Books > Excerpt from Dr. White's book Sibling Grief
“Don’t tell Mom!” my sister warned. We were planning a vacation during Spring break and she had a pain in her side. She whispered this information to me, swearing me to secrecy, so it wouldn’t spoil our trip. A week later, on the day of her thirteenth birthday, she finally told Mom. Linda died four months later from a rare form of cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma. I was fifteen years old.
My parents called us into the living room and told us that everyone had losses, and that talking about it made people sad. They did not know about the healing power of those painful feelings called grief. After the funeral, we moved from Colorado to California, and started over in a new place. My sister’s clothes and toys magically disappeared.
Years later, when my first child reached the age of thirteen, my grief returned in full force. I could not find a counselor who understood about sibling loss. I heard statements like, “You should be over that by now!” I spent the next several years figuring out what was happening to me, went back to college, and became a counselor myself. On the anniversary of my sister’s birthday, ten years ago, I posted my first hesitant website to the Internet. It is called the Sibling Connection, a place where bereaved siblings can find validation for their feelings, tell their stories, and meet others like them.
The response has been overwhelming. Many of the thousands of visitors write to thank me for the site. Some have become good friends. The purpose of this book is to share what I have learned on this journey, both from my own education and clinical work with bereaved siblings, and from the Sibling Connection.
I finally found a place where I could talk about what happened during those four months of my sister’s illness.
My sister did not know that she was dying and we were not supposed to tell her. But one dark night, as I sat in a chair, leaning on her hospital bed, I thought she was asleep. Out of the silence, she suddenly spoke.
Promise me you will keep singing,” she said quietly. “Promise me you will go to college.
I will,” I answered. “I promise.”
At that moment, I had the sensation that I was sitting on the bank of a river and she was lying in a boat, moving with the current. As her boat passed by, I reached over and grabbed the dreams -- our childhood dreams of growing up together, singing together, going to college, becoming teachers, traveling, getting married, and settling down with six children each and living next door to each other – I knelt on the river bank in my imagination, clutching an armload of dreams, like laundry out of the dryer, and watched her float away.
You don’t ask people to make promises like that unless you already know you are going to die.
I have learned that we never really get over the loss of a brother or sister.
This book is for all bereaved siblings of any age, and for parents who want to help their surviving children. There are chapters on the specifics of losing a brother or sister during childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, but they apply to us all. In some ways our siblings never age. If they die when we are adults, we feel the loss of the child they once were. If they die when we are children, we grow up and feel the loss of the adult they would have become.
There has been a great deal of research on sibling loss, but the articles are academic and sometimes difficult to read. My hope is that this book will reach a wider audience and make the information garnered from research available to everyone. The chapter on the five healing tasks represents wisdom based on research and on meeting with hundreds of bereaved siblings in my office and online. There is a section about the long-term effects of sibling loss, one on creativity, and one about the ongoing connections we keep with our lost siblings, including the dream patterns that reflect healing. There are poems and stories from other cultures. The final chapter is about bibliotherapy, or the use of books to help us heal. It includes a detailed outline for how to use bibliotherapy, as well as a book list.
After you read this book, I welcome you to visit the Sibling Connection online. Our vision is that all bereaved siblings will receive the support they need. Our mission is to provide resources to grieving siblings through counseling, education, research, writing, and by raising public awareness of the profound impact of sibling loss.
Death of a Sibling During Infancy or Childhood
A simple child, that lightly draws its breath,
Bereaved parent, Wm Wordsworth: We Are Seven
This chapter is for everyone—for adults who lost a sibling when they themselves were children, for all bereaved siblings, and for parents who have lost a child and want to learn how to help their surviving children. Throughout this book, I refer to the grieving siblings as survivors.
The early death of a brother or sister profoundly changes the lives of surviving siblings. They hurt, but don’t fully understand; they feel rejected and are afraid they are to blame. They fear that they, or someone else they love, might die next. Research shows that such a major loss adversely affects surviving children's health, behavior, schoolwork, self-esteem, and development.
