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Experiencing the Death of a Sibling as a
College Student


           When college students contact me about the loss of a sibling, they often tell me their whole world has betrayed them. They have grown up learning about the hazards of everything from tooth decay to unprotected sex. But no one told them anything about the emotional pain of losing a sibing.

          While some individuals have positive experiences of support following the loss and are grateful to the doctors, nurses, family, and friends who helped them, others feel abandoned. After the funeral, people ask them how their parents are doing, but not how are they doing. They have heard almost unbelievably inconsiderate comments from "helpful" people, things like "Well, at least it was only a brother!" One student was told that "you probably need therapy --just losing a sibling couldn't possibly affect you that much." Another heard this "I'd be glad if my sister was dead!"

          Overall, the feeling is that of betrayal -- learning the hard lesson that our society prefers to keep grief in the background. Even the most basic facts about grief are practically unknown in the general public. This new section has been added due to the large number of requests by college age surviving siblings.

           The loss of a brother or sister is particularly difficult for college students, since it happens at a time that already stresses many individuals beyond their capacity to cope. Returning to college after a funeral, students may experience a sense of unreality, or a feeling of living in a surreal world. If bereaved students are going to continue with studies, they must deal with their grief process in this sometimes less structured, sometimes too structured environment, and it may be especially challenging for them to obtain the necessary support .

A Step Backwards

           The period of adolescence has been called a "farewell to childhood", and is itself often seen as a grief process. By the time a student enters college after a summer away from high school, this phase is largely completed. Now young adults, college students are typically looking ahead and excited about the future.

           The reality of college, however, often triggers a lapse back into the grief phase, and "the college blues" or loneliness sets in. The role once held in high school disappears, once popular students are now unknown, and there is a stressful period of reorganization and finding a new niche in a new environment.

           Added to that is the stress of deadlines for papers and coursework, dealing with the availability of drugs, alcohol, sexual encounters, and other new experiences. By junior and senior years, there is the additional pressure to find a mate and a job. The loss of a sibling at such a time can be overwhelming. It makes sense that some students take time off from their studies to deal with their grief.

What about me?

           For those who do return to college after the death of a sibling, the world may seem unreal at first. It is as if their consciousness is split between college life and life with the family at home. Part of them wants to be back home, taking care of their parents and other siblings, while another part wants to continue with their own life. Besides the sadness that accompanies them everywhere, anger can surface as they feel that everyone is neglecting them and focusing on the dead sibling. "What about me?" they think on some days, secretly. "Don't I matter? Do I have to die to get any attention?"

           Such thoughts create guilt and they swing to the other side of the issue, thinking they must be terrible and secretly think they should have died instead of their sibling. So their moods swing back and forth--from feeling sad and anxious, normal grief reactions, to feeling good and wanting to participate with their college friends in some normal life activities--then feeling guilty for having fun at a party, or even for forgetting about the loss for a few minutes.

Acting Out and Acting In

           Students deal with these overwhelming and mixed emotions in a variety of ways. Some do it by pushing the grief process into the background. Others "act out" their feelings by engaging in risky behavior such as drinking and driving, or even cheating and shoplifting. Some will "act-in" their feelings by withdrawing, and may become addicted to the internet or pornography. Still other bereaved students cry and appear to be grieving, but are actually playing the part of a grieving person, while keeping their true feelings well hidden behind strong defenses.

Ask for help

           Most schools do have some programs in place for grieving students, such as support groups, counselors, and residence hall assistants who are there to listen. As time goes by, and the student does not reach out, there are additional secondary issues, such as poor grades (from the inability to concentrate) and the consequences of their acting-out to deal with. The connection between the bereavement and the behavior is not so readily apparent, and helpers not so ready to help.

           Here are some ideas to prevent this from happening when you return to college after the loss of a sibling:

  • Seek out and use whatever resources are available at your school, such as the counseling center, or support groups

  • Talk to your professors if you need to make changes in your schedule, or need additional help because of a lack of concentration

  • If you find yourself "self-medicating" with alcohol and drugs, get help! Talk to your RA, your counselor, campus chaplain, or doctor.

  • Consider the level of interest and caring from your fellow students before sharing the experience of your sibling's death. While those who care and have experienced loss themselves may be helpful and comforting, others may alienate you, since they don't know what to say or do.

  • If necessary, be proactive with your grief. Find time during the day or week to deliberately confront it, and find appropriate others to be with you at this time. Since many students have unrealistic ideas about how long it takes to recover from a loss, the most appropriate help at this time might have to be a professional caregiver.

  • Reduce your stress level by not taking on too many demanding tasks.

  • As I stated elsewhere on this site, educate yourself about the grief process
  • and about sibling loss. Read the other articles linked to this one. This cognitive understanding will help to support you when your feelings seem uncontrollable.

  • If possible, talk to other bereaved students--your campus counselor may be able to help you find them. This will help you feel less alone.

  • Don't measure your grief by any one else's standard. We all have our own unique way of dealing with loss, and each loss is different. Don't worry about whether you are doing it "the right way".

  • Express yourself through creative pursuits such as drawing, painting, or singing, or active pursuits such as athletics, dance, and playing a musical instrument.

For further information about sibling loss and the seven categories of child survivor siblings, read my book on Sibling Grief.

Click below to order the book from Amazon.com.

For further information, email the Sibling Connection .

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