Fear After Sibling Loss

Fear is commonplace in children after a sibling’s death.  Many times, the surviving child may not state their fear directly, but an astute parent can detect this emotion in statements such as these:

  • I don’t want to go to school.
  • Please keep the light on for me at night.
  • Can I sleep in your room/bed?
  • Turn off the TV; I don’t want to watch that show.
  • Is Daddy going to be OK on his trip?
  • Don’t go to the store, Mommy!
  • Can I come with you when you run your errands?
  • Where is my old teddy bear that slept with me?
  • You can’t make me go on the trip.
  • I hate nighttime.
  • What if something happens to you/me?

How We Respond to Fear

Our autonomic nervous system, along with the hormones secreted by the adrenal glands, ensures that our body becomes ready to react to any threat. Known as the fight or flight response, the corresponding emotion is fear.

In Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, author Robert Sapolsky (2004) makes a compelling point when he explains how and why people are more susceptible to long-term stress than are animals. Imagine a zebra on the savanna that encounters a lion.  The zebra’s fight or flight response kicks in as expected. There are basically only two possible outcomes at this point—either the zebra runs and escapes to safety, or the lion catches him. In either event, the zebra’s fear is short-lived.

The case is different with humans, however.  For the majority of time, due to the evolutionary stance we now assume as humans, the threats we encounter on a daily basis are not life-threatening. Additionally, our highly developed cerebral cortex allows us to consider possible threats, not just those that might be at hand. Zebras don’t lie in bed at night worrying about taxes, job security, tomorrow’s test, or relationship problems.  We do, and our worry triggers the fight or flight response just as though real emergencies were at hand.

Chronic Fear Takes Body Toll

Our biological response to threats is not programmed for the long term; we are meant to handle the problem immediately, one way or another.  But mental worries are a whole different story, and the fear and apprehension that result can last indefinitely. This chronic anxiety can take a physical toll on the body in the form of gastrointestinal disturbances, cardiovascular disease, lowered immunity, and so on.

Other possible ramifications are emotional disturbances such as anxiety disorders, posttraumatic stress, and depression. These persist long after and in spite of any real stressor. Seen in conjunction with the egocentrism of young children, the result is a child who is scared that he or she may become sick or injured just like the sibling who was lost.Long-term Effects of Fear

Another potentiality is that phobias and trepidations can become learned, or conditioned, and may grow stronger with time. When fear is encountered in youth, it can become ingrained in the brain’s communication pathways, and become hardened over the years. Let us imagine that 10-year-old Carlton’s family received a late-night phone call informing them of his sister’s death He now associates the phone with painful news, and the ring tone will elicit anxiety and panic every time he hears it.

Fear of Relationships and Their Own Death

It is not unusual for a child’s uneasiness to revolve around him or herself. Every minor illness becomes a cause to panic as hypochondriacal thoughts become powerful. Twelve-year-old Laynie worries every time her neck glands swell with a respiratory infection; perhaps she has cancer as did her older sister.

Remember that children’s logic isn’t the same as an adult’s, so the association may seem irrational to you as a grownup. It may not appear to make sense, but to the child it does.  Once it becomes clear what is contributing to the perception of dread and horror, a child will find it easier to cope by talking, expressing, explaining, and relearning. Calm reassurance, and even the passage of time, will naturally change many of the negative associations (consider how positive phone calls can replace the memory of the bad one, for example).

Lastly, yet another way that a sibling survivor may reflect feelings of fear can be found in his or her interpersonal relationships. Many children who have lost a loved one are reluctant to be close to anyone. The pain of losing the connection may be stronger than the anticipation of being alone, so the child or adolescent may put up an emotional wall between himself and others. If we assume that love and friendship are the main sources of happiness in life, it isn’t hard to see how this seclusion can be an obstacle to future contentment, satisfaction, and meaning as one lives out a lifetime.

Overcoming Fear after Sibling Loss

One researcher on the topic of sibling loss, Dr. P.G. White, has found that many siblings become excessively fearful of their own death.  He writes that if a child dies of a specific disease, the sibling may have an obsessional fear of the same illness (White, 2011). If the death is accidental, it is common for a child to be terrified of similar situations.

Imagine the trepidation Senator Ted Kennedy must have had upon entering the Presidential race in 1980 after losing both his brother John and his brother Robert to assassins. In a TV interview on 20/20 in 2009, Ted’s son Teddy spoke about his own concern for his dad, remarking about the bullet-proof vests that adorned the family closet (Dwinell, 2009).  Yet, the elder Ted spent decades in the political spectrum and public eye. Sometimes challenging a phobia head-on is the best antidote.

In his 1917 essay entitled Mourning and Melancholia, Sigmund Freud writes that people who are in deep grief may, in his words, suffer the “loss of the capacity to love.”  Although we may argue that he is exaggerating somewhat about losing this “capacity” permanently, it is not difficult to interpret the social withdrawal of mourners as a protective armor against further pain. Loving and then losing a cherished person is immensely painful, and fear of this potential trauma can prohibit interaction with others. So fear can manifest itself indirectly as well, not only as anxiety of death itself but as reluctance to form intimate attachments as defense from pain of loss.

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

Read more by Sue on Open to Hope: https://www.opentohope.com/sibling-survivors-need-connection/

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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