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The Sibling Connection
How Sibling Loss Affects Marriage and Family


     One of the most common causes of conflict between family members, especially that between husband and wife, is unresolved grief. To understand why, and to understand in general how sibling loss affects marriage and families, it is necessary to look at why humans grieve at all.

     According to those who study animal behavior, grief itself has evolutionary value--that means that grief somehow helps the species to survive. That sounds impossible right? Isn't grief like mosquitoes that we would be better off without?

      Psychologist John Bowlby believed that humans have a biological tendency to bond whenever certain threatening circumstances exist. Like children who run to their mothers for safety, adults reach out to others when frightened.

     A simple example of this is inside an aircraft on a flight during mild weather, when you may ignore the stranger beside you. When enough turbulence shakes the aircraft, however, and gives you a fright, you will probably start talking and comparing notes with that same person. Think of a time when there was a threat to the country, (i.e.Sept 11). Do you remember how strangers spoke to each other in grocery stores? Humans tend to move together to face a common threat. This same process occurs when people are bereaved and grieve together.

     So back in the days of the cave men, those individuals who grieved together tended to form a stronger bond, and were therefore more able to act as a unit to facilitate their survival. They could work together to gather food or protect their water source. The groups who did not have the capacity to grieve did not have this strong bond and did not survive. That is what I mean by saying that grief has evolutionary value.

      Now, let's see how that applies to marriages after the death of an adult sibling. We'll look at the case of Mr. Jones, who loses a brother. Mr. and Mrs. Jones express their grief to each other and strengthen the bond between them. Whenever one of them feels sad, the other is right there, ready to accept and validate those feelings. They move through their grief together and their together-ness feels stronger.

      On the other hand, another bereaved sibling, Mr. Smith, loses a sister. He keeps a stiff upper lip and does not express his grief. Whenever Mrs. Smith feels sad about it, he tells her to get on with life and not dwell in the past, thus failing to validate her feelings. The bond between them does NOT become stronger.

     But it doesn't end there. Mr. Smith's feelings don't simply go away because he doesn't feel right in expressing them. They go underground and begin to leak out in the form of moodiness, irritability, withdrawal from relationships, drinking, and so on. Mrs. Smith shuts down her feelings at home, but seeks validation elsewhere, and ends up in an affair. And eventually they both end up in marriage counseling, without any idea that the roots of their conflict began when his sister died and they did not grieve together.

      The Smiths actually missed the opportunity to strengthen their relationship.

     But suppose the loss occurred during childhood or adolescence? When bereaved families do not talk about their loss, no one grieves adequately. Although the family members may live in the same house, each stays within a protective shell. The bereaved children and teens grow up and marry and still have this unresolved grief. The burden of unexpressed pain comes between the couple, interfering with their relationship.

     Now let's think about the impact of the marriage relationship on the children. In happy families (like the Jones family) the love between husband and wife overflows out to their children. Their relationship is like the sun in the solar system. The children orbit around them. When a couple's relationship is not happy, however, and they do not meet each other's needs (like the Smith family described earlier), they may turn the family configuration around. They make their children the center, or sun, of the family solar system while they orbit around the children. Focusing on the children helps the husband and wife avoid each other.

      This situation gives the children too much power and feels like an invasion of generational boundaries. This is a role reversal--the children end up meeting their parents' emotional needs instead of the other way around. So the unhappiness spreads.

     Of course, the marriage relationship is not the only part of the family that is affected by the loss of a sibling. A visitor to the site, Kathy, who suggested this topic, pointed out to me the secondary losses that occur within extended families after a brother or sister's death. When an adult sibling dies, what happens to his or her spouse and children? Sometimes, they move away, and you rarely see them again. So you have lost not only the sibling but the sibling's family. This has a huge impact on cousins, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. It demonstrates the way that everything seems to change after such a major loss. The event acts as a marker in time, so that extended family members begin to think, not of the actual date, but in terms of their lives before and their lives after the death of their sibling.

     Cause of the sibling's death also has an impact on the life of the family afterwards. If the sibling committed suicide, what happens when everyone blames his or her spouse? In case of an accident, who is to blame? If the cause was heart disease, who upset the person prior to the attack? Relationships can become shaky when family members use each other as targets for their anger.

     These are just some of the many ways in which families and marriages can be impacted by the loss of a sibling. Family members can grieve together and grow strong, or avoid their grief, and become isolated from each other. The family can break into a thousand pieces--putting it back together again can take a long time.



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