How to Cope With Sibling Grief

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The pain you feel after a sibling dies can be immense. Feeling grief or a huge sense of loss are natural responses to losing someone important in your life. Losing a brother or sister is especially challenging.

This article will discuss why the loss of a sibling is different than other types of loss, how sibling loss isn’t discussed much, reactions and effects of sibling loss, how long to mourn and ways to help you cope with sibling grief.

Why Siblings Are Special

Siblings play a special role in our families. They can often act as our best friends and become the people we confide in. We fight with our younger siblings, learn from our older siblings, play with our brothers and sisters and compete with them.

In effect, we forge special relationships with our brothers and sisters. These relationships differ than those with our parents, other relatives, and even our own children.

Sibling Loss is Ignored

Practitioners and researchers in the field of psychology have not devoted much attention to the special relationship siblings have or how death impacts siblings. Discussion of sibling mourning has been sorely neglected by programs, services and associations, but that is beginning to change.

After their son or daughter dies, the community will galvanize around the parents to support them. Friends, neighbors and family members will focus on bringing in food, making phone calls and helping the parents.

Outliving a child is an awful and tragic loss that should not be dismissed or given short shrift. But siblings are not allowed the time to grieve themselves. They are told to be strong for their parents. Often, siblings are involved in setting up funeral plans and helping their parents get through such a difficult time.

Caretaking when you yourself haven’t had time to grieve is burdensome.

Common Reactions to Death of a Loved One

According to the CDC, common reactions after suffering a major disaster, death, traumatic event, or drastic loss include:

  • Shock
  • Disbelief
  • Denial
  • Anxiety
  • Distress
  • Anger
  • Periods of sadness
  • Loss of sleep
  • Loss of appetite

Experts also point to reactions that seem to fall into what is called the Five Stages of Grief. This is a framework developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist. The five stages include:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

But Kübler-Ross herself said the process isn’t linear or predictable. Emotional reactions and the grieving process will vary by the individual. Your pain and your feelings are unique to you.

Effects the Death of a Sibling May Have On You

Whether through a prolonged illness like cancer or a sudden death due to a car accident, the loss of a sibling can be jarring. You may feel like life is out of order or topsy-turvy. We are logically prepared for the loss of older parents or grandparents. But our siblings are like our peers.

We’ve experienced the daily rhythms of life with them growing up including birthdays, holidays, and special events. They’ve witnessed our parents’ arguments, our moves into different neighborhoods and our difficult times. We expected them to be there for us for future milestones, too.

A sibling’s death can then have multiple effects on you. Beyond trying to cope with your grief, you may have to contend with new challenges like the following listed below.

Changes in the Family Dynamic

When a sibling dies, roles and responsibilities may get shaken up. If your brother was the leader in the family, who takes on that role now? Your uneasiness with the new family dynamic might add more stress to your grief.

The Loss of a Close Relationship

Because siblings are often deeply connected, you may have lost both a sister and your best gal pal. If you worked in a family business, the loss of your brother might also represent the loss of your business buddy.

Profound Guilt 

If your baby sister passed away, feeling guilty for surviving is not farfetched. Those who lose siblings often feel guilty about childhood fights and not having the opportunity to apologize. If you were estranged from your sibling as an adult, you might feel guilty because it’s too late now to reconnect.

Dealing With Friends Who Aren’t Helpful

Friends may avoid you as they don’t know what to say. Others may say the wrong things like, “She’s in a better place” or “Let me know how I can help.”

In these moments, if you're feeling up to it, you can suggest that your friends come over and sit with you while you cry, bring you food, or just hold your hand.

Fear of Also Developing the Illness

For siblings who passed from cancer, for example, you might now need to get tested. Especially if there’s a genetic probability that you may get the same cancer. Added to your grief (and sorrow about any suffering your loved one went through) is this new fear that you or another sibling will also be diagnosed with a deadly disease.

How Long Is Too Long to Mourn?

There’s no "normal” amount of time to grieve the loss of a sibling. As time passes, the sadness should ease and you should be able to function. That doesn’t mean the grief disappears completely. Nor does that mean you won’t feel sadness or loneliness about the loss of your sibling.

It means you'll begin to find happy and joyful times again and return to your daily life.

Complicated Grief

For some, though, feelings of loss are so intense, they become debilitating. This is known as complicated grief. It’s also called persistent complex bereavement disorder.

In complicated grief, painful emotions severely disrupt lives. Reactions are excessive, obsessive and intense. With complicated grief, people are incapable of resuming their lives in a healthy manner and need therapeutic assistance.

Coping With Grief After the Death a Sibling

For those bereaved after losing a sibling, here are ways to help you cope with the grief and find a way through your loss.

Some suggestions are better suited for earlier in your grief journey, some for later on:

  • Be kind and gentle with yourself. As you’re learning, grief is a winding process.
  • Rest and sleep more. The bereaved may feel more exhausted physically and emotionally.
  • Don’t skip over feeling pain. Allow yourself the time to hurt so you can move through that.
  • Spend time with family and friends. Although you may want time alone, don’t remove or isolate yourself.
  • Do small things that make you happy. Work in the garden, play games on your phone, and integrate small pleasures back into your life.
  • Allow yourself joy. Don’t feel ashamed or guilty if you enjoy a meal or dance to a song that you liked.
  • Return to a routine as soon as you can. Eat regularly, go for a walk, and resume work.
  • Focus on spirituality and creativity. It's important to shift your energy toward doing the things that bring you joy. This is the perfect opportunity for you to tap into your creativity. You could write poetry, paint, or even write your loved one a letter.
  • Create a ritual in your sibling’s memory. This may be participating in a 5K for breast cancer research every year if your sister died of breast cancer.
  • Do something to honor your sibling’s life. If your brother shot hoops and played with friends in a neighborhood park, you can donate a bench as a memorial. The goal is to honor your sibling’s memory.
  • Join a supportive group. Others are going through what you are, too. Online grief support groups can offer you a safe community in which to mourn. The Compassionate Friends Sibling Groups and Modern Loss offer resources to help you deal with grief.

A Word From Verywell

While we live in a culture that encourages us to move on, grieving the death of a sibling can take some time. It’s a very special loss and you have every right to feel deep pain. But there is light at the end of the tunnel and a way to live with and through the loss. Find professionals in your area or online support groups that can guide you through this difficult period. 

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Grief and Loss. Reviewed July 22, 2021.

  3. Christian C. Sibling loss, guilt and reparation: a case studyInt J Psychoanal. 2007;88(Pt 1):41-54. doi:10.1516/ajej-k6ge-auav-eeyc

  4. Tarraza HM, Ellerkmann RM. A view from the family: years after a loved one has died of ovarian cancerObstet Gynecol. 1999;93(1):38-40. doi:10.1016/s0029-7844(98)00381-0

  5. The Cleveland Clinic. Grief: What's Normal, What's Not and 13 Tips to get Through It. Published July 27, 2018.

By Barbara Field
Barbara is writer and speak who is passionate about mental health, overall wellness, and women's issues.