6 Things I’ve Learned About Sibling Grief

loss of a sibling

There aren’t many resources that exist related to sibling grief. This fact has caused me to begin my own research. Who better to ask than those that have experienced this heartbreak first hand. The forgotten grievers themselves. While each has had their own journey, many themes stand out.

I am a big believer in the statement, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” How could you? It isn’t possible. This unknown is the root of our inability to connect and understand. Without experiencing something firsthand we just don’t have the capacity to show empathy.

I came across the saying, “Siblings are the only people we know cradle to grave.” It affected me. Talking to sibling grievers this statement came up. Our parents are expected to die before we do. Spouses and friends do not enter our lives until we are older. Siblings are a part of every memory we have growing up. They are intertwined with us from the beginning. We expect they will be there at our side up until the end.

What I am learning is eye opening. I expected it to be. There were also some great points I feel I should share. As I think about the path my daughter’s will walk, I want the world to know they are also grieving. Their path will look very different than what we expect. This is what we all need to know.

1 – Siblings Suffer 2 Losses

My girls not only suffered the loss of their brother. They have also suffered the loss of their parents. We have changed. Our daily normal has changed. The family we once were is gone. That will never return the way it was. I know at my house the first 10 months were very difficult. My oldest felt it. A LOT! Regardless of how hard we tried, it was just not the same. It still isn’t. I am told it is normal for siblings to wonder if their parents would be this upset if it had been them. We had that question asked of us. New normal is a daily struggle for everyone.

2 – Don’t Make Them Feel Different

They do not want to be known as the girl whose brother died. They want to be normal kids, just like everyone else. Please don’t ask your kids not to talk about it or bring it up. Please don’t tell your kids to be nice to them because it happened. Their brother’s death is a normal part of their life. We talk about it all the time. You don’t need to avoid the topic. However, you also don’t need to draw attention to the fact to make them feel different.

3 – They Struggle With The Same Questions

Just as I hate the question, “How many kids do you have?” They hate the question, “How many brothers and sisters do you have?” This had never even crossed my mind. I personally have spent a lot of time crafting my response to my question. Yet, I still get anxiety when I meet new people. They will inevitably ask this basic question. I want to answer truthfully, but then it can get awkward because people get uncomfortable with my response. I am still navigating that road. We had never even discussed that question with my girls or how they would want to answer it in the future.

4 – They Feel Like A Bystander To Parental Grief

When a child dies, people immediately think about the impact to the parents. Second is typically grandparents. Someone said they were told to “be strong for your parents”. Rarely are they asked how they are doing. Do they miss their brother/sister? On milestones their parents received cards and support. Nothing was directed to the siblings. One of the pieces of advice I got that really stuck with me was to encourage those around us to send a milestone card directly to my daughter. Acknowledge that they know it is tough on them and make them feel like they are part of the grieving process. This thought had never crossed my mind.

5 – Anxiety Is Real

Learning about death in such a traumatic way as the loss of a sibling can cause anxiety. The constant fear that someone else is going to die. This is not always shown in normal ways. I know I hadn’t thought about it until we had a breakdown at my house. My daughter was begging to move out (age 5) and live with someone else. She was terrified that my husband and I were going to die next. There is only so much you can say to eliminate that fear. I can tell her all day long that we aren’t going to die. However, we never in a million years expected her brother would die. So the anxiety can be quieted, but we should expect it to rear it’s ugly head again at an unknown time.

6 – Life Stages Impact Grief

Throughout life there will be moments my girls will be impacted by their grief. It will come without us ever being prepared. As they learn more about death and what that means. As they grow up and hit their own milestones. At times feeling like they take a back seat to our grief knowing we will always be thinking of their brother and what we missed out on with him.

The sibling bond is incredibly strong. It is only fair their grief be acknowledged. I will continue to remind myself my girls are grieving. I hope those around us will do the same.

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12 Comments on “6 Things I’ve Learned About Sibling Grief”

  1. Dear Emily, what you have written is an excellent and necessary reminder for others regarding the loss of our living children’s siblings. Siblings do seem to be the forgotten mourners, I can attest to that. When my adult son died I watched my two adult daughters get pushed into the background of my grief and that of my husband. I knew it was happening but I was emotionally unable to protect them or persue the path to lead them back to the forefront. I regret that they were the forgotten mourners during the first few days and weeks following our son’s death and that I was unable to feel past my own pain to reach out far enough to make sure they were not forgotten by the friends and family who were a help and a hand to us, his parents. Your artlicle is correct in saying their lives will be impacted with each milestone they reach, each change in situation and each passing relevant date. I’ve watch it happen. How could it not be. As sibling mourners they continue to be left out unintentionally and I find myself having to remind others to include them as our “family” grieves not just us, his parents. My son’s birthday is this month and I’ve planned a package to send to each daughter to celebrate the life they shared with their brother as his big sisters. I’ll also ask anyone who calls to be sure to acknowledge the girls. Unfortunately that’s the only way it will happen. Thank you for your timely article (for me) and for sharing your family’s journey.

