Understanding Sibling Survivor Guilt

By Bob Baugher –

When a sibling dies, the surviving brothers and sisters often feel enormous guilt. Here are five common types of guilt with a brief description of each.

1. Death-Causation Guilt — In this type of guilt, the sibling actually caused the death or perceived that he or she did something to contribute to the death.

2. If-Only Guilt — Here, the person thinks again and again about all the possible factors that could have somehow contributed to the death. When an auto accident is the cause of death, common thoughts may be:

“If only I hadn’t driven.”

“If only I hadn’t made that turn.”

“If I had left earlier [or later].”

“If I had driven slower [or arrived sooner].”

When a negative event occurs in our life, our brain often reacts by playing the incident over and over and over. It is as if our brain is wired to dissect an episode in innumerable ways in an attempt to make sense of something that is senseless. We drive thousands and thousands of miles in a lifetime. Consider all of the multiple factors that converged on that day at that exact time at that place under those conditions. Our brain is absolutely incapable of logically deciphering why an accident took place. Yet, that does not stop us from trying an endless array of hypotheses.  This reaction is one of the major contributors to the feelings of craziness that follows the death of a loved one. Therefore, it certainly wouldn’t be unusual for your son to feel like he was going crazy these last two years. Make sense?

3. Inducing-Pain-in-Others Guilt — When we feel guilty about causing a death, we may also feel guilty about the pain we have caused others, including all those people who loved the deceased.

4. Grief Guilt — The person reports feeling guilty for not grieving “correctly.” The problem with this is there is no one right way to grieve.

5. Getting-Better Guilt — This is one of the toughest issues regarding guilt after the death of a loved one. Getting better does not mean that the person is back to normal. Years after a death, bereaved people find themselves at a place in their life different from any they ever experienced or imagined. Their entire world has been altered forever.  They are, what many people report, in a “new normal.” Therefore, the form of guilt associated with the process of getting better is similar to Grief Guilt, but the focus is not on grieving. It is concerned with the times in which the individual realizes that he or she is:

  • Living life without his or her loved one
  • Feeling good about being alive
  • Experiencing pleasure without feeling guilty
  • Going through several minutes, or even hours in the day, and not thinking about the loved one
  • Beginning a new relationship

What often happens is that months or years after the death, the person is involved in an activity and suddenly realizes that he or she is actually feeling better. Or it could be that the person has not thought about his or her loved one for a time. When this occurs, the person might feel guilt. In some cases it takes the form of a panic reaction.

For example, the person may say, “Oh my God, I’m forgetting him!” The person begins to feel that their loved one is fading from memory. Worse, the person feels that the forgetting process will progress. The person may say, “I can’t believe this. He was in my life. He was my entire life. I loved him. How can I be forgetting him? I won’t let this happen!” The person then makes a promise to never again fall into the trap of living life which yields forgetting. However, the person is now in what can be called “the trap of guilt” that impedes the process of grief. Let’s look at two examples.

Guilt Trap #1: An important sign of progression in the bereavement process is reinvesting in life. At the very moment that we begin to feel a little better, our guilt feelings emerge, which lead us to conclude that we must be forgetting our loved one. As a result, we “snap back” from our positive feelings and convince ourselves that moving on with life (the very epitome of positive coping with grief) is wrong. Therefore, the only way that a person can overcome this guilt trap is to understand that moving on does not equal forgetting or losing love for this person.

Guilt Trap #2: Another trap occurs as the survivor gradually comes to realize that many life goals might never be realized because life has drastically changed. The person is in a conflict that may sound like this: “If I work on these goals, then I am moving on with my life, but without my loved one. So why even work on them? Yet, if I put the goals aside, I may regret not having done them. I feel guilty either way.”

Let’s look next at a few suggestions that have helped bereaved people with guilt. If you are feeling guilt, try these:

1. Write a list of all you did wrong and all you did right involving the deceased person.

No one is perfect. Of course you did things wrong with him. List every one of them. Once you’ve completed that list, write out all the things you did right. It’s so easy to beat yourself up and focus on the negatives, but you must also look at the positives. One other related step in this exercise is to write out all the things you wish you had done differently and next to each underline the good intentions.

2. Imagine that it was you who died, and not the other person.

What would you say to the surviving person? Say them in your mind right now as you read this. Would you tell him to feel guilty? Would you want him to not live his life to the fullest? Now say these words to yourself.

3. Reach out for individual and/or group support.

Some people work on their grief and guilt alone, some do it with another person or two, and some find a group setting is helpful. Do you have one or more persons in your life who can be a good listener to you without judgment? Who is this person? Is there a counselor who understands grief that you can contact for an appointment? If you haven’t done so already, can you try it? There are grief support groups in most communities throughout the United States and Canada and on the Internet. People in these groups have experienced a loss similar to yours. Call the local crisis center, mental health facility, church, hospital, hospice, or funeral home to find support in your area.

4. Channeling guilt

One way that people cope with the incredible guilt they feel is to channel it into a worthwhile project. The ability to give to another person or to a cause without expecting something in return is a tribute to the human spirit. It helps answer the question, “What can I do now in the name of my brother?”

Ask yourself :

Into what kind of project, activity, or work can I channel my guilt?

How might I serve my community to honor the person who has died?

What organization would appreciate my volunteer work?

How can I raise funds?

What can I build?

Bob Baugher, Ph.D., can be reached at [email protected].

Neil Chethik

More Articles Written by Neil

Neil Chethik is an author, speaker and expert specializing in men's lives and family issues. He is the author of two acclaimed books: VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think About Their Marriages, Their Wives, Sex, Housework and Commitment (Simon & Schuster 2006), and FatherLoss: How Sons of All Ages Come To Terms With the Deaths of Their Dads (Hyperion 2001). Previously, Neil was a staff reporter for the Tallahassee Democrat and San Jose Mercury News, and writer of VoiceMale, the first syndicated column on men's personal lives. His writings have appeared in hundreds of print and web publications. He is currently Writer-in-Residence at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington, Ky., where he lives with his wife, Kelly Flood, and son, Evan. Reach Neil at: [email protected] 121 Arcadia Park Lexington Ky. 40503 859-361-1659 Neil appeared on the radio show “Healing the Grieving Heart” with Dr. Gloria & Dr. Heidi Horsley to discuss “Men and Loss.” To hear Neil being interviewed on this show, click on the following link: www.voiceamericapd.com/health/010157/horsley121307.mp3

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *