Coping with the Death of a Sibling

The death of my sibling was one of the most devastating experiences of my life. I remember thinking that there must have been a mistake. I couldn’t understand, wouldn’t understand. They said my sibling was dead. It couldn’t be, it just couldn’t be. It was the first time that I saw my father cry.

The first days after my sibling’s death were a blur. Nothing seemed real. My sibling’s friends gathered around us, consoling my family and I. I thought I would never get through the initial days, which turned into weeks and months.

As a newly bereaved sibling you have experienced a most devastating life event. It is my hope that the sharing of my passage through grief will provide you with an understanding of the multitude of emotions that you may have already begun to endure. May it also bring you some solace.

Your courage in taking the time to read this information is a testament to your ability and internal strength to move forward in your journey through grief.

The Early Stages

When my family was initially informed that my sibling had died, I felt as if my world suddenly stood still; I was filled with an overwhelming sense of shock and disbelief. The shock that I was experiencing enabled me to carry on through the death and funeral ritual. I was going through the motions but felt so alone and empty inside. There were times when I felt that maybe there had been “a mistake”. Perhaps all of this was a nightmare and someone would wake me up. It was just too horrible to be real.

For the first time in your life, you may experience a multitude of feelings and emotions that you have not felt before – feelings such as shock, disbelief, denial, anger and sorrow. You may find it very difficult to express these emotions. You may experience all or a combination of these feelings, as all are natural emotions of grieving. You may describe yourself as being on an “emotional roller coaster”. Your emotions may be unpredictable – sometimes you feel “fine”, and at other times you may only be able to mask the pain and “get through” daily life. Occasionally, you might feel overwhelmed by a flood of intense emotions that may be triggered by many different events that remind you of your loved one. The strength and unpredictable nature of your feelings may not only be frightening for you and for your family, but also very painful. At this early stage of your grief, it might seem that little that you do is able to take away the sadness and sense of loss that you are experiencing.

You may also experience a sense of confusion, disorientation, disorganization and vulnerability. You may find that you are having difficulty concentrating or remembering. These are common, natural reactions and, in time, these abilities will return.

My parents’ grief was so intense that I thought they didn’t see the pain that the surviving siblings were experiencing. We were all in so much pain we had difficulty supporting each other. My parents were grieving the loss of their child and I felt helpless, as nothing I could do or say would bring their child back. Some days we all pretended that we were fine; we wore masks and cried silently inside. Oftentimes, it took only one person to break the silence and everyone would start to talk and cry; we were all hurting inside.

The emotions of grief are an essential part of the healing process. By not blocking these feelings, your passage through grief will begin.

Your Grief is Unique

One day, a close friend sat down with me at lunch. They hesitated at first, then they explained that they had had a sibling die a couple of years before. Through this friend, I learned that each of us experiences our grief in a unique way. After talking with my friend, I allowed myself to feel the emotions that came naturally and did not follow any path other than my own. It was comforting to know that it was okay to feel the way I did, and that no one should tell me how I was supposed to feel or react. Each of us grieves in our own way.

How one grieves is truly a unique journey based on our past experiences, including cultural and spiritual beliefs, our relationships with our peers and the world itself. There is no timetable or “right” way to grieve. As a bereaved sibling, you have the right to think, feel and express your grief, and no one, regardless of their “good intentions”, has the right to minimize your feelings or tell you how you “should” be feeling.

The Grief Journey

Some days I went into my sibling’s room just to feel their presence and remember all the moments we had shared. Sometimes the pain was unbearable, yet at other times, I could easily tell a funny story about our lives together.

You may go over events repeatedly in your head. This can happen at any time of the day or night. You might have difficulty sleeping because of various images, or you may want to sleep all the time in order to try to avoid them.

Although there is no set time period for how long you will feel this way, try to take each day at a time. Try to do one good thing for yourself each day, something that you found enjoyable and peaceful before your sibling died. Share with your friends. Lower your expectations and defenses for a while and rely on the support and assistance of others. Try to accept your limitations during this difficult time. Only you know yourself well enough to do whatever you need to do to deal with the intense feelings of grief. Have confidence that, in time, you will return to the activities of daily living in which you participated in before your sibling’s death.

Reaching Out

My friends were always there for me, but at times they would do or say things that would upset me further. I chose to ignore their “I think you should” comments and in time realized who provided me with the most comfort. I felt that my parents resented my wanting to be with my friends; they wanted me to stay with them at the house and I just wanted to “get away” from all of the pain. The house was filled with too many memories. I just wanted to be with my friends; with them, I could simply be myself whether I was having a good day or not.

Your family and friends will try to comfort you in ways that you do not always choose to accept. They need to know what they can do to help you. Try to tell people what your needs and wishes are. These requests will let them know how they may help you in a specific way. The warmth and support of comforting friends and family is a precious gift. With such close supports you do not have to walk the grief journey alone.

Talking About my Sibling

Initially, my friends and family would try to avoid talking about my sibling for fear of upsetting each other. I eventually told them that it was helpful for me to talk openly about my feelings and the life of my sibling. The memories of my sibling will always have a special place in my heart. These memories bring not only tears from sadness but also tears from the joy that our life together brought me.

You may find it very comforting to relate memories of your sibling with others that listen in a caring and nonjudgmental manner; you are sharing your feelings. Not only might this be of benefit to you, but it also gives permission to those around you to discuss your loved one’s life as well as their death.

In time you may decide to celebrate the life of your loved one through writing a poem, planting a perennial garden or tree, creating a memory album or memory box, building a bench overlooking a favourite place or helping others through their grief.

Cherished Memories

When I went into my sibling’s room I would feel as if they were still there. The memories felt very real, as did my intense emotions. I did not want my parents to change the room or give away any of the belongings. I needed to keep all these things, to hold on to something.

Items and belongings that remind you of your sibling may initially be very painful to look at, but in time you may want to keep them. There is no time frame for grieving.When you are ready, only you will know what you would like to do with these items. Having objects to touch, hold and smell is a lasting part of your special relationship together. Many bereaved siblings create memory boxes, in which they keep cherished belongings, keepsakes, and photos.

Making Sense of It All

I have learned not only to survive but also to accept that my life will never be the same again. I have learned to once again find pleasure in small comforts, to smile and to laugh. My relationships with friends and family have become more precious to me. Most importantly, my sibling will always be a part of my life, in my thoughts and my heart.

As a newly bereaved sibling, your life will not be the same again. The person who coined the phrase “time heals” could not possibly have lived through the devastation of the death of a loved one. Time will not take away your memories of your life together, the love that you shared, or the fact that you wish that things could be different. Time will, however, allow you to move through the intense emotional pain of grief, and time will move you forward in your search to find meaning. With time, your sense of loss will be less acute and you will be able to move forward in your search to make sense of something that, at this moment, does not make sense at all. Understand that the search to find meaning after a devastating loss is a natural and healthy part of the grief journey.

It takes courage, inner strength, the love of family and friends, and the special memories of your sibling to journey through grief into healing.

Have faith in yourself that, in time, you will move through your devastating loss…