When a sibling passes away

5 min read

Dealing with the death of a brother or sister

  • Often siblings’ grief is not validated by others, especially if your parents are alive and grieving the loss of their child.

  • But experiencing the death of a brother or sister can alter your sense of self and your family dynamics in a profound way.

  • Surviving siblings often feel guilt along with grief, which makes processing the loss even harder.

  • For children whose brother or sister has died, it is important to accept and encourage their expressions of grief, no matter what form that takes.

The death of a brother or sister, no matter your age, is a major loss. Even if you’ve had your ups and downs, and bouts of sibling rivalry, it is a unique challenge to grieve someone with whom you grew up and who helped define your identity in many ways. And in many cases, our siblings are our best friends as well.

Whether they pass away from a lengthy illness or die suddenly, processing the pain and shock after the death a sibling can seem impossible at first.

But by showing yourself kindness and patience, and with the support of other family and friends, you can begin to move forward with your grief and start a new life with a family that is forever changed.

Grieving a sibling as an adult

When we lose a sibling as an adult, so much of our lives changes. Birthdays, family events, as well as family dynamics are forever changed.

Because of this, shock, disbelief, and denial are often the first emotions that come with the loss. We expect and even accept that we will probably outlive our parents, but because our siblings are our peers, it’s a difficult reality to understand, let alone process.  

Sadly, the impact of a sibling’s death may not be recognized by others. Especially if your parents are still alive, you may be told to be strong for them.

You may feel the obligation to be there for your parents, but you can’t ignore your own grief. Losing a sibling is crushing in its own way.

You must take time for yourself to reflect and process your emotions, whatever they may be and however they affect you.

You should lean into them unapologetically and give yourself the right to grieve, either alongside your parents, or with your other siblings, if you have any.

Dealing with guilt after a sibling dies

One of the common feelings that come with grief is guilt, and many people experience that feeling when a sibling dies.

You may feel guilty that you’re still alive (survivor guilt), guilt that you somehow could have done more to prevent the loss (even if it was out of our control), and guilt over the small things like childhood fights that you haven’t thought about in years.

For many people, it’s hard to shake feelings of guilt after a sibling dies.

It’s natural to feel this way. While you may never stop grieving the loss of your sibling, you can, in time, make peace with these feelings. Start by being kind to yourself and taking the necessary space to let yourself understand that it’s not your fault.

Being truly compassionate with yourself means letting go of guilt, even if there’s nothing really that requires forgiveness. Accepting the reality that you’re still alive and your sibling is gone is less about forgiving yourself and more about making peace with the loss. 

Grieving a sibling as a child

When a child loses a sibling, things can be more complex because children sometimes can’t make sense of death. Even if they know what it is in abstract terms, the concept of “gone forever” isn’t something that children, especially young children, can even comprehend.

Because of this, you’ll want to talk to them in simple terms they’ll understand, without using euphemisms. Be honest in your language choices and don’t try to sugarcoat what has happened.

For instance, when a child is told that their sibling is “in a better place,” as opposed to saying he died, it can be confusing. The child may wonder where this “better place” is, and it can complicate their grieving process.

Being direct is the best way to help them understand something that they probably won’t really be able to grasp for years. 

How to support a grieving child

It is important that you give children the opportunity to grieve in their own way, no matter what form that takes. Crying, acting out, laughing, then moving on to playing, before returning to crying again isn’t uncommon as a child tries to make sense of what has happened.

When children express their grief, reassure them that what they’re experiencing is normal. Everyone grieves differently, and that includes children.

The death of a sibling can make a child question their own mortality.

When a sibling passes away, some children may also question their own mortality. In these cases, it’s essential to let them know that they’re safe.

Let them talk about their fears and concerns for where their sibling is, what they’re scared of for themselves, and reassure them that while children can die, it is a rare occurrence. Reiterate, as much as you have to, that their circumstances are different and they’ll be OK.

The best you can do is be there for them and listen. They may have many questions, and the best route to take is one of honesty. 

It doesn’t matter if you are 60 or 6, losing a sibling is something that will change a person forever. Feelings of guilt and hopelessness are normal.

While there is no right or wrong way to grieve, it’s important you grieve on your own terms and let any child you know who has lost a sibling do the same. If it becomes too much to handle, then look into getting help from a therapist that specializes in grief counseling for either yourself, if you’re the one who lost the sibling, or the child who lost the sibling.

As much as human beings are wired to grieve, as it’s part of the human condition, it doesn’t mean everyone can do it alone. There’s no shame in turning to a professional to help you through this difficult and confusing time