    1. Thank you for your comment and insight! I love hearing from other’s on this topic specifically. I always approach it with an “I don’t know what I don’t know” attitude. So I listen to what other’s say and try to pay attention to them. It is awesome you will be celebrating his life together like that. Much love to you all!

  2. Thanks for this. I’m going through something of this nature, over many moons as cancer slowly claims another victim. I already hate the question “how many siblings do you have?”

  3. God how people REALLY DON’T KNOW until they have lost a sibling…. I’m unsure if any were as close as me n my sis were- she passed 3 years ago but feels like 3 days ago every day. I waited9 days to get her back from autopsy to bury her and in my grief strickened mind I WAS DOING HER HAIR & MAKEUP CUZ I KNEW HOW SHE’D LIKE IT! Why nobody protested me- and why the funeral home allowed me to do so…. I’ll never ever know. I was not prepared for what I saw- I truly wasn’t……. A huge part of me left with her that day in that funeral parlor….. I’ve never ever been the same. So…… When I hear someone passing their SIBLINGS are the 1st I think about over the parents almost to be honest. 💔 just needed to let that out- sorry

  4. I can attest that sibling grief doesn’t go away the older you get, though I feel that nearly everyone forgets about the adult siblings. I actually wish my family would read this and I wish my coworkers would have read this prior to me returning to work after my sister’s death this summer.

  5. I lost my only brother 4 months ago. He was 31, unmarried, and has a 5.5 year old son who is his spitting image. I’ve always been involved with his son, who looks to me as a father-figure. He has asked me if I can be his Dad. I tried holding back tears at first, just to shield him as I’m protective in nature. I miss my brother more everyday, and being at milestones for his son is gut-wrenching. I bought his first baseball glove today, for instance. I live in a town away from my family and many friends. I worry like crazy about my parents. Most people in my town know, but only a few have engaged me. I’m always asked how my parents are. I try and keep busy, and connected to others to feel normalcy. The mornings, drives alone, and late night struggles to sleep wear on me. Other things in my life are going very well, but I don’t care about my own personal successes. Rather, I feel obligated to be the “glue” that others say I need to be. It’s exhausting, rewarding with my nephew, and brutal; daily. A true roller coaster of emotions.

  6. Thank you for writing this. My sister died ten years ago on Christmas day when she was 16 from severe complications to an open heart surgery (we too were told on Christmas that she was brain dead). I was 14 years old at the time and she was my only sibling. Still to this day I hate the question of how many siblings I have. I have finally become comfortable with my answer, that I have one sister, but the follow up small talk questions that ask for further clarification such as is she older, what does she study/do, etc. are most difficult. Grief is lifelong, with time it is not always as prominent in the everyday but there are still days that it brings me to my knees. Each milestone is clouded in a way knowing my sister should have hit them first and wishing she was there too. Just last month I graduated grad school and just wished that she was in the crowd too as my friend’s siblings were. Number 4 is very true; all but two condolence cards were addressed to my parents following her death. Those two cards addressed just to me, tucked away in my room, were brought out whenever I needed some acknowledgment of my grief. What has helped with my grief the most over the years has been being around and talking with others who have experienced sibling grief as well. I volunteer at a camp for grieving children and 90% of the counselors have also experienced grief so it is a very special place that is both beneficial for the campers and counselors alike getting to meet and talk with peers that understand what they are going through. Thank you for writing this about sibling grief as there is far too little out there on the topic. Thank you for giving us a voice.

  7. Thank you for your insight.. it puts many of my feelings into words that I couldn’t form myself. I lost my 21 year old sister 6 months ago to a drunk driver who hit her head on as she was on her way home from work three days before Christmas. I am now an only child on this Earth. My family was always very close, and now everything seems to be upside down. But your words help me to better understand what I’m feeling inside and why. There is still a lot more to sift through deep down, but I appreciate what you’ve written.

  8. I’m amazed I have never related to anything this so much my older brother, took he’s own life at the age of 24 when I was 12, death was a very hard concept for me to understand at the time it still is till this day

  9. IT struck me hard when I was called “the Lone Ranger”. I lost both of my siblings within a year and a half and very shortly after my cancer diagnosis. I still think about tings that I wish we had talked about but Boys don’t like to talk about stuff. Granted I am older than most of this topic addresses but it is still a perspective.

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