will always remain. Siblings will think about, talk about, and even, talk to their missing sibling.   

If you are an adult who lost a brother or sister during childhood, please join us for a 2-part online program, The Shadow I Carry with Me, on May 9th and 16th at 7:00 PM. We will share real-life experiences about sibling loss, talk about the lasting impact throughout life, hear about research on this unique type of loss, and explore how responses to our grief as a child affected our healing journeys.

Donna Kane, MA, CT, is a Grief Clinician at Jewish Community Services. 

Jewish Community Services (JCS) is dedicated to providing programs and services that help people of all ages and backgrounds achieve their goals and enhance their wellbeing.  

To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or 410-466-9200.  

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