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"I am so sorry about your sister or brother. How are your poor parents doing?" "Remember to be good, since your parents are dealing with so much heartache." These are just a couple of hurtful and unhelpful things that bereaved siblings often hear from 'well meaning' friends, co-workers, peers and others following the loss of their sibling. When the death was of a young person, people focus their sympathy to the parents, often ignoring the loss of the sibling. When the death was of someone who may be older with a family, the focus of the sympathy goes to the spouse and children. Siblings, both young and older, are often overlooked in their own heartache and grief.
"There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you."
- Maya Angelou
Siblings suffer a profound loss after the death of a sibling. That loss is every bit as painful as that of the person's parents. Understanding a loss is paramount if mourning is to occur. Yet, most siblings hear over and over again, that it wasn't really their loss, and eventually they begin to believe that.
The loss is not theirs to mourn.That is a statement that Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn in The Empty Room: Understanding Sibling Loss refers to through out out her insightful book. Often grieving parents are too ravaged by their own grief to recognize it in their surviving children. Often there is no one outside the family to recognize it and step in. Occasionally a sibling will receive a condolence card addressed solely to them, but that is the exception. Many children fear upsetting their parents with their own grief. They try to make up for the loss. According to DeVita Raeburn, "so often the parents' obvious and ongoing preoccupation with the dead sibling, which rendered them sad, distant, or downright cold, had more often than not made these siblings feel as if the wrong one- the favorite and indispensable one-had died. These families tended to be marked by a chronic and silent grief that could not be discusses, and which, in fact, became so much a part of the landscape of the family as to be unseen."
Adult siblings were often the ones who suppressed their own grief. They fell into the role of caregiver for their parents and often the sibling's surviving spouse and family. They felt that the family's loss was so much bigger. Adult siblings sense a loss deep within the foundation of their beings. Most adults admit that almost no one inside or outside the family had recognized their loss. That loss was something to be carried alone.
When grief is delayed or suppressed, mourning is as well. But no one gets to skip out on mourning. One either does the grief work or one risks getting stuck or frozen in their grief.
Pauline Boss in her book, Ambiguous Loss, coined a term for a loss that goes unrecognized: ambiguous loss. The losses may be life altering and traumatic (having a spouse with Alzheimer's disease, immigration loss, spouses missing in action) yet are often not recognized as real losses. There are no rituals to mark them, no wakes, funerals, sympathy cards or meals by neighbors. Without the validation the people often feel frozen in limbo, unsure how to navigate lives that no longer felt familiar.
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Books on Sibling Loss:
Bereft: A Sister's Story by Jane Bernstein ( Bernstein was seventeen when her older sister, Laura, was stabbed to death. Twenty years later, she finds not only that she still needs to mourn, but also decides to reexamine her childhood, and learns about the details of her sister's death, grieves and claims her story.
The Road to Coorain, by Jill Ker Conway ( The death of her older brother, Bob, in a traffic accident is only one event in her memoir, but it is clear for the author that it was a defining one. "He had been like the sun in my universe," she writes, "and most of my aspirations at school and in my daily life had centered on winning his approval....I realized I would always be trying to live out his life for him."
The Boy on the Green Bicycle by Margaret Diehl(Diehl was nine when her older brother, Jimmy, 14, was hit and killed by a car while riding the bicycle he'd just gotten for his birthday. Now in her 40's, Diehl, writes from the perspective of the child she was when Jimmy died. She captures the confusion and pain of children confronted with overwhelming loss.
Visions of Gerard by Jack Kerouac ( Kerouac's older brother, Gerard, died from a congenital heart defect when he was nine. The author was four at the time, "....for the first four years of my life, while I lived....I was Gerard, the world was his face....." This book speaks to the experience of those who were very young when they lost an older sibling and have fragmented memories, as well as to those whose lost sibling became a sainted ghost in the family.
Another helpful book for bereaved younger siblings is the book, "Always My Brother". For more information on this book click on the title and you will see an entire GS page dedicated to the book with an interview with the author.
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