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Loss of an Adult Sibling: Bringing Awareness to the Forgotten Griever

When grieving the loss of an adult sibling, many find that their grief is largely unacknowledged by others. This is referred to as “disenfranchised grief,” and those who experience it may feel forgotten or misunderstood.

Siblings often report that condolences and comfort are most often focused on the surviving parents, spouse, or children. The surviving sibling is frequently asked how everyone else is doing. Siblings feel the responsibility and expectations from others to “pick up the pieces” and “be there” for others. 

A Connection to Our Past

Sibling relationships are uniquely a part of our past. This connection to family history may feel severed with the loss of an adult sibling. Who else shares that part of your story? Who else remembers those family secrets in the same way? Who will help to carry on the family traditions? With the death of a sibling, grief may pull you back to recall those long-ago times when you were kids. Your grief and reminiscence of these special connections may be lost on others who weren’t a part of these stories.

Feelings of Grief

Who you are today may be deeply rooted in your relationship with the sibling. Your place in the current world may feel less secure (or more burdensome) when the sibling who died was your confidant or source of support. Was your sibling your “co-conspirator” in life? Who now shares the responsibility of caring for others? You may feel alone in ways that may be hard to explain to others or even understand yourself.

Feelings of insecurity arise when it sinks in that the one who took care of you is no longer here. For a time, you may feel lost without the brother or sister who you could look to for advice and guidance. Making those first decisions alone can feel impossible.

Fear or anger may arise if you are now faced with new responsibilities. Are you now the one left to take care of elderly parents? Does the rest of the family look to you to fill the void left in the sibling’s own family? Do you now feel burdened to “step up” when you already have so much on your plate?

Survivor guilt may be felt if you believe you have failed to protect your sibling, maybe as you have done all your life. Or do you believe the one who died was the “favorite” or “more important” one? How do we fit in with the family structure now?

Future Plans

Your future will now look different. As you realize you won’t share future milestones or responsibilities, the impact of your loss may deepen. Perhaps your sibling offered support not only to you, but also your children as that guiding uncle or aunt. How you view your own mortality after the death of a sibling – a peer in your generation – can create new feelings of worry or concern.

When a Sibling Dies as a Child

When a young child or teenager experiences the death of a sibling, the loss is different in many ways. Everyone grieves, but the young may not yet be able to understand their feelings, much less what to do with them. Young siblings lose a “buddy” and deeply feel the change in family traditions and how things used to be. The sibling is missed not only in those first months and years, but with each new milestone and special event in their later years. While the child grows up and reaches adulthood, their brother or sister is frozen in time. Counseling and support helps the child, and importantly the adults in the child’s life, learn how to manage grief now and in the future. It is important to incorporate the deceased and find ways to move forward.

Healing through Grief

Signs of healing after the death of a sibling show up in different ways. You may realize your tears are fewer and you can smile as you reminisce. You may come to realize, and feel, there is still a meaningful connection to your sibling. As you move forward, you may continue with family traditions and incorporate your loved one. You could find a space at a gathering to include a special photograph, invite conversation and reminiscing, host a meal with favorite foods, or honor birthdays by gathering together.

Maybe you feel motivated to make new and positive changes in your life to honor the memory of your deceased sibling. Consider participating in, or even creating, a special event to recognize what was important to your sibling. Or you could commit to a healthier lifestyle, renew bonds with important people in your life, carry on projects your sibling was working on, or take a trip they always wanted to take. You can find ways to keep their memory alive while continuing to live your life.

Eventually, you will work through the difficult feelings and find a place of comfort and peace.

How Gilchrist Can Help

After the loss of an adult sibling or of any loved one, Gilchrist’s counselors provide a safe space for individuals to explore their feelings and understand symptoms that are normal in the grief process. Counselors are a witness to the important stories of lives shared. Throughout the year, we offer support groups for siblings and workshops focused on understanding grief and developing coping skills. Two unique remembrance events are offered in the fall and spring each year. Participating in the grief programs helps siblings to embrace their loss and feel they have a place among others.

“Siblings will take different paths, and life may separate them. But they will forever be bonded by having begun their journey in the same boat.”

–Anonymous

Note: While face-to-face counseling and workshops are temporarily suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gilchrist is offering virtual grief support. Please call 888.823.8880 to schedule an appointment.

To learn more about Grief Counseling at Gilchrist, visit gilchristcares.org/grief-counseling.

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