Surviving siblings may be troubled throughout life by a vulnerability to loss and painful upsurges of grief at meaningful times, such as their sibling’s birthday or day their sibling died. To defend against loss, they may try to control the people around them and fear loving again. They may develop distorted beliefs about hospitals, doctors, and illness. In the absence of age appropriate information, they create childlike myths to explain what happened, and make up rules to follow in order to avoid further devastation. Such naïve rules for living may follow them permanently.
Many survivor siblings are troubled by guilt due to the ambivalent nature of the sibling relationship. Upon the death of the brother or sister, they remember forcibly all the fights and name-calling, seeing themselves in memory as the bad child and the dead sibling as the good one. This split in self-concept results in the feeling that they are not good enough.
Age, Development, and Attachment
The impact of sibling loss depends in part on the survivor’s age, developmental level, and their “attachment style”. In the first year of life, when babies are developing a sense of trust, the loss of a sibling means also a loss of crucial time with primary caregivers, who are spending time away from home on hospital visits, their own grief, perhaps even court appearances. School age children are developing a sense of accomplishment and beginning to bond with their peer group. This developmental stage requires ample opportunity for them to explore the world and spend time with friends, opportunities that may be curtailed due to a sibling’s illness and death, leaving the child feeling isolated and different from peers.
The way in which we form attachments or connections with loved ones also impacts the severity of the grief response. Psychologist John Bowlby theorized that individuals who learn to trust have a secure attachment style – in other words, they have a deep felt sense of being valued and deserving of care, support, and affection. Those who do not learn to trust because of inconsistent parenting, abuse, neglect, or lack of attunement, form an anxious attachment style. These individuals are fearful and anxious, feel unappreciated and misunderstood, lack confidence, and may worry about others taking advantage of them. Sadly, there is yet a third attachment style, which Bowlby called avoidant or detached. This occurs when the infant learns that its cries will not get a response at all and so does not become attached to others.
Once an individual forms an attachment style, it typically does not change throughout life, and this is why it is so significant when the death of a sibling disrupts the household. The grief does eventually abate, but attachment styles go on for a lifetime.
Infants who lose a sibling may experience a rift in their ability to trust, and thus do not form a secure attachment style. During the first years of life, these young ones depend entirely upon others to meet their daily needs. When responsive caregivers consistently meet their need for food, comfort, and affection, they learn to trust both people and the world in general. If, however, parents do not respond to their child’s cries, or trauma occurs, they may not learn to trust. This negative outcome sets the stage for a lifetime of pessimism, as the baby grows into a person who believes the world is basically unsafe. The roots of mental illness in adults sometimes reach back into this phase of development.
This is not to say that every infant who loses a sibling will develop mistrust. In most families, grandparents or other relatives or friends would most likely step in to maintain the infant’s routine and feeding schedules. This is all to the good. But the fact that one of the siblings is permanently gone might make the infant fearful and anxious, and erode the consistent care that is so important in developing that all-important feeling of security.
A child's experience of losing a sibling depends also on their understanding of death and the way that they grieve. These age ranges are approximate, and you (when you were a child) or your child (if you are a parent reading this) may have a broader understanding than those described here.
Toddlers think of death as temporary and reversible. They think in concrete terms (what they can see or touch) and may not comprehend why their brother or sister is in a coffin, and why they can’t go see them at the hospital the day after the funeral. When I told my four-year-old sister, Barb, that Linda had died and gone to Heaven, she replied, “We can still write letters to her, can’t we?”
This lack of understanding does not prevent them from absorbing the sadness and anxiety around them, so toddlers grieving the loss of a sibling sometimes regress to an earlier stage of development, for example, wetting the bed after they had already become toilet trained, or sucking their thumb, and on rare occasions, becoming mute for a period of time. Children in these younger age groups may have thought about an older sibling as a parent figure who took care of them, and wonder who will take care of them now that the brother or sister is gone.
In some ways, infants and toddlers suffer more than any other age group who lose a sibling. That is because they must now live a lifetime in a family which may have become dysfunctional after the death. We know, for example, that some couples divorce after losing a child, which creates another separation. We know that some parents who lose one child are likely to be overprotective of their remaining children. We know that some parents and siblings may respond to the loss by choosing not to love again, and not risk loving the bereaved infant or toddler. Some parents may actually verbalize their belief that the youngest child should have been the one to die since they didn’t know it that well.
