By P.G. White, Ph.D.

disenfranchised grief

When adults lose a sibling, they often feel abandoned by society. The sympathy goes to their parents, but brothers and sisters are supposed to "get over it" quickly so they can comfort the parents or replace the lost sibling. This is one of the reasons why adult sibling loss falls into the category of "disenfranchised grief".

Bereaved individuals are encouraged to feel guilty for grieving too long. When society fails to validate the grief and sadness of siblings, they do not receive the support necessary to resolve their grief.

There is a tendency for the bereaved to go in to hiding with their feelings. This often results in a low-grade depression with which bereaved siblings struggle for many years. One of the benefits that technology has brought to the grieving population is by providing, through the internet, a way to connect to others in similar circumstances.

life changes in an instant

When adults lose a brother or sister, the following are some of the issues they deal with and must resolve or work through:

seeking a new identity

When someone has been a part of your life since birth, your identity is based on having them there. They form a part of the field or background from which you live your life, and as such, they are essential. They make up part of the unbroken wholeness that defines who you are. This relates to the concept of birth order.

When the first child is born, he or she develops certain characteristics and talents. Other siblings will most likely choose other characteristics to develop in order to differentiate themselves from each other.

The first child may become a star athlete, while the next sibling excels in academics. The siblings support each other by their differences. In doing so, siblings actually loan each other their strengths, and when one of the siblings dies, that strength is lost, and the survivor's identity with it.

It takes time to learn how to live your life again. You have to grow within yourself the parts once carried by your brother or sister. You don't "get" over this as much as "grow through" it.

the loss of a future with your sibling

Not only have you lost the actual person and your relationship with them, but you have lost the part they would have played in your future. You go on to marry, have children, buy a house, succeed or fail, and each event underlines the terrible reality that your brother or sister is not there. Forever after, all events, no matter how wonderful, have a bittersweet flavor.

Anniversary reactions plague the surviving sibling on birthdays or holidays and other special occasions. Bereaved siblings need not be too hasty in making life changes at these times. They may unwittingly be "acting out" the loss unless they are conscious of the date. If you haven't already done so, read the page on anniversary reactions.

compulsive caregiving

What prevents many bereaved siblings from an uncomplicated grief process is their desire to protect someone - perhaps their parents, spouse, or their own children. The focus on being there for someone else helps them put their own grief process on hold.

One of the most commonly noted responses to sibling loss is that surviving siblings learn not to fear the grief of others. They have been there--they know what it is like so they can listen to others who are grieving.

This can be carried too far.

When bereaved siblings project their own hurt feelings on to others, and then take care of those others, it becomes counter-productive. Compulsive caregivers live on the periphery of their existence, focusing so much energy outside themselves that they become empty, over-stressed, and ultimately clinically depressed.

Often, they appear "brittle," speaking in short, quick sentences, while they deny the underlying pain. The un-felt feelings then become a heavy burden that prevents the sufferer from becoming his or her best self.

To help resolve this compulsive caregiving, you need to confront your own sadness and pain, own it, feel it deeply. John Gray says "What you feel, you can heal," and this is the only route to growing through grief. You may need to talk about every miniscule detail of the death, and express the associated feelings over and over until you wear out the pain.

dealing with trauma

A related issue that is particularly troubling in certain kinds of death is that of trauma. Our minds can only process so much information at one time. When the event is of a magnitude to create excess stimulus, it is traumatic.

When a brother or sister dies suddenly from an accident, suicide, or homicide, this is definitely too much for us to take in at once.

Trauma may also be a factor for those bereaved siblings who helped to nurse their sibling through a disfiguring disease, or witnessed their suffering.

Recovery from trauma involves working through the pain, and articulating thoughts and feelings about the loss to a trusted person. While this long process is going on, you can gain strength by working to increase your self-esteem. Each step that you take towards becoming your "best self" will create a corresponding rise in self-esteem. You will then be strong enough to handle another 'piece' of your grief.

Traumatic grief must be dealt with bit by bit, not all at once.

a note about dealing with the people around you when you are grieving

Anger is a unique emotion. You can be sad or happy for no particular reason, but if you are angry, you need a target. If you use, as a target for your anger, the people who try to be helpful, you may end up driving everyone away.

Let's face it, life can be pretty difficult to deal with sometimes.

And one of those difficulties for most of us is knowing what to say when others are grieving. Sometimes we goof up and say the wrong thing. Please do not take it personally. Remember that after a major loss, we may see things in black and white for a while.

