backlit silhouettes of three kids on a beach at sunset

Photo by Kylo on Unsplash

As a sister grieving the death of my younger brother to injuries he sustained on the job, I’ve spent a significant amount of time reflecting on sibling relationships – in all of their complexities – while I continue to learn how to live through and carry my own loss. What does it mean to be a sibling? How is the relationship different? How is sibling grief different? How is it universal?

When a workplace tragedy strikes, those most deeply affected are those at ground zero: family and close friends. Siblings affected range from those who never knew their brother or sister to those who’ve lived well into their adult years together. Some were close friends. Some had drifted apart or become estranged. Many had complicated relationships — with each other, with their in-laws, with their parents. When a sibling dies, as in any death, we grieve both the relationship we had and the one that we wanted.

All this to say sibling relationships are complicated, as is grieving the loss of a sibling. That said, there are some common themes that come up time and again for grieving siblings.

  1. Overshadowed grief. Siblings are sometimes referred to as the “forgotten mourners” — and for good reason. It’s easy to feel like the forgotten one when your loss is eclipsed in the unfathomable shadow of child loss. As siblings, we’ve been on the receiving end of subtle and not-so-subtle assessments that our loss is somehow less than the “worse” losses of a child, a parent, or a spouse. The erasing of a sibling’s experience can come in comments as inconspicuous as “I’m so sorry to hear about your brother. How are your parents?” Ranking pain as less or more only serves to take away others’ entitlement to feel the depth of their own loss, so let’s not do that.
  2. Loss of identity. Feeling a loss of identity is a common in all kinds of losses, and is also a common struggle for grieving siblings. When we grow up being compared to each other — the generous/smart/creative/athletic/kind one — much of our identities are formed in comparison to our siblings. It seems inevitable that our identity would feel shaky in contrast to the void left in their absence.
  3. Life’s longest relationship — cut short. Our siblings are our first peers. Our first friends. They’re also the ones that we expect will be with us through our life and all of its stages. Siblings are both the witnesses to our past and companions through our future. This is true at every age and life-stage. From early childhood until old age, we expect our siblings to be with us. To have that journey together cut short hurts deeply, and in a way that’s best understood by other siblings.
  4. Ages and milestones. When a sibling relays information about the death of a sister or brother, they will almost always include ages – their sibling’s age when they died and their age when the death happened. While I’ve never seen this documented, I know I do it and I notice that other siblings list their ages — especially if they and/or their sibling was quite young. The death of a sibling breaks the natural order of things – just as the death of a child does. Death puts ages out of order. For your entire life, you’ve been almost two years apart in age – and then you are not. When a younger sibling passes the age of an older sibling who died, it breaks the order that should have been. For those who lost siblings at a young age, sharing our age can also provide a marker in our own development – the point where the carefree days of childhood were lost. Our siblings are always both the age they were when they died, and the age they’ll never be.
  5. Shifting expectations and family dynamics. How family dynamics shift following the death of a sibling is as unique as each family’s particular composition of function and dysfunction. What’s certain is that dynamics and expectations do shift when a family member dies – including a sibling. Surviving siblings may be expected to take on more responsibility – with parents, nieces and nephews, and even other siblings. Or you may feel invisible and like no one understands how you feel. You may suddenly feel the hyper-vigilant focus of your parents’ attention — or the absence of their care and concern for you as they grieve their own deep loss.

While it’s not an exclusive list, I’ve experienced all of these myself and had many of our sibling members share similar challenges and particular heart hurts. As a sibling, your grief is no less significant and heartbreaking than anyone else’s. Sibling grief is as unique as your own sibling relationship, and no one knows exactly what you have lost like you do. That said, I hope you get to experience the validation of others who have lost a sibling — so you know that even in missing your irreplaceable brother or sister, you are not alone.

Looking to connect with another sibling? We have sibling Volunteer Family Guides and a siblings only session at most family forums. Connection with other siblings has been deeply healing and beneficial for so many of our sibling family members, including me, and we hope you’ll reach out to connect with others who understand – as well as anyone can – what you’ve lost.

Sarah Wheelan