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The Sibling Connection

Long-Term Effects of Childhood Sibling Loss

by P.G. White, Ph.D.

"Time, time, time, see what's become of me..."

P. Simon: A Hazy Shade of Winter

      We may not know completely how sibling loss affects an individual over time, but research has discovered several areas of impact. While some survivor siblings develop distorted ideas about sickness and death as outcomes of sibling loss, others say that they no longer fear death. Guilt, anger, anxiety, and vulnerability to loss and stress all may be seen in survivors. However, it is impossible to ascribe all symptoms to the sibling's death, since events that before the death, such as abuse, divorce, and other factors, undoubtedly play a part.

Ideas about Death and Sickness

       The surviving sibling's ideas about death may change as time progresses after the death. Some bereaved siblings said that the realization that death is part of life was a positive result of their experience with loss. Others became preoccupied with death, possibly as a way to master the trauma of loss.

       The fear of death led some children to believe that death would come to them next, but others to pretend that they were invulnerable. Those children whose sibling died of cancer feared that they would specifically die of cancer too. Several individuals report that they cannot allow themselves to get too thin, because of their association between thinness and impending death. Children who previously believed that only old people die, felt betrayed by parents and others who had given them that faulty information. They saw doctors and parents as powerless to protect them from sickness and death and were afraid of even minor physical problems. Later, as adults, they may hang on to these beliefs.

Guilt and Remorse

       The effects of losing a sibling undergo constant change. Emotions surface at different times throughout a lifetime. For some, there is a generalized sense of guilt, while others feel guilty about something very specific that they did to their sibling when he or she was alive, something they imagine may have contributed to the death. This may be name-calling, hitting, teasing, or other typical sibling behavior, or may be death wishes towards the deceased sibling.

      As adults who are looking back on their experience, some survivors said that they felt guilty about how they acted during the time surrounding the death. Some, for example, had not been able to tolerate the physical pain of their sibling and dealt with this by avoiding the sick brother or sister. Looking back, their actions still continue to cause them intense remorse and emotional pain. Others regret not spending time with their brother or sister immediately prior to their death, blaming themselves for not knowing that it was their last chance.

      Some survivors, who were adolescents at the time of the death, regretted that they had felt shamed or different at the time because of the unusual circumstances of the death (perhaps suicide). Looking back, they felt guilty about their immaturity in caring more about what others thought about them than about their brother or sister. Others felt that they should have been the one to die, because the sibling was younger or special in some way. This survivor guilt is extremely painful.

Positive Outcomes

      Not all of the outcomes of childhood sibling loss are negative. When asked about whether there are any positive results from this experience, survivor siblings said that they experienced psychological growth. In one study, survivors also said they appreciated life more, their priorities about life had changed, and they had greater emotional strength. Other individuals named increased independence and the need and opportunity to examine their religious beliefs as positive benefits from having lived through this painful experience. Having once been through an experience of loss, sibling survivors said that they were not afraid to be with others who were grieving. This may explain why some go into the field of therapy or grief counseling.

      Research also shows that some individuals respond to their loss by becoming even more creative, which may be their way of working through the loss. Others have achieved a great deal during their lifetime (such as George W. Bush, whose 3 year old sister died of leukemia when he was 10 years old), proof that such a loss does not necessarily prevent survivors from living a fulfilling life. You can read more about this on the Creativity and Sibling Loss page.

Vulnerability to Stress

       Survivors may become vulnerable to any future stresses. For many experiencing the death of a loved one in childhood is traumatic and may lead to post-traumatic stress. The death of a sibling in childhood clearly qualifies to fill Category A from the (DSM-IV) diagnostic criteria for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, which requires that the individual has been "exposed to a traumatic event in which they experienced, witnessed, or were confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others" and that their response to this event " involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror. Note: In children, this may be expressed instead by disorganized or agitated behavior" (DSM-IV, pp. 427-429). It is not surprising, therefore, that adult survivors whose sibling died suddenly, as a result of an accident, suicide, or murder, will become anxious when faced with events that remind them of the death. This might be something as simple as watching the evening news.

Vulnerability to Loss and Parenting

       Siblings who have lost brothers or sisters remain vulnerable to future losses, so that they may over-react, even to seemingly insignificant losses. This vulnerability to future stress may often relate to your own children and the way you parent. For example, if your sibling drowned, you may not allow your children to go swimming. You may, in fact, become over-protective of your own children, passing the impact of the loss on to the next generation. Such vulnerability sometimes results in a pessimistic style of thinking that colors all of your life.

      While this list of long-term effects is not complete, it indicates that the loss of a sibling is a profound experience with lifelong effects. It has undoubtedly shaped who you are today. But it is not the end of the story. These effects can be changed by becoming aware of what the experience did to you, by accepting yourself in spite of your guilt or other painful emotion, by learning to express yourself, and opening your heart to your loved ones.

For further information, email the Sibling Connection




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