When Your Sibling Has Died
Brothers and sisters share a special relationship, one that is very often filled with jealousy and envy as well as deep love and devotion. A brother and sister may find themselves wishing to be like one another or feeling like there is no way to measure up to each other. Regardless, brothers and sisters share a unique relationship that seems very often to be one of conflict and love at the same time. They share a relationship that seems to be directly oppositional in its mere being, but a relationship that says clearly, you are my brother or my sister and no one had better do anything to hurt you—but it’s okay if I do.
When your brother or sister dies, you grieve not only the death of your sibling but the death of your friend, your rival, your confidant and your role and place in the family picture as well. Gone, too, is the opportunity to change the relationship in any way. If there were fences to mend, words to be shared, or memories yet to be created, the finality of death eliminates your ability to make those changes, and that additional pain may intensify your grief.
What Am I Feeling?
Grief is a natural and normal reaction to loss. It is a physical, emotional, spiritual, social and psychological response. It is a complex process that affects every aspect of your life. Love, anger, fear, frustration, loneliness and guilt are all part of grief. It is important to understand that grief is not a sign of weakness or a lack of faith. You grieve because you have loved.
You may experience sleep irregularities, changes in appetite, upset stomach, heartache, restlessness, crying, irritability or sighing. Grief sometimes comes in waves and can be paralyzing. You may feel numb and exhausted. You may not be able to concentrate or remember things.
Depression or feelings of emptiness may temporarily overcome you. You may experience headaches, tightness in the throat or chest, muscle aches or a burning sensation in your stomach. Grief hurts.
Anger and guilt are common emotions. You may feel angry with God, your spouse, your family or with others. You may be angry with yourself. The ‘if only’ and ‘should have’ thoughts can cause tremendous doubt. Feelings of guilt often accompany or follow anger. You may want to withdraw and be left alone.
It is normal to resist giving up feelings that go along with the childhood relationship you had with your brother or sister. That relationship can continue but it has to change. You can no longer call your sibling on the phone, but you can still talk with her through your memories. You can write in a journal and say the things you wish you had said and still want to say. You can write a letter to your cemetery. You can keep your memories alive in your heart by transforming the relationship into healing memories.
If you had a difficult relationship with your sibling and feel that there is no way to change it now, you can. You begin by forgiving yourself as well as your brother or sister for things done or said in the past. You are in charge of the relationship now and you can change it any way you wish, and it is always more comforting to make your relationship one that is full of love even if it is just love because of their place in the family. Love always overcomes anger and bitterness.
The expectations and responsibilities that your brother or sister had may now be distributed among the remaining family members. These new responsibilities are often difficult to manage because they may not fit you and your way of doing things.
What Can I Do?
Everyone grieves differently. Just as each person has a unique personality and way of doing things, each person will find a path through his hurt. No one is right or wrong. Try to accept those differences and support one another. If you find yourself bickering with other family members, remember that everyone is under tremendous stress and each of you is trying to control the uncontrollable in the best way you know how.
Many times families try to protect each other from the pain of grief by hiding their feelings. Not sharing your grief can isolate you from other family members and can also create misunderstandings and additional pain. Try to keep the lines of communication open and be patient with one another.
You may feel you are being ignored by other family members as they struggle to adjust to the empty place in the family picture. Perhaps you feel invisible and think you have to become your brother or sister in order to be noticed and loved.
If you have become the only living child as a result of the death of your sibling, you may experience feelings of isolation, emptiness and despair. You may find yourself asking if you are still a brother or sister. You are. The relationship you had with your sibling has just changed from a relationship of presence to a memory. You may feel frightened and alone. Reach out to others. Involve yourself in your community. You will find that by helping others, you help yourself. Many people have found a new identity and a new lease on life by volunteering or becoming a part of some sort of social group.
Some families become overprotective and you may feel as though you are being smothered. Fear takes up residence in a grieving family and everyone worries about everyone else. Even being 5 minutes late can cause a major crisis. It is hard to tiptoe around these fears, so try to talk about concerns before they become major issues. Reasonable limits, clear expectations and honest communications are necessary to help a family survive.
You do not have to live in the shadow of your brother or sister. Nor do you have to try to fill the empty space they left behind. You just need to be patient with yourself and your family as you struggle to redefine and recreate the family portrait. Be gentle in your despair and let the love of your family comfort you now. Even though death comes, love never goes away.