Is Sibling Loss a Trauma?

One phenomenon inherent in the popularizing of psychology over the last few decades has been the incorporation of “buzzwords” into our lexicon. An example is the use of the term “trauma.” This term is used frequently by both the media and lay people in everyday conversation to describe a variety of experiences. We state that someone has been “traumatized” by various situations.

But what specifically does that mean? What differentiates a truly traumatizing experience from a merely unpleasant one? Most present-day psychologists would admit that there is no definitive answer to this dilemma, and that stress and trauma are more in the eye of the beholder than realities in and of themselves.

According to authors Peter Levine and Maggie Kline, as stated in their 2007 handbook, Trauma through a Child’s Eyes:

“Trauma happens when any experience stuns us like a bolt out of the blue; it overwhelms us, leaving us altered and disconnected from our bodies. Any coping mechanisms we may have had are undermined, and we feel utterly helpless and hopeless. It is as if our legs are knocked out from under us.”

Trauma Varies Among People

This description implies that what might be considered traumatic to a person can vary with the circumstances, especially with the sources of power and strength that a person possesses. Cognitive psychologists maintain that an individual’s interpretation of the event determines its level of stress. For example, if one is psychologically equipped to handle an issue such as an illness, he or she might be less stressed or traumatized by a serious diagnosis than would someone who feels more helpless.

Belief systems play a role as well; people’s interpretation of the meaning or reason for an event will cause varying responses. Major catastrophes, such as natural disasters or violent crimes, are more likely to be universally traumatic since the events are severe, unpredictable, and largely uncontrollable.

But other problems that could seem minor or even commonplace to an adult with mental and social resources may be overwhelming to a young child without experience or brain maturation. Because the state of childhood inherently fosters the natural sense of powerlessness and dependence with which a young child struggles, various happenstances might “stun like a bolt out of the blue.”

Sibling Loss Often Traumatic

Losing a brother or sister can be such an event.  Obviously, the death of a child is a serious and overwhelming event to every family member. When the death is sudden, its impact is even stronger. But for young children who possess less rational ability, have access to fewer bits of information, and obtain their sense of security from the family unit, sibling loss becomes an overwhelmingly traumatic event.

A child might react as if the metaphorical rug has been pulled out from under him. This singular instance will be experienced as a trauma for a child whose nervous system, body, and psyche are drawing on all life experiences to form the template for adult functioning.

How does a child typically react to trauma? Levine and Kline (2007) describe four universal signs that are indicative that a person has been traumatized and not merely upset or stressed. These clues represent the mind-body response, which again is dependent on the person’s interpretation of the event as a stressor. These reactions include:

  • Hyperarousal
  • Constriction
  • Dissociation
  • Acting numb or “frozen”

What are specific behaviors that represent these responses?  Let’s use the hypothetical example of Mac, a five-year-old who recently lost a 2-year-old sister in an accident.


As the body experiences the fight-or-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system and adrenal glands, it becomes wired for action. As muscles tense, Mac may experience an energy surge and act accordingly. This reaction can be illustrated by an increased energy level during the daytime—decreased ability to sit still and pay attention; temper tantrums that involve thrashing, hitting, or throwing; or increased need for physical stimulation and play.

The problems may manifest at nighttime, too, as insomnia, sleepwalking, nightmares, and night terrors. Increased aggressiveness or bullying may be exhibited if Mac turns his energy outward.  If we consider how Mac’s body is readying itself for action, these behaviors make sense. To Mac, there exists a threat to his perceived sense of safety and security; therefore he becomes hyper-vigilant and on guard.


Constriction refers to the body’s “shutdown” reaction after the hyperarousal state. This condition is marked by fatigue, lack of energy, and severe lethargy. Mac becomes withdrawn and fearful, refusing to leave the home or the relative safety of a parent’s side. Usually independent, Mac now becomes helpless and refuses to do anything for himself. Constantly on the lookout for potential dangers, Mac becomes scared of every noise or activity. He may lose his appetite and refuse to eat. He demonstrates somatic symptoms, physical complaints that appear to be unrelated to a true medical illness.

Examples of this class of symptoms include stomachaches, headaches, and even low-grade fevers (Levine and Kline, 2007). Mac becomes more susceptible to the common colds and infections.  Of course, a medical check-up is always required to treat or rule out true illness. But these symptoms are still real in the sense that the child experiences them physically. Mac is not faking; he truly feels horrible. He is just not yet able to make the connection between his sister’s death and his health.


Although this topic was discussed previously in Chapter 3 on memory, it bears repeating here in the description of Mac’s responses. As the anxiety surrounding the death of his little sister grows as the family makes preparations and mourns, Mac further withdraws emotionally. He refuses to speak about his sister and acts as if nothing is different. He may become obsessed with pursuits outside the family as a way of distancing himself from the turmoil at home.

Obviously, maintaining external contacts and distractions can be healthy, but Mac is extreme in his behavior. He may manufacture an imaginary friend on which to project his own feelings or thoughts.  He begins to express himself through negative, even violent, play with toys or others.  Ane does not understand that these acts are directly related to what happened with his sister; he refuses to acknowledge any connection. He may deny being sad, mad, or upset. Denial goes hand-in-hand with forms of dissociation.


This response is similar to both the previously mentioned constriction and the learned helplessness response discussed in Chapter 11.  But in this case, the reaction may be as much emotional as physical.

For children such as Mac, this response can be heightened due to the exaggerated sense of helplessness, both real and imagined. In many ways the body is in shock. There is a subjective sense of nothingness; there may be no tears, no angry outbursts, and no overt reaction. The children may exhibit signs of emotional depression such as anhedonia, the fancy term for the dearth of happiness. Mac becomes stuck in time, unable to initiate any pleasurable activities on his own. Lacking in motivation, Mac becomes robotic, going through the motions as pushed by his family but not responding emotionally.

Along with constriction, this sense of numbness may cause Mac to be inactive and distant. In essence, he has shut down emotionally to protect himself from further stress, just like the opossum shuts down physically for the same reason.

Fear of One’s Own Death

In the Handbook of Thanatology (2013), the concept of “annihilation anxiety” is discussed by author Lillian Range. She makes the case that after a traumatic death, survivors may become preoccupied with fear of their own similar demise. She states that this may result from residual guilt over negative feelings toward the lost loved one. When applied to kids, to whom any death is perceived as sudden, violent, and random, this anxiety may intensify. It is no wonder that children may find themselves fearful and even phob after the “trauma” of a loved one’s death.

These responses are experienced by adults dealing with trauma also, but again, we need to realize that a child may react this way in response to events he perceives as traumatic, and sibling loss certainly fits that bill.  As parents or other concerned adults, we must be aware of the signs and symptoms and be attuned to the root causes. This takes patience and analysis, along with the recognition that a child’s emotional and physical reactions will undoubtedly vary from those of an adult.

As Levine and Kline (2007) point out, these responses may surface later, so a parent’s awareness and vigilance are crucial.  As with Mac, not every symptom or abnormal behavior will necessarily be the result of the trauma. Being alert and informed can go a long way in helping parents recognize and react to their child’s responses. Only then can the parent act to aid and accept what is going on in the body and mind of a child.

Excerpted from Turning the Page: Helping a Child Cope with the Loss of a Sibling, by Sue Trace Lawrence.

Read more by Sue on Open to Hope:

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.

More Articles Written by Sue