By Therese Rando, Ph.D.
There is no other loss in adult life that
appears to be so neglected as the death of a brother or sister.
Rarely has it been the subject of investigation or discussion.
Nevertheless, this is a loss to which most of us are repeatedly
exposed. While we have only one mother, one father, and one spouse
(at least at any given point in time), it is not uncommon to have
several siblings. Therefore we are more exposed to sibling deaths
than to other losses.
There is a general social expectation that the death of a brother
or sister in adulthood will have little or no disruptive effect on
us. Yet few adults have no contact with their siblings. This
expectation seems to be based on the presumption that child and
spouse loss are the most distressing. Usually, if given the
opportunity to think about it, people also can understand an
adult’s bereavement after a parent’s death. In contrast to this,
however, there is a failure to appreciate the significance of
brothers and sisters in adult life. While the effects of childhood
sibling bereavement have been investigated, there has not been the
same degree of interest in adult sibling bereavement.
The Sibling Relationship
There are special characteristics unique to the sibling bond. It is
a relationship that can be quite profound, either positively or
Brothers and sisters influence each other’s identity in fundamental
ways. Just the existence of an older sibling, regardless of the
relationship that exists, has a number of implications for the
younger siblings in terms of (1) birth order; (2) parental
attention, affection, and expectations; and (3) the world the
younger siblings are born into. The research on birth order and its
influence on self-concept, personality, and all subsequent life
experiences is quite striking. It demonstrates clearly the impact
of brothers and sisters on our lives, and this is without taking
into consideration the precise relationship that exists among
When these relationships are taken into account, even more dramatic
influences are apparent. As we naturally seek security, attention,
and love from our parents, it is only normal that we perceive our
brothers and sisters as competitors for these precious parental
commodities. Sibling rivalry is not something that requires much
explanation, at least not to those of us who have siblings! Along
with this, just living together in the intimacy of family life will
put us in positions with our siblings where normal feelings of
tension and aggression are bound to erupt. Yet siblings are also
often sources of affection and security as well as of conflict. For
this reason, ambivalence about siblings is not uncommon.
Sibling relationships may be close and intimate, distant and
formal, or anything in between. By its very nature, the sibling
relationship is ripe for ambivalence. How much will depend on a
whole set of variables outside the scope of this book. What is
important to remember is that sibling relationships are often
marked by attachment as well as antagonism, caring as well as
competition, and loyalty as well as lingering resentment. Certainly
one of the primary factors influencing your grief response over the
death of your brother or sister is the type of relationship you had
with him or her.
Meaning of the Loss
Let’s assume that your brother or sister was raised with you, that
you had the same parents, and that you were close enough in age
that you had normal sibling contact. If your circumstances were
different, the following comments will be less applicable to
When you lose a brother or sister in adult life, you experience
many of the same losses as you would if you had lost that sibling
in childhood. However, despite the fact that you are more mature
and have access to the resources you require, you have the
disadvantage that there is less social recognition of the loss as
an important one. Like those who lose parents in adulthood, unless
your sibling was very much a part of your family’s life, this death
may not have the same impact on other members of your immediate
family as it does on you. While your sibling may have been a
pivotal person in your life, he or she may have been insignificant
to others who now are quite important parts of your life. For this
reason, your family may not understand your grief or help you with
it in the way they could if someone they knew well had died. They
may not understand what the loss means to you or why it affects you
like it does, since they did not know you when your sibling was
more a part of your life.
The death of a brother or sister means that you have lost someone
who was a part of your formative past. This person shared common
memories with you, along with critical childhood experiences and
family history. This person has known you as a child and is a part
of the roots to your past. Chances are that he or she experienced
you in unique and intimate ways. Some of these might have been
quite pleasant, such as sharing family traditions and holidays.
Some might have been unpleasant or situations in which you had
little control: seeing you in embarrassing situations,
participating in family jokes against you, being hurt by your
childhood insensitivity, and so forth. This person knows the family
scripts for you and the family myths about you.
You may not agree with your sibling’s perceptions of all you have
been through together. In fact, it is not uncommon if you don’t.
Most of us remember our childhood in ways that differ somewhat from
our siblings. Also, our perceptions may be quite different now
because of the people we have become. At times, those who have
known us longest are the ones who least recognize our changes since
then, precisely because they are operating with old information
that is hard to alter. Nevertheless your sibling was
and the unique co-history you two share can be an important bond
between you. When death takes your brother or sister, it also takes
away one of your connections to the past, someone who knew you in a
very special way, totally unlike those who know you now as an
When your brother or sister dies, you lose someone who has been in
your life for a very long time. A constant in your life is gone.
This itself may make you feel a little insecure, a little anxious.
Although you may not have had frequent contact with your sibling,
at least you knew that another member of the family was there.
While your sibling may not have been a current real force in your
life, he or she probably was a symbolic one, and certainly was one
in reality in the past. This person’s death can make you feel
older. It points out to you that your family is dwindling. If this
person was your final connection to your family of origin, you are
now the last one left out of those you started out with.
Because your brothers and sisters share your same genetic
background, the death of one of them may increase your concerns
about your own death. You may see implications about your own
death, such as how you will die and at what age. This
identification can cause you some stress later on when you reach
the age at which an older sibling died.