Children age 6-8
These children know more about death--they have seen dead birds and bugs, seen people die on television, and heard it talked about. They think of death as a scary thing that they can hide from, by hiding under the bed, for example. They say things like "When your hair gets white, you die, right?" Parents may mistakenly assume that their child understands more at this age than they actually do. For that reason, it helps to be especially clear when communicating to them what is going on.
In this age group, children associate death with ghosts and skeletons. They know what it is, but not how it will affect them personally. They may ask questions about the death over and over. It is as if they have to learn the lesson of death many times for it to sink in.
At these young ages, children engage in what is called "magical" thinking. They may believe, for example, that their anger can kill, and that they cause the events surrounding them. They are still the center of their own universe and may take the blame for the death. Adults bereaved in childhood have often suffered for years, believing that they were responsible for their sibling's death.
Children ages 9-13
Children change at sometime around nine years to a more realistic understanding of death. They know that it cannot be reversed, that it is permanent, and that everyone dies.
Like the younger groups, these children do not behave like adults when they lose a loved one -- instead they may act out, or simply act as if nothing happened at all. They may fall asleep or want to go outside and play when everyone else is mourning. Again, they are dealing with reality in their own way, a way that is associated more with their age than the amount of love they had for the deceased. When a child first experiences a loss, they are just beginning to learn, on a day-to-day basis, what exactly loss feels like and what it means.
In later life, this group often feels guilty about how they acted during the time surrounding the death. Some, for example, had not been able to tolerate the physical pain of their sibling and dealt with this by avoiding them. As adults, they regret not spending time with their brother or sister immediately prior to their death, blaming themselves for not knowing that it was their last chance. Even decades later, these actions continue to cause them intense remorse and emotional pain.
As children, we did the best we could with our limited understanding. If we continue to have difficulty with guilt and remorse about such issues, we can go and look at a child who is now the age we were when our siblings died. Don’t they look young and innocent? Wouldn’t we be able to forgive that child? It helps to share our feelings openly with a supportive friend or family member to get them out into the open. When someone else can accept us in spite of what we did or didn’t do when our siblings were dying, it will help us to accept ourselves.
How Children Grieve
It is crucial for adults to learn how children grieve. Research shows that bereaved children (and teens) often "act out" their feelings by misbehaving and trying to get attention. They hurt inside and are seeking those critical attachment behaviors (eye contact, touching, clinging, staying near the parent) that will give them comfort. Parents and others might get mad at the child because they are behaving this way, but in reality, this IS the child's way of mourning.
Many adults look back on the way they behaved when their sibling was dying, and suffer more from guilt about their misbehavior than they do from any other aspect of the loss. When adults shame or belittle siblings for their behavior, survivors feel inadequate and of little value, a heavy burden for a young child who is already grieving.
Siblings of all ages sometimes feel jealous of the attention given a brother or sister who is sick for a period prior to death, and then feel guilty about having been jealous. Adults who are looking back at their experience need to know that these feelings of jealousy are normal. We cannot judge our childhood selves with the wisdom garnered from an adult lifetime. We need to forgive ourselves.
Why don’t all of the surviving children grieve in the same way?
The loss of a sibling affects each person in the family uniquely, because each relationship is different. Therefore, no two individuals from the same family have the same experience of loss. Some of the factors that influence the nature and intensity of sibling grief are birth order, the personality of the survivor, the psychological health of the family prior to the loss, and how the family handles the loss.
Perhaps the most significant factor that predicts how the surviving sibling’s life will be impacted by the loss is that of life space. Life space refers to the amount of time and activities shared with the deceased. Siblings who sleep in the same bed, play together, have the same friends, and spend most of their leisure time together share a great deal of life space. It is as difficult to separate siblings who shared a great deal of life space, as it is to take the yeast out of a loaf of bread without destroying the loaf. There is no separate identity in such cases. We have to learn who we are all over again.
