“Death ends a life but not a relationship.”
—Robert W. Anderson, “I Never Sang for My Father”
I can’t imagine how my parents (or any parents) survived the premature death of my brother, their oldest son. To lose a child, experts say, is second only to the pain of losing an identical twin.
But what about the grief of a sibling who loses a sibling? Up until the last twenty years of so, the grief of siblings had been largely overlooked. But out of the approximately seventy-three thousand children who die in the United States each year, an estimated 83 percent leave a sibling survivor.
In 2012, twenty children were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut. The tragedy was the deadliest mass shooting in a grade school or high school in U.S. history. The victims left at least forty siblings behind.
Between 2002 and 2012, at least twenty-eight thousand children and teens ages nineteen years and younger were killed with guns. Teens between the ages of fifteen and nineteen made up over two-thirds of all youth gun deaths in the U.S.
And these startling numbers don’t include death from diseases like cancer, accidents and suicide.
Two Years and Counting
Holly Aldrich, founding director of the Center for Homicide Bereavement in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says, People will say in the second year after a sibling dies that “It’s getting worse, it’s not getting better.” It’s getting worse because as the shock recedes and the disbelief recedes, things start to surface, and that’s very often when people around them are thinking ‘Well, it’s been however long and you’re looking better and it’s time to get on, move on.’
But for siblings (and adults), there are no guidelines, no time limits. Sometimes, progress moves slowly but progressively. Other times, it seems impossible for the heart to heal.
Often we hear from people—very often—that the hope is it will be linear and progress in a linear fashion, so if they can just hang on, they will reach an end point.
It doesn’t work that way. It’s not, “One day, you will be who you were.” But very often, especially in adults—and kids can do it, too—there’s a before and after. There’s the before in my life and there's that demarcation, which begins the after in my life.
The future for the siblings left behind after a brother or sister dies largely depends on a successful journey through the grief process. That journey is made even more difficult when parents and other adults either don’t recognize or are incapable of helping children and adolescents process their mixed feelings of sadness, anger, even guilt.
Children often have the same feelings of grief as adults but don’t necessarily display the same behaviors. Some children don’t show any outward signs. Others may keep mementos of their sibling close at hand or develop behavior problems, even post-traumatic syndrome. Still other surviving siblings may feel as if they were the cause of their sibling’s death. While this may seem irrational, it is not uncommon. And physical signs of grief such as headache, insomnia, even an eating disorder plague many surviving siblings.
Generally, it is now accepted that surviving siblings maintain an ongoing connection and relationship with the deceased. In her 2004 book, The Empty Room: Surviving the Loss of a Brother or Sister at Any Age, Elizabeth Devita-Raeburn referred to continuing bonds as the phenomenon of “carrying.” Based on interviews with seventy-seven bereaved siblings, she found the surviving siblings carry, or bring forward, their deceased sibling into their current lives without attempting to replace them. The deceased siblings remain part of their identity as parallel travelers in life. Thus, bereaved siblings were “carrying” their deceased sibling with them and continuing the very bonds that had always defined the relationship.
The passage of time, sometimes counseling, and the love and support of family and friends help ease the grief siblings grapple with when a brother or sister dies.
For many, they adjust but often feel as if a part of them has been lost forever.
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