Depending upon your relationship with your sibling and the manner
of death, your grief probably will follow the typical responses to
loss. You may also, however, experience additional feelings of
guilt. This often stems from the ambivalence of the sibling
relationship and from any relief that you feel, understandably,
that you are not the one who has died. If there had been increased
stress in recent years, this too could cause guilt and regret after
the death. Any type of stress may have affected your adult
relationship with your brother or sister, either bringing you
closer together or driving you farther apart. For example:
Developmental stress, as when one of you becomes widowed and
temporarily becomes a little more dependent
Psychosocial stress, as when one of you receives a promotion and
Emotional stress, as when one of you cannot have children and is
jealous of the other who can
Physical stress, as when one of you develops a serious illness
bringing pain and debilitation
Economic stress, such as when one of you loses your job and is in
Guilt, as well as sadness, also can develop when you recall that in
younger days you had been closer, but that as adults this had
changed. This is normal; as adults you had fewer common experiences
than when you were younger and shared more of your lives. But the
recognition of this difference still can be uncomfortable.
Conversely, you can experience guilt, sadness, and regret because
the relationship never was what you ideally would have wanted it to
be. Perhaps you never had the closeness that you would have liked.
If you feel this type of regret, you will grieve not only for what
you had and lost but also for what you never had at all.
This grieving for what you never had can be intensified if you have
been raised with unrealistic expectations about family
relationships. Television sitcoms from the 1950s to the early 1970s
wanted us to believe that siblings and their parents related to
each other with uninterrupted warmth and concern that permitted
little resentment or frustration. The sitcoms of the later 1970s
and 1980s are much more real, some of them irritatingly so.
However, they do us less of a disservice. Those of us who grew up
with the earlier ones lack what the youth of today see portrayed on
their television sets – the information that there always will be
ambivalence in our closest relationships. Far too many of us suffer
from the guilt and resentment that can develop in grief from
unrealistic expectations. In few situations is this more apparent
than following the death of a brother or sister.
Your survival itself can be another source of guilt. There were
probably times when you wished that your sibling were not around,
would disappear, or would drop dead. These feelings usually come
back to haunt us. Also, since we do share the same biological
backgrounds, we may wonder why death took our sibling first.
Unanswered questions about this can also fuel survival guilt.
The adult who loses a sibling shares many similar issues with
parents who lose adult children. While certainly the relationship
is different, the concerns of the person left behind and the
responses they receive may be very similar. For example, you may
find that you do not have much part in decisions pertaining to your
sibling’s death and the funeral or other rituals. These decisions
are usually made by your sibling’s spouse and children. When this
lack of control is combined with the failure of others to recognize
that you are profoundly bereaved, it can be most difficult for you.
For example, you may not be included in ceremonies honoring your
deceased sibling with whom you have shared your last fifty years,
while others in his life, who had known him for far less time, are
recognized as legitimate mourners.
Also like bereaved parents of adult children, you may find it hard
to accept that your brother or sister has really died if you have
become accustomed to his or her living elsewhere. There is no acute
absence to signal to you that he or she is permanently gone. Seeing
the responsibilities left unfulfilled (especially regarding the
children left behind), struggling with discomfort when your former
in-law starts dating again, worrying about losing contact with your
nieces and nephews, or fearing that your deceased sibling’s
children will not be brought up in the way he or she would have
wanted – these are all issues that you can share with parents whose
adult children die.
If your sibling died from a long-term illness, the experience may
have brought up old rivalries as attention, time, or financial
resources of parents and other family members were directed toward
your dying sibling. This and other experiences inherent in the
terminal illness may have increased resentment on your part. After
the death of your sibling, this resentment can come back to haunt
you. You will need to put the normal issues of sibling ambivalence
in perspective with the normal issues of losing a loved one after a
long-term terminal illness in order to cope most effectively with
this aspect of your grief.
Like any other death in the family, the death of your brother or
sister will force you and the other surviving family members to
reorganize your roles and relationships with one another. You may
experience additional loss or stress as a consequence. The death
may change your position in the family – you may now be the eldest
child and be expected to care for an invalid parent, or you may
have become an only child. The death may also give you new status
in the family. For example, you now may get some recognition for
your achievements, since you are no longer being compared with your
older sibling. As with younger children, your parents’ responses to
the death of your sibling will have a profound impact on you, your
grief, and many aspects of your subsequent life. Subtly conveyed
messages that the “wrong” child has died, impaired parent-child
relationships stemming from parental grief, increased or
inappropriate roles assigned to you, and abnormal parental grief
responses such as expecting you to become like your deceased
sibling – all are unhealthy for them and for you as well.
Time changes sibling relationships, as it does all others. As with
your parents, you may find that you can sustain a much better
relationship with your sibling when you are both independent adults
and involved in your own families and lives. Sometimes this happens
after your parents die and you are no longer embroiled in the same
old sibling conflicts. When death robs you of a sibling to whom you
only recently grew closer, it may seem particularly unfair,
untimely, and cruel.
As society fails to validate this as an important loss for you, and
many of the people who are close to you did not know your sibling
or recognize his or her importance to you, you may very well fail
to get the social support you need in order to grieve successfully.
You may have to demand this support and assert your right to grieve
for this loss.
The death of your sibling may receive little social
acknowledgement, but the loss can affect you in many ways. This
stems from the special roles siblings play in our development and
the need to contend with the ambivalence that marks most sibling
relationships at some point in their history.
Taken from Therese A. Rando, How To Go on Living When Someone
You Love Dies. New York: Bantam Books, 1991, pp 153-9.
The Grief of Sibling Survivors
Running Through the Pain
Also by Therese Rando:
Family Reorganization After a Loss
The Work of Grief
What 'Recovery' Will and Will Not Mean
Dr. Therese Rando, author of
How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies, is a
psychologist in Warwick, Rhode Island, where she is the Clinical
Director of The Institute for the Study and Treatment of Loss.
Having published 70 works pertaining to the clinical aspects of
dying, death, loss, and trauma, Dr. Rando is a recognized expert in
the field and has appeared on numerous television programs,
including “Dateline,” CBS “This Morning,” “Today Show,” “Good
Morning, America,” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
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