Death and loss are some of the hardest terrains to navigate. Some say the loss of our parents is the hardest loss we can go through. Others say it’s difficult to ever get over the loss of a child. But having recently seen my mother go through the loss of her only sibling, it really did make me wonder if losing your sibling could possibly cut the deepest and maybe it’s one loss we don’t talk about enough.
If I think of the possibility of losing my own sibling, it feels unimaginable. I don’t even want to go there. I feel physically ill at the thought. My brother and I have such a bond. I mean we didn’t always, a year apart in age, we used to fight like cat and dog literally screaming at each other around the house driving our mother insane. Now we’re both grown up with families of our own, we holiday together, and we enjoy spending time as a family and it honestly feels quite effortless as we just get each other. I’d say not only is my brother my sibling, but he’s my confidant and one of my best friends and I’m grateful to always have him at the end of the line.
The thing with siblings is that theoretically if you have a ‘good run’ they should be with you the longest on this life journey. They’ve been with you throughout your childhood, and they are some of the few to really get your family, the childhood you had and everything that shaped you into who you are today. They are with you for all your life landmarks, school, your first love, your wedding, the birth of your children, etc etc. When your parents pass, you and your sibling will go through that together and will continue on as each other’s closest family member until it’s either one of your times to go. So, when death takes your brother or sister, it takes away your deepest connection to the past. Your brother or sister knew you in a way no one else will know you and the loss of that is quite disorientating and quite a pivotal time in one's life.
Whichever way we look at it, the loss of a sibling is a significant loss. It’s also a complex one and far more so than many would have us believe. After the passing of a sibling, the support and focus are usually on the surviving spouse and their children, or the parents who have lost their child in those circumstances. Rarely is there any focus on siblings and how they are dealing with everything? A sibling rarely has a major input into the funeral and arrangements. Any condolences offered will often lead to questions about how the deceased’s “immediate” family or parents are dealing with everything. Surviving siblings are often left alone in their deep and profound grief, further adding to the difficulties they have in navigating this time.
Grief is always a unique and individual process whoever is involved. How you grieve and for how
long will be different for everyone and we all need to be allowed to grieve in our own way. But how can this present itself when it comes to sibling loss?
For many losing, a sibling means a constant is gone and it can make them feel quite insecure. Even
if you didn’t see or speak to your sibling a great deal, you always knew there was another family member there. A sibling has a key place in your life, even if not your day-to-day life. That space cannot be replaced.
For some, the death of a brother or sister can suddenly make them an only child or the eldest child, which can change your whole family dynamic and a real shift for you to a role you held for your whole life. Combined with all the mixed emotions and natural grief you are going through during this time, this change in role can be complicated and confusing to deal with.
For those who lose a sibling with parents still alive, another fundamental shift change can also happen and a change in the relationship with their parents. Given the grief of siblings is not always acknowledged, with the parents and partners being a key focus, it can be natural to feel isolated and even “abandoned” during this time. When needed the most, their parents are consumed with their own grief and are not there for them as they would have hoped. Surviving siblings often have to draw on their own support network outside of their immediate family to get by which can bring anger, resentment and ultimately conflict at the worst possible time.
In the most basic of senses, the death of a sibling can also make you feel older. Given you share the same genes, the death of a sibling can also make you think about your own mortality more. You can also feel that your family is dwindling away.
The loss of a sibling can be complex for so many reasons and we could go on to share many more unique experiences that come with this time. It can be a blur of sadness, anger, guilt, confusion and loss. You may even feel regret if the relationship was never what you ideally would have wanted. In the case of my own mother, with a brother who lived overseas for his whole adult life, a sense of wanting to have shared more time together is very common. All of these feelings are totally normal and valid reactions to sibling loss.
The death of a brother or sister at any age or life stage profoundly changes the lives of surviving siblings this much we know for sure and the key thing for us all is to acknowledge this special relationship, be it close or not day to day, and to understand how it has the potential to turn people’s lives upside down in the process.
Grief is always a personal journey and what works for one of us, will be different to the support that another need. A good first step is always to learn about grief and the grieving process as understanding is a key part of the process. There are lots of amazing resources online which are a great starting point, as well as online forums and support groups. Because of the unique bond and grief involved in losing a brother or a sister, there are now an increasing number of support groups, especially for siblings who offer unique support during this time.
Siblings hold a unique and special place in our lives and their loss can be hard to process, so be kind to yourself and those going through this time.