When a sibling dies, a lot of unexpected stories and secrets are lost. Shared experiences and unsettled arguments become complicated and confusing. This profound loss affects people of all ages significantly, yet a little differently, at each stage of life.

While everyone experiences grief differently, this article explores some of the common emotions felt when a brother or sister dies. By better understanding the feelings loved ones may be experiencing, deathcare professionals can provide comfort and care to those who have recently lost a sibling – no matter the age.

Children and Teens

Kids understand death differently depending on their age. Younger children maintain magical thinking and struggle with the finality of death. Older children and adolescents understand that death is final but may struggle with expressing their feelings. Their grief is often seen in behavioral changes and how they play. They watch the adults in their life for clues on how to grieve. When the death they are grieving is one of their siblings, the grief can make them feel really lost.

Childhood siblings bond over family highs and lows. They argue, play, protect each other, and share memories that they build together. The death of one of them shakes up the birth order and roles in the family, and that can alter how children behave and see themselves. If an older sibling dies, the younger sibling may reach a new phase of grief when they turn an older age than their sibling was when they died. Naming this difficult phase of grief, and encouraging them to explore it, can help them feel heard and seen.

If children fought with their sibling not long before the death, then they may hold a lot of guilt if the argument was not resolved. It is helpful to validate any guilt or resentment they had while also affirming the special bond kids have with each other. Validating that guilt will allow them to eventually find peace. They benefit from a non-judgmental space to process normal sibling rivalry and the wonderful adventures they shared.

Young Adults

As siblings attend college and start their careers, their relationships with each other often change, and the new version of their relationship may affect how they grieve the death of one of their siblings. It is common for young adults to feel as though part of their childhood left with their sibling when they died. They are at a stage when they are building their own life apart from their family, and siblings can bridge the connection to family and childhood.

Part of what helps young adults grow and discover their careers and independence is the connection they have with their siblings. Leading younger siblings and looking up to older siblings for guidance in becoming adults is part of the sibling connection at this stage. This feels broken when a sibling dies. They lose a person to laugh at family dynamics with, a trusted person with whom to vent frustrations about family and job hunting, and a constant friend as relationships come and go.

The birth order changing at this time may not have as drastic a change as in earlier childhood and adolescence, but it can still be felt. It will be healing for young adult siblings to have a safe space to process the sibling relationship they had as children and the one they had at the time of death. Talking about their evolving relationship as they aged can help maintain that special connection.

Middle Aged Adults

Losing a sibling in the middle of life often finds people reflecting on moments of gratitude and regret while also beginning to face their own mortality, usually for the first time. They may try to honor their siblings by caring for their nieces and nephews in deeper ways, which also helps them feel connected to their deceased sibling.

Nieces and nephews and the living sibling may find meaning in a stronger relationship at this time. Storytelling and support between these relatives can be helpful as they grieve different versions of the same person. The sibling grieves an entire life with their sibling. The nieces and nephews grieve a parent, and they can learn a lot about their parent as a person from their aunt or uncle. Building on this particular relationship can be very beneficial and give hope to the living sibling as they miss their brother or sister and face their own mortality.

Older Adults

By the time people are elderly, it is typical for siblings to be the only remaining members of their immediate family from childhood. They may have lost their connection to childhood, parents, grandparents, family pets, and adventures when their sibling dies. A portion of their identity leaves with their sibling(s). They can feel lonely and may reflect on their own age. At this stage, it can be healing for grandchildren and children to ask to hear stories from their childhood and adulthood. The stories will be rich and ready to be held tightly by the next generation.

Feeling Lost at Any Age

No matter how old a person is when their sibling dies, feeling lost is normal. Siblings share family secrets and inside jokes. They challenge and support each other. They protect each other. They hold memories and are charged with carrying on family traditions. For the rest of their lives, they may pause when someone asks them how many siblings they have. They feel seen, heard, and loved when asked to tell stories about their deceased brother or sister.

The unique and special relationships between siblings undoubtedly leads to unique and heavy grief. By understanding the specific feelings and emotions they may be going through, and providing the right advice and counsel, funeral directors, clergy, and other deathcare professionals can help loved ones successfully move through their grief.

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