Sibling survivors are often called the forgotten mourners.
Sibling survivors are often called the forgotten mourners. When a sibling dies, those siblings left behind, no matter their ages, are considered secondary mourners to the parents and/or the spouse and children of the sibling who died. For those siblings still living at home, they will “lose” their parents for some time as the parents grieve the death of the deceased child. Parents can become so engrossed in their grief that they forget their living children still need reassurance that they are loved and wanted. Because of the suicide, the surviving siblings’ roles in the family are altered. They might feel the need to parent their parents or protect them from anything else happening. The opposite could also happen; the parents could try to shield the living children, afraid of losing them, too.
People forget the importance of siblings in our lives. Listed below are some characteristics of the sibling bond:
• It’s the longest relationship we’ll have in our lives. We are typically only a few years apart in age. We usually know them longer than our parents, spouses and children.
• We witness more life events and life changes with our siblings than anyone else.
• We share a sense of family, belonging and culture.
• They teach us how to function in society and communicate with others.
• The time spent together in our early years is greater than with our parents.
• It’s estimated that 80 percent of children in the United States and Europe grow up with siblings. By approximating 1.85 children in each U.S. Household (using U.S. Census statistics) and 31,000 suicides (per year), then 24,800 people become sibling survivors of suicide yearly. That means, in the past 25 years, at least 620,000 Americans became sibling survivors of suicide.
Through the life span, losing our sibling to suicide sets up complicated grief. As suicide grief is already difficult, adding in the factors relating to sibling loss reminds us of the uniqueness of the sibling bond.
Much of children’s reactions to a sibling suicide will relate to their view of death. Some people believe children don’t grieve. That’s not true. Children have shorter attention spans so their grief will appear in brief periods. The grief might also manifest itself as physical pain (stomachaches, headaches, etc.) because children have underdeveloped coping skills and might not know how to express their feelings.
At this time, the siblings are trying to find their role in society. Each day they look in the mirror, they aren’t sure who they see because they are changing so rapidly. They believe they are immortal because they don’t face much death at this age. Also, adolescents are trying to separate themselves from their families but the suicide death will throw a loop in that. They will struggle with pulling away and still wanting to be hugged by their parents. At school, they might deny their grief feelings because it’s easier to fit in that way.
During our early 20s to mid-40s, we continue to set our identities and carve out our lives and careers. We have lots of hope and if we lose our sibling at this time, we learn the hard way that life does not hold unlimited promises. We also experience anger that our sibling is not there for important life events like graduations, marriages and the births of our children.
In our mid-40s to 50s, our sacrifices become rewards as we slow down to enjoy what we have worked hard for. If our sibling dies by suicide, we might start questioning our definition of happiness and wondering if we completed what we really wanted out of life. At this time, our parents might die. If we also lose our sibling to suicide and there were unresolved issues (like disagreeing on the care of a now deceased parent, etc.), we will have to find a way to work through them alone.
After we reach our 60s, our sibling might be the only family member alive with whom we can share memories of early life. If we lose our sibling to suicide, it will either enhance the feeling that our time to die is coming or we might not grieve because we believe we are going to die soon, too.
Typically, siblings will carry this loss through a large portion of life. We will want a way to memorialize our sibling. No one ever gets over a death, it becomes a part of us and we take it with us throughout life. Some ways we can remember our siblings include involvement in the Lifekeeper Faces of Suicide quilts, writing about our loved one, or getting involved with suicide prevention. There are many possibilities and each of us will come up with what we want to do when we are ready.
Michelle Rusk (Linn-Gust) Ph.D. is a sibling survivor of suicide and the former president of the American Association of Suicidology. Whether discussing the 20 years she has spent working with the suicide bereaved, the lessons that running cross country and track taught her about life, or how learning to surf at 39 was a dream come true, Michelle is about making the most of life transitions and personal growth. Learn more about Michelle at chellesummer.com.
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