Sadness After Sibling Loss

When a loved one dies, everyone expects the family to experience sadness. Sadness has become a synonym for grief, but the truth is, grief is usually comprised of many mixed emotions. The most prevalent of these are the aforementioned guilt and anger. One of the reasons these two become so strong is due to our society’s labeling of these as “bad” emotions. It is acceptable to be heartbroken that your sibling is gone, but if a child makes statements related to self-centeredness or resentment, he or she is made to feel guilty.

Even unhappiness can become considered negative if it is too intense or too egocentric. These forbidden emotions do not just go away. They hide in the unconscious, resulting in more guilt and more anger. Vicious cycles result.

Anguish and gloom can be obvious, but sometimes these can be masked. Common examples of statements and thoughts relating to sadness include:

  • I miss my sibling.
  • I am lonely; no one is there for me.
  • No one understands how bad I feel.
  • Everything I see or hear reminds me of my brother.
  • I am afraid I will forget my sister.
  • I am having problems remembering how my sibling looked and talked.
  • Nothing sounds fun anymore.
  • I am not hungry; food makes me queasy or tastes like cardboard.
  • I want to cry, but sometimes the tears just don’t fall.
  • Tears come at the smallest provocation and then I can’t stop crying.
  • I just want to sleep all the time; I am always tired.
  • Nightmares are scaring me almost every night.
  • I can’t stop obsessing about my brother.
  • People are bothering me all the time.
  • I have no energy.
  • Even boring TV shows upset me.
  • I don’t want to do anything but sit here by myself.
  • I want to be alone.

Sadness is Normal after Sibling Loss

Sadness is a normal and healthy reaction to a major loss. However, when this emotion becomes overwhelming or prolonged, professional help may be advisable. It is crucial to allow a child to express his or her agony as much as possible. Since this emotion is expected and inevitable, it is sometimes easy for a child to release this pain and talk about the situation.

But at other times, grief must be coaxed out. The best way to do this is to provide a support system, someone the child trusts so he or she knows there will be no judgment. Sometimes that is the only action necessary to encourage the tears to fall.

One of the difficulties inherent in being a grieving child is that after a sibling dies, the survivor may be neglected as visitors focus on the parents, whose loss is considered more significant.  Researchers and writers occasionally use the term “disenfranchised grief” to describe sadness felt by a mourner over a loss that society may not recognize as painful (Doka, 2002).

When Survivor’s Pain is Minimized

When a child dies, outsiders realize the impact of the death on the parents; moms and dads are supposed to be inconsolable. Many adults assume children are not as strongly affected. Kids may get the message that their pain is insignificant, and they may start to believe that their mourning is a sign of weakness. When that assumption is internalized, siblings may extricate themselves from social gatherings to hide their sense of vulnerability.

Referring again to Anderson Cooper, we learn that he admits how difficult his brother’s suicide was for him to accept. He reflects on how this affected his life. Along with intense guilt, Cooper refers to sorrow when he states that “The only thing I really knew is that I was hurting and I needed to go someplace where the pain outside matched the pain I was feeling inside.”

He chose to go to Somalia, Sarajevo, and Rwanda, where he witnessed unspeakable horrors. Admitting that his brother’s death was a motivating factor in his career choice, Cooper has not only learned to live with his pain but has made relative peace with it. He concedes that “all of us dangle from a delicate thread.”

Sadness Need Not Overwhelm our Lives

To a sibling loss survivor, part of that thread is sadness. The good news is that although this emotion never fades completely, we can adjust and not let it engulf our lives. In fact, we can learn to “not let go” in Cooper’s words (Cooper, 2003). Some survivors, like Cooper, have utilized the misery itself.

The same can be said for Jermaine Jackson, whose famous brother Michael died in 2009. In his book devoted to Michael, he writes in the acknowledgements about how “your spirit is with me every day. I never had the chance to express properly my gratitude before you left us” (Jackson, 2011).

Jermaine has also used his grief and sadness, not only expressing them in the book written about Michael but also in his continuing musical career. There is life after losing a sibling even though heartache may be part of it. Composer Hugo Wolf once wrote the statement that “the heart bleeds from a thousand wounds” (Jamison, 1995). I suppose that is a painfully accurate description of how a person aches after suffering from the loss of any loved one, and siblings are no exception.

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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