Counsellors cruel question highlights overlooked issue of sibling grief

The loss of a sibling is an often overlooked aspect of grief, especially when it comes to dealing with the emotions of children who have just lost their brother or sister.

When Louise Williams was 13, her brother passed away from a long-standing illness. However, a few months after he died, she was invited to a grief counselling session for young people.

Louise's pain was unique in her group. Of the 12 kids who were with her, she was the only one who lost a sibling, while the rest were grieving the loss of their parents.

Amid the memory-making tasks, she recalls sitting in a circle and everyone being asked: "What’s worse – losing a parent or losing a sibling?"

The intent might have been to prompt conversation, but it seemed strange and cruel to ask them to compare their bereavement.

But it was an early lesson in the unspoken hierarchy of grief, and the fact siblings are often bottom of the pile.

Not only are they often overlooked, and the impact of their loss misunderstood, even disregarded, but siblings can often downplay their own grief to protect other family members, not least their parents. It can have a detrimental impact, and contribute to sibling grief often feeling so lonely.

“It’s over 20 years since my brother died, but there isn’t a day when I don’t think about him," says Williams.

"Even now, it can just hit you that he’s gone, or you’ll get a flashback to the days before he died. There are so many happy memories too, of course, but you can find yourself thinking of all the moments you’ve missed growing up together.

“We talk about him as a family, but it’s rare to talk about his passing with new people, and on the rare occasion it does come up, the usual response is, ‘It must’ve been hard on your parents’.

"It can feel like a kick in the stomach. Nothing can be worse than losing a child, and my older sibling and I have wanted to protect our parents from enduring any extra pain, but at the same time you want to say, ‘For us too’ – but you can’t, at least that’s how it feels.”

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In society we don’t really acknowledge or recognise the importance of the sibling relationship, or the loss when that occurs. It's why sibling grief is described as 'disenfranchised grief' because it can feel subordinate to other people’s grief.

“Effectively, disenfranchised grief means any grief or loss that doesn’t get recognised in the way grief normally would, say, if you lose your partner, or a child. It has this significance to you, but the outer world doesn’t recognise it so much,” explains BACP registered integrative therapist Jennifer Park.

“If siblings are older, it’s almost, ‘oh well, it’s the natural flow of life’, and when they’re younger, the emphasis might go to the parents or to the sibling’s family and the grieving sibling takes on the role of helping out, making sure other people are okay, so their own grief gets lost in that.

“It can feel like they can’t talk about their own grief, or shouldn’t, or don’t have a right to, but grief is how we cry for the people we lose, and if grief is unacknowledged, or not processed, it can lead to a sense of isolation, disconnection, and loneliness.”

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An essential way to process emotions, memories and experience, is to talk, says Park, to a therapist, trusted friend, or support group.

“That can be really helpful because it allows you to be with others who have experienced something similar to you and make your feelings more relevant and real.”

When their younger sister, Triona, died suddenly in February 2017, Maeveen Brown, Edel McGirr and Cathy Teague, who live in Tyrone and Armagh, found there was little by way of support for bereaved adult siblings, and so they founded the Sibling Grief Club.

“We had lots of support from our family, friends and community but specific professional support was seriously lacking. In fact, there has been little to no research into sibling loss worldwide," says Brown.

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"We wanted to change the landscape of sibling loss and so we launched Sibling Grief Club to provide an online resource and community that adult siblings could utilise, so they never have to feel alone in their grief again.

“There is a societal misconception that the death of an adult sibling is not as profound or painful as other types of loss, for example, the loss of a spouse or a child. However, I have learned that the depth of my grief is identical to the depth of love I have for Triona.

"If you love hard you will grieve hard.

"It is paramount that adult sibling grievers feel their grief is valid, we need to find a 'home' for our grief, somewhere we feel safe, heard and understood.”

As Park notes, it’s important for siblings to acknowledge that the grief is separate to the grief the family feels.

“You may have to support parents, or their partner, but alongside that there has to be something that’s just for the sibling because the loss is a loss of your shared history that no one else will have experienced, or understand.

"The person you might talk to about that is ironically the late sibling, so this confusion emerges, and you can be left with a sense of life having a before and after. It’s why siblings can feel completely disconnected from their younger self, and that can happen at any age.

"Plus, the shape of the family unit will have been altered, and you need to process that."

Just as talking to someone is paramount, writing things down, can help too.

Parks added: “It might be the history of your life with your sibling, or what you remember about the relationship. Or it might be a ritual, on a birthday or key anniversary perhaps, where you have some sort of symbolic celebration that’s yours, and something that focuses on the uniqueness of your relationship.

“With grief, I don’t believe there is a hierarchy. It’s individual and about what the relationship means to you, and all grief should be acknowledged.

"By sharing, writing down and processing your feelings, you can help reconnect yourself to your experience and pass through the grief because really it’s about learning to live with the loss rather than getting over it.”

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