How Guilt Shows Itself

More than any other emotion, guilt arguably dominates the mental life of a sibling who losing a sibling.  This guilt can take many forms, depending on the relationship between the siblings and the manner of death. Siblings can feel responsible and place blame on themselves, sometimes irrationally. Common thoughts reflecting this self-blame include:

  • I am older, so I should have been the protector.
  • Why didn’t I go first?
  • I was sick, too, so why didn’t I die?
  • I shouldn’t have thought those mean things about my sister.
  • I should have been nicer and not fought the last time I saw my brother.
  • I was a horrible sister.
  • I am a bad person, and this experience is God’s way of punishing me.
  • I can never be as successful as my brother would have been.
  • My parents want me to take the place of my sibling, but I am failing.
  • Mom and Dad favored my sibling, so why I am left?
  • Perhaps he caught my cold, so I caused his death?
  • I smacked him last week; maybe that’s why he died?
  • I didn’t have a chance to say good-bye.
  • I never told her that I loved her.
  • I am a disappointment as the only child left.
  • I am not living up to the task of trying to succeed for two people.
  • My brother would be ashamed of me.
  • Sometimes I think it should have been me.
  • My sister was a much better person than I am.
  • I should have done something to stop what happened.
  • Probably it was my fault, but I don’t know what I did wrong.
  • I don’t believe I am entitled to have fun anymore because my brother can’t.
  • I don’t deserve new experiences because my sister can’t have them.

Guilt Often Not Logical

These are just a few examples of guilty thoughts that accompany guilty feelings. Since in most cases there is nothing a sibling could have done to stop the death of a brother or sister, these assumptions are not logical, and in some respects, reflect the fantasy thinking of young childhood.

However, even older children and adults can fall into the web spun by this type of thought. As humans, we want control, and most of us relish the illusion of it. We can be lured into the trick of “illusory correlations,” in which we look for causal factors where there truly are none. This is especially true of children.

Consider superstitious ideas regarding good luck.  “I won the football game wearing my lucky underwear, so that must be the reason for the victory. I will need to wear them every week so I keep winning.” This misunderstanding is harmless in this instance but similar fallacies can become the roots of guilt when something goes wrong. “I woke up late the day my brother died, so that must be why he is gone. It is my fault.”

Again, it is natural for us to want to find reasons for why things happen, but as we get older, we become more logical. Children are frequently illogical. When the situation is emotionally charged, the stakes are even higher, and the need to find a reason for the occurrence becomes obsessive.

Guilt is Normal

Along with exhibiting the urge to be in control, we tend to see ourselves as more powerful than we really are—children especially. This slightly narcissistic, but normal, view, combined with the magical thinking of young childhood, may cause children to assume they are responsible even when they are not.  This is more likely to be the case when the surviving sibling is older since he or she may have already shouldered the responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of the younger brother or sister.

In addition, survivor guilt may surface, and it can be experienced by anyone of any age. The confusion over why one was spared becomes problematic and leads to shame and guilt. These emotions result because he or she survived when the sibling did not, and it arises from the concurrent wave of relief that can wash over them. Although these feelings are normal, children can manufacture guilt when even briefly considering these thoughts.

Guilt also pervades the experience of observing the suffering of parents. Watching adults in pain is difficult for children and they may assume responsibility for their parents’ reactions.  Moms and dads are supposed to be stable and strong. Observing adults’ turmoil can be emotionally stressful to young ones. Kids may purposely try to avoid parents and pretend things are normal so as not to further upset the adults in their world.

Guilt Manifests in Various Ways

How do these guilty feelings present themselves? Sometimes we can recognize the guilt for what it is and confront it head-on, by talking it out or trying to rationalize it.

But many times it manifests in unconscious ways. A brother or sister may try to take on the late sibling’s roles, essentially as a form of compensation. He may become fearful, projecting anger toward himself through potential self-harm. She may become anxious and depressed without knowing the specific reason. He may grow compulsive, performing rituals to gain a sense of control. She may overachieve to prove to herself and others that she deserves to live.