But eventually, we remember that people can say dumb things and still have a good heart.

surviving siblings + the four basic emotions

Whether your sibling died recently or long ago, you may find that you still have significant emotional energy around specific issues. Here are the four basic emotions and their triggers for bereaved siblings. The four emotions are actually families of emotions, often referred to as "Mad, Sad, Glad, and Bad (Guilt and Anxiety)."


Why are bereaved siblings still mad - days, months, or even years after the death of their brother or sister? Here are some of the reasons.

- The loss of their brother or sister was not acknowledged by parents or other relatives, or friends;

- The manner in which they got the news of the death did not feel right;

- Others expected the surviving sibling to take care of the parents or to make up for the loss;

- How they were treated immediately after hearing the news. Some were ignored, some were sent to stay with a relative, some were not given any information;

- Because of the way that they, or another sibling, was treated in the months and years after the loss. For example, some were blamed for not being the one who died, some were targeted as a scapegoat for the parent's anger;

- Their peers had no awareness of the reality of life and death, so they felt as if they were now different from them;

- Because life went on as normal;

- They were not allowed to grieve or were encouraged to feel guilty for grieving;

- No one talked about the death and the dead sibling was never mentioned;

- They didn't get to see the body;

- The sibling's spouse doesn't seem upset;

- They don't agree with some aspect of the funeral, burial site, or gravestone;

- They don't feel the sibling got the appropriate care while in hospital;

- They saw the body in a broken and wounded state, after a car accident, for example;

- They were not allowed or encouraged to go to or participate in the funeral;

- They didn't know how to deal with their feelings;

- They weren't informed about the severity of their sibing's illness;

- Someone else survived who was involved in the accident that killed their sibling;

- They had to babysit, clean house, or be responsible for other chores while parents were at the hospital, sheriff's office, funeral home, etc.;

- No one ever asked how they were feeling;

- They often heard "How are your parents?";

- They had to grow up overnight;

- They were blamed for acting out and trying to get attention, when they were too young to understand what was really happening;

- They were over-protected after the loss;

- They were expected to "become" the dead sibling;

- They didn't get a chance to say good-bye; or

- The dead sibling's belongings were given away or disposed of without their consent.


Bereaved siblings still feel sorrow and sadness from the many losses associated with the death of a brother or sister.

- The loss of companionship and a future with their sibling;

- Loss, at least for a time, of the parents while they were grieving;

- Loss of parts of the self that were projected onto the deceased sibling;

- Loss of innocence;

- Missing out on peer related activities;

- Feeling left out;

- Not getting the attention they needed to deal with such a profound loss;

- Being lonely;

- There is a hole when they visit their other sibings, because it is then obvious that one is missing;

- The presence of other family members reminds them forcibly of this fact; or

- Sorry that they can't go back and make up for something they did or said.


Yes, bereaved siblings emerge from the experience glad about a number of issues. Not every bereaved sibling has the same experience, but here are some of the reasons...

- They are able to be with others who are grieving, and listen;

- They appreciate life and relationships;

- They have a deeper spiritual life;

- They still feel connected to the deceased sibling;

- Life is more real to them;

- Some say they no longer fear death;

- They have the sense of being guarded by an angel;

- When troubled in other relationships, they feel that their deceased sibling is always on their side; or

- When they engage in activities once shared with their sibling, they feel the presence of that sibling.

bad (guilt and anxiety)

- Fear of doctors and hospitals;

- Fear of doing whatever the sibling was doing that led to the death - swimming, driving, horseback riding;

- Fear of their own children's death;

- Watchfulness for symptoms related to the sibling's illness;

- Belief that life will never be the same again;

- Having the sense that they will not live long;

- Anxiety about their parents' death;

- Guilt about fights with the deceased sibling;

- Guilt about how they acted at the time of the illness, for example, going out with friends instead of staying with their siblings;

- Thinking they should have prevented the death, or that they caused the death, for example by giving their sibling a disease;

- Guilt about going on with life, surviving at all, or for being happy;

- Thinking they should be perfect and never complain; or

- Guilt about a number of things they did or didn't do prior to the death.

Copyright 2002 The Sibling Connection

For further information, call (US) 314-941-3798, or email the Sibling Connection.


the aftermath of loss


Guilt is a feeling that builds with time. It appears that you feel responsible for violating some unwritten rule of society, or failing to meet your own standards of behavior. That is the surface - underneath this lies the fact that we, as humans, do not like to feel powerless or helpless.

