Coping with the loss of a brother or sister
The loss of any sibling is deeply upsetting and difficult to comprehend, not just for you but for the whole family unit. It creates a crater which disturbs the harmony at home and shifts the dynamics of the union. The death of a brother or sister is impactful and it can be particularly gruelling to those left to deal with it.
This grief guide helps you to understand the effects of losing a brother or sister and it shows you how to cope with such loss.
Losing a sibling
You grow up listening to their voice, playing with them and discovering the world together. They are always there, especially when you need them to cover for you. It’s a relationship developed over many years and based on deep trust and unconditional love for one another. It’s precious and constantly evolving to adapt to the changes and challenges along the way.
Then one day, they are gone and they are not coming back. Such a personal loss has the potential to inflict a lot of pain and to leave you with mixed emotions. It can create division within the family and cause you to distance yourself from other siblings or your parents.
There are many factors which can influence your ability to cope with the loss of your brother or sister, including age.
Loss of a brother or sister as a child
The loss of a sibling at a young age is particularly cruel and it affects the child in the same way as it affects the bereaved parents. It’s likely to leave them confused and raise questions about death - their own and that of others. Sometimes they can feel guilty about fights and arguments with the deceased sibling or feel responsible for their death.
Quite often children and young adults don’t seem to be affected by it at all but they are. If your child is “fine”, you need to look out for sudden changes in their behaviour. Maybe they refuse to go to school or are behind on their school projects? Perhaps they seem angry, agitated, anxious or fearful? These changes and emotions are normal reactions to loss and they get better with time.
Please read our guide on explaining death to children for more information.
Loss of a brother or sister in later life
Losing a sibling when you are an adult doesn’t make it any easier and in some cases it may be your first experience with the death of someone that is close to you. There’s no way of predicting your reaction but the loss of such importance is likely to come as a shock and send you on an emotional rollercoaster ride through the different stages of grief. Be prepared to experience intense feelings and emotions which can leave you quite disturbed and confused.
You may feel as if a part of you is missing or abandoned by them. You may struggle or not wish to express your feelings and emotions from fears of upsetting your parents and other siblings. Sometimes, you may even feel as if your grief is not acknowledged, particularly in the cases where your sibling has left a family behind. These reactions are normal and temporary but you need to be patient as it takes time to overcome them.
Moving forward after the loss of a sibling
Regardless of how, when and why it happens, the death of your brother or sister is likely to leave you shocked and devastated. The particulars and intensity of your relationship as well as the reaction of your other siblings and parents may have an effect on your grief.
If for example, your parents are more vulnerable to their loss due to age, illness or other factors, you may feel the need to stay strong for them. You may even decide to protect them by not showing your grief in front of them. That’s normal and sometimes expected but you still need to make sure that you look after your health and well-being.
Here are some suggestions for coping with the loss of a brother or sister:
- Try and get some sleep
If you know anything about grief, you also know that disturbed sleeping and changes in your appetite are a couple of the most likely physical effects of it. Get ready to combat the long sleepless nights by avoiding the use of electronic devices with screens in bed. They transmit blue light which tells your brain to keep you awake.
- Eat a balanced diet
Your body needs its vitamins and other nutrients more than ever. Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and avoid excessive drinking or other substance abuse at any cost. Instead, go for a run, a walk or do some form of exercise every day because the endorphins which are released as a result of it are a natural and much more effective way to lift your mood.
- Talk it through
You can pretend that you are fine but avoiding grief doesn’t make it go away. It is a short-term strategy which can be helpful if you need to protect the feelings of family members and siblings but it’s not a solution.
At some point, you need to face your feelings. Find a local bereavement counsellor, talk to friends or join a grief support group. Any of these provide you with a safe environment to share your experience without being judged.
- Start a journal
If you are not ready to talk to someone about your grief, you can start a journal and write about your emotions instead.
The loss of a sibling is unique to you but it also affects your other brothers and sisters as well as your parents. It’s likely to disturb the family relationships. It’s important to find the time and make an effort to hear about their feelings too but remember that people have their own ways of dealing with grief and you need to respect that.
We offer grief help and support through the National Bereavement Service's (NBS) webchat. It is a free online service which connects you to a trained advisor.
NBS has a wide network of contacts within organisations providing support to bereaved people. They will explain your choices and help you decided what would be most helpful for you and how to make contact with them.
The service is available Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm and Saturday 10am to 2pm and you can reach NBS by clicking on the chat box at the bottom of this page.
Contributed by Mark Welkin
Mark Welkin is the author of three grief books and a journalist who has worked for various media outlets in Europe and Asia. He lost his long-term partner in 2014 and a few months later, Mark turned to a grief counsellor for help. The results inspired him to share his experience and help other bereaved people to resume life after the loss of their loved ones.