He may try to harm himself as a way of self-punishment. She may act out to get retribution from others. He may have nightmares in which he is being tormented, symbolizing punishment for the imagined sins he has committed. She may try to avoid mistakes so that her parents are proud of her, proving herself worthy of life and love. He may self-medicate to protect his psyche from the barrage of guilty thoughts that invade his unconscious and conscious mind.

I propose that all siblings, to some extent, have feelings of guilt. This emotion is reported frequently by survivors. Although guilt may not always be preventable, it can be tackled by recognizing its existence. Most siblings find themselves isolated from people who care about them, and they may be afraid to acknowledge, even to themselves, that they may be guilty of something related to their sibling’s death. It is essential for parents or other adults to recognize this guilt when it rears its ugly head and to explain reality to a child.

Children’s Need to Know

Young people need to understand that they did not cause or contribute to the crisis. They need to know that it is normal to have mean, jealous, angry thoughts about their siblings at times, but these ideas do not cause people to die. Kids must be reminded that they are not horrible people, and that no one is perfect. Death is not a form of punishment. And lastly, they have to accept that there is no need to replace the dead brother or sister and be flawless in his or her absence. Every child is relevant, unique, and irreplaceable. No one expects the survivor to fill a void that can never be replenished.

It might be prudent to make one other major point regarding guilt and its sister emotion, shame. Author Babette Rothschild explains how shame is distinct from feelings such as sadness, anger, and fear, because there is no easy outlet for shame and guilt. In her view, shame is impossible to express or “cathart.”  Anger, for example, can be released through tantrums, while sadness can be relieved through crying and fear through trembling. But shame and guilt have no immediate or direct behavior to allow for abreaction. As a result, these attitudes and moods need attention and special care in their handling (Rothschild, 2000).

Difference Between Guilt and Shame

Author and psychotherapist Helen Block Lewis wrote extensively on the topics of guilt and shame, which she views as slightly different phenomena. In her opinion, guilt occurs when a person feels responsible for committing an undesirable act. The negative behavior creates a sense of remorse about doing something wrong.

Shame is more global and reflects a negative self-image. An individual who feels ashamed is not just experiencing pangs of conscience over a bad behavior but has expanded his or her reaction to include negative views of himself or herself as a person. This child, or even an adult, can’t separate the action from the self. Regret over one bad instance seeps into the person’s sense of self-esteem, creating a self-concept that is negative and blameworthy (Lewis, 1971).

Recall how Erikson considered shame to be one of the key emotional responses of very young children, capable of being expressed long before concomitant feelings of guilt. Maybe it is no surprise that a small child who has suffered a loss internalizes her pain, incorporating it into the developing self-image.

Distant Guilt

Guilt can emerge even when the siblings had little early contact. Rock musician Nikki Sixx had a sister, Lisa, who suffered from severe intellectual disabilities and had been institutionalized when Nikki was very young. His family hid his sister’s plight from him, and he discovered many years later that she was in a nearby facility.

Vowing to visit and reconnect, Nikki saw his plans thwarted when she died before he managed to meet with her. In his book, The Heroin Diaries (2007), he writes of his sense of loss and guilt over his inability to have forged a relationship, but his connection to her is obvious in his heart-felt description of his feelings. Even when the siblings were not familiar, a perceived bond and resulting guilt after a death seem to be strong and pervasive.

A more intense and nagging state of guilt will undoubtedly be a consequence when a sibling has died from suicide. It isn’t uncommon for survivors in the family to assume that they could have or should have prevented the death. If the siblings were close, the remaining child may think he or she should have known what the brother or sister was planning to do, as if there were a psychic connection.

If the relationship was somewhat estranged, the survivor may regret that he or she didn’t try harder to make peace with the lost sibling. The newsman Anderson Cooper lost a brother to suicide in the adult years, but maturity has not prevented him from experiencing feelings of responsibility and regret about lost opportunities (Cooper, 2003). Of course in this emotional milieu, guilt and shame have fertile ground to take root.  It takes an attentive gardener to keep the weeds in check.

This is an excerpt from Turning the Page: Helping a Child Cope with the Loss of a Sibling, by Sue Trace Lawrence.

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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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