We could not prevent our sibling's death - we were utterly powerless. So we pretend to ourselves that if we had been there, or if we had taken some particular action, things would have been different.

Then we blame ourselves for having failed the deceased sibling. As time passes, we examine our memories of the relationship with the deceased sibling. We find that we have failed before, not been as kind or generous as we "should" have; we have not lived up to our own code of behavior. So we end up feeling even more guilty.

That guilt might be:

- Survival guilt;

- Guilt related to the actual death; or

- Guilt related to our own code of conduct.

survival guilt

In clinical work, I see this as more of a factor in depression than other forms of guilt. When you think about it, survival guilt is related to our basic belief that life is fair. As kids we said, "Johnnie got an ice cream cone - I want one too!"

It seems only fair.

When one sibling dies, however, we are confronted by the flip side of this concept. "Johnnie died, so I should die too!" Why didn't you? You search your memory and find many examples of how much better he was than you were.

Sometimes bereaved siblings punish themselves simply for living when their brother or sister is dead. It almost feels like a betrayal of the sibling, if we go on living.

Many bereaved siblings don't know about survival guilt, and don't believe they feel it. And yet, they wonder why they seem to attract difficult, painful situations into their lives. This kind of guilt can be explained with simple math. You have 100 pounds of guilt on one side of the scale and you need to get 100 pounds of punishment on the other side to balance the scale.

Only when you have done so can you forgive yourself, and enter fully into living.

Survival guilt needs to be brought to consciousness in order to prevent it from eroding away your life.

guilt about the death

This kind of guilt stems from the dislike of feeling helpless. Perhaps there was something you could have done to prevent the sibling's death. You should have called him on the phone so that he wouldn't have been in his car and been hit at that exact time. You shouldn't have recommended the restaurant that he was headed towards when he was shot. You should have reminded her to get a yearly checkup.

It goes on and on.

Once you accept that you were, in fact, absolutely helpless, you will feel the pain of the loss at a deeper level. Religious beliefs can assist you when you feel helpless. Bereaved individuals with faith can lean back into the arms of a higher power when they feel helpless. Even if you are not a religious person, you can work towards acceptance of your weaknesses and limitations.

violating your own code

Sibling relationships are ambivalent by nature. This means that we both love (sometimes) and (sometimes) hate our siblings. Having lived with them for many years, we have fought a lot.

Thus there are many reasons to berate ourselves when they die. Increasing self acceptance can help us live through this kind of guilt. Perhaps we are not the perfect person we thought--perhaps we were too jealous, or too competitive, or downright mean to our sibling when he or she was living.

So we are flawed, like everyone else.

Welcome to the human race. Working on your self acceptance will support you in the grief process. I hope that, as you read this, you are not thinking that I am trying to talk you out of your guilt. Not at all. In order to get that 100 pounds of punishment, you have to feel the guilt, not avoid it. Experienced grievers suggest a number of ways to help with guilt.

These include:

- Exercise and feel your guilt while exercising;

- If you don't usually exercise, take a walk or dance madly around the house;

- Share every part of your guilt with a trusted friend, someone who has lost a sibling, or a therapist;

- Do a good deed or donate money and NEVER TELL ANYONE - keep it secret;

- Turn your pain into art by writing about it, painting it, or building something you dedicate to your deceased sibling;

- Forgive others and ask forgiveness for yourself; and

- Do volunteer work.

Remember: the key to working through guilt is to make it conscious.

And whatever you do, don't forget to laugh!

Grief: different experiences, different expressions
Anger and depression
Trauma + recovery
Illness: a new perspective
Suicidal urges
Learn about Antonella Gambotto-Burke ...
A healthy life
The healing power of hope
In debt?
The laughter page
Find your own North Star
Optimism - the key
How to feel better about yourself
Feel like a hug?
An inspiring interview with Louise Hay

The Sibling Connection

Adult Sibling Grief
Scroll down this page for excellent message boards on losing your beloved - NOW!
Buy How to Recover From Grief
Create a memorial for your beloved
National Center for Victims of Crime
Neighbours who Care
Great free guided audio online relaxation exercises
Message boards for all survivors - siblings, parents, grandparents - online NOW!
Murdered siblings
Crisis intervention
Overcoming Sleep Problems, by the father of a murdered girl
Helping Someone When a Loved One has been Murdered
Excellent books that deal with those who are murdered
Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Compassionate Friends
Survivors' newsletter
Trauma and Grief