Anger after a Sibling Loss

When a child loses a  sibling, the surviving child may be overwhelmed by anger. As with guilt, anger can be conscious or unconscious and is evident in thoughts like the following:

  • I am mad at my sibling for messing up my life.
  • My parents should have protected my brother.
  • My mom and dad should  be there for me.
  • God shouldn’t have let this happen to my family.
  • The doctors and nurses weren’t good enough to fix my sister.
  • My friends don’t understand and aren’t there for me.
  • My family should have included me more in the process.
  • My parents didn’t tell me the truth.
  • Life stinks if horrible things can happen.
  • Everyone else’s life is perfect; why are others more deserving than I am?
  • Why is everybody else having such a good time?
  • Why did my sister leave me and screw up my life?
  • It’s my brother’s fault for being weak and leaving me.
  • It’s my parent’s fault for not doing their job.
  • It’s the doctor’s fault for being stupid and incompetent.
  • It’s God’s fault; he could have done something to stop all this. (He hates me after all.)

Rage About the Loss

Although many of these statements may not sound like anger on the surface, they are actually masking deep rooted outrage at the core. This emotion can be directed toward anyone and everyone, including the sibling who has died, the parents and other family members, the doctors and nurses, God, fate, or any individual or circumstance that might have played a role in the situation.

This anger is made worse if there actually is a perceived responsible party, such as in a murder or a suicide. Mad feelings are sometimes exacerbated by the stress imposed by a society that insists that anger is “not nice.” Many of us are brought up to hide feelings of wrath and aggression as if they are bad emotions that need to be suppressed.

The trouble is, the anger itself does not go away, and it can intensify under the psychic surface. In addition, this rage is often turned inward, and the child may start to blame himself. Inwardly directed fury can lead to low self-esteem, learned helplessness, and even more guilt.

Some Anger after a Sibling Loss is Normal

It is important to recognize that anyone who contends with a loss will experience some level of annoyance or resentment. BOf course, children require guidance in ways to deal positively with acrimonious emotions; misdirected anger can lead to behavior problems and aggression.

But encouraging good behaviors does not mean ignoring the feelings themselves. Sometimes a child just needs to blow off steam, and recognizing that there is a safe, nonjudgmental place to do so can go a long way in healing.  At the risk of sounding Freudian again, I contend that sometimes anger is just a projection—an outward expression of the guilt and pain a person is experiencing internally.

The best way to cope is to express emotions openly, without pressure or shame. Children need to accept that feelings are not wrong or abnormal.  We are only human after all.

Supporting Healthy Anger

Of the various emotions that can result from losing a sibling, anger may be the one that is repressed the most.

In his novel Slapstick (1999), writer Kurt Vonnegut states, “The museums in children’s minds, I think, automatically empty themselves in times of utmost horror—to protect the children from eternal grief.” If true, which anecdotal evidence supports, the “museum” most certainly protects the children from feelings of infuriation as well.

Most children learn that irritation and resentment are impolite and unacceptable, and embitterment toward a sad situation or the victim would make one a “bad girl” or a “mean boy.” Many children may need assistance to discover a constructive outlet for the powerful thoughts and feelings.

This is an excerpt from Turning the Page: Helping a Child Cope with the Loss of a Sibling.

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Sue Trace Lawrence

Sue Lawrence is an Adjunct Professor of Psychology who began teaching at Ursinus in 2011. An alumna of Ursinus who graduated with a B.S. in psychology in 1983, she earned her M.Ed. and certification in School Counseling at West Chester University. At the present time she is working toward a graduate certificate in neuropsychology from Ball State University. While a student at Ursinus, she served as the teaching assistant for Experimental Psychology and earned Departmental Honors for her research on learned helplessness. In addition, her original sociology research was published in Pennsylvania Folklife. In addition to teaching psychology at UC and other colleges, Sue has worked as a counselor and educational consultant, along with holding teaching and administrative positions in early childhood programs. She is a certified PQAS trainer for the state of Pennsylvania and provides professional development trainings for early childhood and school age staff in her position as Assistant Childcare Director for the Pottstown Branch of the Philadelphia Freedom Valley YMCA. Sue has written and self-published a book of poems and short-stories in collaboration with her late brother entitled Sob Stories. Currently, Sue has been conducting original research with UC students on the topics of childhood loss, grief, and trauma. She is currently working on a children’s book on sibling loss and has published a handbook for adults entitled Turning the Page: Helping a Child Cope with the Loss of a Sibling. Her future research interests lie in further exploring how early childhood traumatic grief experiences influence children into adulthood.

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