Reactions in the Family – Seven Bereaved Children
As stated earlier, when young children experience the death of a brother or sister, they suffer not only the actual loss, but also a lifetime of living in a family whose response to the loss adds further difficulties.
Researchers have identified seven distinct kinds of survivor siblings, which represent various responses to loss. These are: the haunted child, the over-protected child, the replacement child, the lap child, the lonely child, the later-born child, and the scapegoat.
1. The Haunted Child – Researchers Krell and Rabkin talk about the “haunted child" who lives in families where none of the members talk about what happened. In this case, the survivor sibling is haunted by the knowledge of the death, but cannot speak up to ask about it.
2. The Overprotected Child -- Other parents may treat survivor siblings as if they are incredibly precious, and over-protect them in an attempt to prevent another loss. Such treatment may interfere with the child's growth in autonomy. Also, this treatment may go hand in hand with a subtle form of rejection, because the parent fears getting too close and being hurt again.
3. The Lap Child -- In my own clinical work, I have seen a similar phenomenon, the lap child, where an infant or young child, whose sibling is sick for a long time prior to the death, is kept close to his or her mother, because it’s easier for the mother, rather than allowing the child to explore and try new activities. The lap child may learn to be passive and helpless because they haven’t had opportunities to explore the world.
4. The Replacement Child -- The replacement child phenomenon includes three special situations. First, it refers to a child born after the death who is treated as if he or she were the reincarnation of the deceased. In rare cases, this child is even given the same name. This child’s identity blurs with that of the deceased, which creates significant difficulties throughout life. A replacement child can also be a child who is adopted or fostered by the family after the death of one of the children. Finally, the replacement child may refer to a surviving sibling who responds by acting like the one who died, as if they are trying to replace the lost brother or sister.
5. The Lonely Child -- The lonely child is essentially neglected, due to unavoidable circumstances, such as parental separation and divorce after the death. Sometimes growing up in a single-parent family, perhaps even being the only child left in the family, this child spends much of his or her time alone after school. Pets can be a lifeline for such children.
6. Later-born Children -- Children born into a family where the death of one child already occurred experience a variety of emotions. Some feel shut out because the others knew the deceased and they did not. Others feel that the deceased sibling is a real person, one who would have taken their side in arguments had they lived. Later-born children may talk about their sibling as a guardian angel who watches over them, while others blame the deceased for making their parents sad. Some later-born children wonder about their sibling well in to adulthood, and regret the lost opportunity for relationship.
7. The Scapegoat Child -- Kay Tooley writes about the "scapegoat" child and describes the phenomenon where one of the survivor siblings is chosen to be the target for a parent's hostility, hostility derived from that parent's own guilt about the death.
What all of this means is that bereaved siblings are subject to further problems depending on how the loss is handled by the family. Having other brothers and sisters at home helps to mitigate these responses.
How parents can help
Parents have a devastating burden placed upon them when they lose a child. They can, however, reduce the burden for their remaining children by the way in which they respond.
This section provides suggestions for parents who are dealing with the survivor siblings. If you are an adult reading this about your own bereavement experience, I recommend that you read each of these suggestions and explore your thoughts and memories about how it was handled in your family. Once we acknowledge and validate our memories and feelings, it becomes easier to forgive others and ourselves.
Gifts for a lifetime
Parents are often unaware of the power they hold within their families. In particular, any activity that a parent shares happily with a child becomes saturated with love. Long after you are gone, your child will engage in the activity and feel once again the love you shared.
Parents who instill a love of nature by spending time with children out of doors, in visits to parks, camping, hiking, or picnicking give their child a precious gift. In later years, when the now-grown child suffers a blow and is broken hearted, he or she can turn to nature for comfort and still feel loved. Parents who teach their children about the value of exercise, by walking or biking with them, playing ball with them, and supporting their sports events, also give a gift that lasts a lifetime, since exercise is one of the most significant methods of reducing anxiety. As adults under stress, they will be able to go for a long walk and not only feel better from the walk, but also feel your approval, which goes a long way towards reducing stress. A love for reading, for pets, for the environment, for cooking, an interest in history, cycling, boating, crafts, woodworking, or building cars – any activity can be the vehicle to carry love to the next generation.