Adult sibling loss

By Dr. Batya L. Ludman, Psy.D., FT · Published July 18, 2008

Imagine one of your worst nightmares. It's the middle of the night and the telephone rings. You answer with trepidation wondering if something happened to an elderly parent, hoping against all odds that it is a wrong number, and you're shaken to hear that your brother just passed away.

Since most of us don't entertain this thought unless a sibling has been unwell, we're rarely prepared for that voice on the other end of the line. How can it be, you wonder, as he seemed fine the last time you spoke? How can it be when there are just a few years difference between you?

There is never a good or convenient time to die and more often than not there's unfinished business that may or may not have been dealt with. It's for this reason, among others, that I take this opportunity to encourage people who, for whatever reason, are not on good terms with their loved ones, to find a way to make peace before it is too late.

Losing an adult sibling, while not at all uncommon, may still come as a surprise and for many may feel quite premature. Society surprisingly tends to be far kinder and more understanding if you lose a child, a marriage partner or parent rather than a sibling. "It's just a brother" may not actually be stated, but it is often thought by those who suggest that grieving seems longer or more intense than one might "expect" and it's time to move on.

While Judaism acknowledges this as one of the major eight losses for whom one sits shiva, it is nonetheless seen by many as relatively insignificant. While this may indeed be true for some, others find the loss devastating. This major upheaval may lead to a reevaluation of one's own life in addition to the one they just lost.

The surprise aspect of any death can make it far more difficult for loved ones to comprehend what happened. A fatal car accident, a sudden illness, a suicide, a traumatic or violent death can leave survivors in shock as they attempt with great difficulty to try and pick up the pieces of a life so quickly shattered. This is made all that much harder when one is given the impression that after a week, all should simply return to "normal" or the way it once was. Unfortunately, it doesn't happen that way.

This column has been written in part because in any given week, I'm often told that someone recently lost a brother or sister. Today alone, I was informed of two sibling deaths. For one, the sibling was older and ill for a long time. For the other, a sibling in their 30s was killed suddenly.

While most of us have siblings, we often don't appreciate the complex nature of our relationship with them, often taking it for granted until the sibling bond unravels. Upon hearing about the death of a sibling, especially when separated by a great distance, the initial reaction is often shock and disbelief. If attempting to fly back to their old "home" there's often chaos and confusion as speed becomes all important. One may feel isolated there, and yet in one's own home there may be a strange feeling to have visitors who never even knew the deceased there. If the deceased died as a result of risk-taking behavior, there may be little support or acknowledgement of the loss, which in itself adds additional pain.

While losing a sibling involves many of the same physical, emotional, social and spiritual issues one faces as when dealing with other deaths, there are a few aspects which are unique. How one copes is often dependent on how their sibling died, how close they were both as children and as adults, the makeup of their nuclear family, the history of previous losses and how they were handled, how well one communicates within the family, both before and after the death, and the timing and meaning around the death.

When a sibling dies, one's role within the family changes almost immediately and positions get reshuffled and redefined. Perhaps now, for instance, one becomes the oldest living child and may have new and sole responsibility for care-giving of parents, other siblings, finances, business, etc. Parents, other siblings and other members of the family also undergo a period of reorganization and change. This may result in unexpected feelings of sadness, numbness or anger for everyone.

In addition to all of these raw emotions, if one never thought much about one's own mortality before, this certainly brings the issues a lot closer to home and forces one to face various health issues that up to now were either nonexistent or could be ignored.

Losing a sibling often takes one on a journey one can neither prepare for nor anticipate. Family begins to take on new meaning, which in itself can be painful, as old ties get severed and new relationships develop. When an adult dies and leaves his aging parents behind, a sibling is often left to discover that in his own grief he is also expected to help his parents in their loss.

Finally, the sibling bond derives its strength in part as a result of a shared and meaningful history. It's a connection based on blood, emotional support from the time one is young, shared dreams and a relationship that continues long after both people leave home. Aside from parents, this is the person one knows the longest. As a result, the loss of an adult sibling can tear at the very fabric of one's existence.

As one both recognizes and attempts to cope with the loss of a very dear friend and move into the future with a new current reality, one hopes to find strength to create the memories that will enable one to appreciate the special bond that was once shared. Some days will be easier than others, but the sibling's special qualities, his or her gifts that he gave to others, the special moments they once shared, can now be transmitted to a future generation. How one makes sense of this loss and finds meaning will be a reflection of the nature of this bond. With loss comes growth that may never have happened otherwise. One can thank their sister or brother for this opportunity as one moves slowly forward in life.