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The Sibling Connection

Family Reactions after the Death of a Child or Adolescent

by P.G. White, Ph.D.


         Information on what helps or slows down recovery after the loss of a sibling has been learned from the work of a number of mental health professionals. Clinicians Krell and Rabkin described how a family's treatment of surviving siblings can help or harm a young person's grief process.

         In their clinical work, they identified three types of survivor siblings: the "haunted" child, the "bound" child, and the "resurrected" child. Each of these types is a response to the parents' way of dealing with the death of their child.

         The first type is the "haunted child," the product of families where guilt and blame are the predominant feelings after the loss. Through what Krell and Rabkin call "a conspiracy of silence," none of the surviving siblings or parents talk about what happened. In this case, the survivor sibling is haunted by the unknown, possibly even secret, knowledge about the death, and cannot speak up to ask about it.

          According to Krell, other parents may treat survivor siblings as if they are incredibly precious, and over-protect them in an attempt to prevent another loss. Such treatment may interfere with the child's growth in autonomy or becoming a separate individual. These "bound" children, may be physically over-protected, while at the same time being somewhat rejected by parents emotionally, as if in preparation for an inevitable loss.

          The third type of child, the "resurrected" child, is treated as if he or she were the re-incarnation of the deceased. Sometimes this child is even given the same name as the deceased. Both Heinrich Schliemann, the archaeologist, and Vincent Van Gogh are examples of this phenomenon. Their identities blurred with that of the dead siblings they replaced and whose names they were given.

         Kay Tooley, another clinician, writes of the "scapegoat" child and describes the phenomenon where one of the survivor siblings is chosen to be the target for one parent's hostility, a product of that parent's own guilt about the death.

         What all of this means is that siblings who survive are subject to further problems depending on how the loss is handled by the family. Looking back at your family after your sibling's death, you may become aware of fitting into one of these categories. How has this role that you, or one of the other siblings in your family took on, affected you? Ask yourself if you continue to perpetuate the pattern in your adult life now.

         Awareness is necessary to break out of limiting patterns created during this part of your life.


Krell, R. & Rabkin, L. (1979). The effects of sibling death on the surviving child: A family perspective. Family Process, 18, 471-477.
Niederland, W.G. (1965). An analytic inquiry into the life and work of Heinrich Schliemann. In Schur, M. (Ed.) Drives, affects, behavior, Vol. 2. New York: International Universities Press Inc.

Pollock, G.H. (1978). On siblings, childhood sibling loss, and creativity. In Pollock, G.H. (1989). The mourning-liberation process, Vol. II (pp. 509-547). Madison, Connecticut: International Universities Press, Inc.
Tooley, K. (1975). The choice of a surviving sibling as "scapegoat" in some cases of maternal bereavement--a case report. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Vol. 16, 331-339.
     

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