Parental vs Sibling grief is an issue that we came across recently when working on an article on loss of an adult sibling.
We decided to explore this theme in greater depth by interviewing an expert in sibing grief, Silvi Saxena, MBA, MSW, LSW, CCTP, OSW-C. Silvi has worked as a medical social worker and clinician for 10 years specialising in end of life and palliative care. She has extensive experience with grief and bereavement counseling including loss of a parent, child and sibling. Silvi is a contributing author for the mental health start up, Choosing Therapy and is also a published author at PsychCentral.com.
Surviving siblings often report challenges in feeling heard when they are grieving. It is really not surprising that parents who are trying to cope with their own enormous grief at the loss of a child should find it difficult to help their surviving children with their grief at the same time. This can lead to a range of issues within families such as changes in the family relationships between surviving siblings and parents and may even lead to a kind of competition where family members feel that their needs are not being heard or they are not given space to express their grief.
Lesley Postle, editor of this site, asked Silvi Saxena some questions about these issues and what can be done to help ease the burden of grief in these families.
SS: Perhaps one of the biggest differences that is most commonly misunderstood is that sometimes sibling grief can look quieter than parental grief. The idea that the reason a sibling may not show overt signs of grief relates to a lack of feelings of loss are far from true. Siblings often use support systems outside the family rather than opening up to their parents.
Parental loss is complex as one might imagine.
For parents with more than one child, loss can be a lot more complex as the parent still has to care for surviving child or children. There is often an expectation that the parent should be grateful their other children are still living as if that could somehow mitigate their huge loss. It can be extremely challenging to express grief for the loss of a child and gratitude for the other living children simultaneously.
Sibling grief is also unique in that the age difference between siblings can have an impact as well as the role the siblings each play in the family.
SS: Often, children and adolescents will struggle to express grief within the family if the family is openly struggling. Children may feel that their grief is somehow not as important, or that they don’t want to upset their parents even more by expressing it.
These children may benefit from outlets outside the family and a lot of surviving siblings do tend to do that. Parents have a challenging job in trying to manage their own grief and the grief of their children. It's important to recognize limits and locate the type of resources that may be helpful to them, their surviving child or the whole family.
Children can often benefit from group settings when dealing with the loss of a sibling.
SS: It can certainly bring up feelings of guilt if the rivalry was contentious. Rivalry is one of those things that can become playful and loving or angry and competitive over time. Guilt and shame are common feelings when the relationship was not good. Not having a chance to turn things around with a sibling before their death is the major reason why guilt and shame can come up.
Having a healthy rivalry relationship, where siblings fight growing up but are friends at the end of the day, doesn't necessarily mean that they will feel guilt. This issue is more about the quality of the relationship and the role each played as siblings.
SS: For parents, guilt can be really complicated. For example, the surviving child may have gotten married, become a doctor or had another major accomplishment. Parents can feel both pride for their surviving child's milestones while mourning over and over again at the loss of each milestone their deceased child will never have. That feeling of mourning when one should be happy can trigger feelings of guilt.
Milestones reached by remaining siblings can be bittersweet after the loss of a sibling
This can be similar with siblings - moving forward, moving out of the house, graduating college, getting married, etc. can all be challenging to do without their sibling present, knowing they are getting to do the things their sibling never got to do.
SS: Given that everyone handles grief differently, it can be really hard to put aside our own needs for another person's needs. This can be less true with adult children but younger children, adolescents and their parents can often have competing emotional needs that are hard to balance in a family unit.
SS: Obviously, siblings are much younger than their parents and so their friends would have less life experience than those of their parents. This will, of course, depend on the age of the child and developmentally how the child and their friends understand death. It can also be a challenge if the sibling was their closest friend and may make forming meaningful friendships outside the family more challenging.
I do believe that young children who experience the death of a sibling can really benefit in a group setting with other children who have lost a sibling. There is a commonality that children have with those who are like them that can be very healing. Children are amazing and have a lot of resilience.
SS: Grief counseling for families and/or individuals and children is definitely a helpful outlet. It gives sacred space to learn how to share grief as a family and also understand one's own grief processes and coping mechanisms. It can also feel validating as the experience of counseling can normalize different experiences of grief within the family and help them realise that the differences are ok.
Counseling can also help mitigate feelings of guilt by exploring them and working to increase the family’s awareness of the triggers and to change their responses to those triggers.
SS: Individual, family and/or children's counseling can all be helpful. Support groups for children are also very powerful and can be for parents as well.
It really depends on the goals that everyone has for their grief. Family members can start with separate counseling and then try family counseling, or try family counseling then break out into separate counseling. There is no right or wrong way, it's more about finding out what works best for you, your family and the grief each individual is carrying.
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