Sibling bereavement - the hierarchical nature of grief

At the beginning of 2024, my brother sadly died. This experience got me thinking about the clients I work with, who have lost a loved one and how, as a society, we make assumptions about who may have the right to grieve or feel the most grief.

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Clients can sometimes feel aggrieved at their feelings of loss being dismissed due to the relationship with the one who died i.e. mother, father, brother, sister, etc. In this article, I will briefly discuss this in relation to when an individual experiences the loss of a sibling.


Losing a sibling

Siblings can often feel their grief is set aside or they themselves must do this in favour of their parents (who have lost their son or daughter). Taking a social constructionist position (how we as a society construct what we consider 'social norms') will explore why this may be the case and what family and friends can do about this.

Speaking within a UK context, it may be argued that there is no greater sense of loss than a mother who has lost their child, regardless of the state of this relationship. Mothers are seen as the life givers, the ones that provide emotional nourishment, that sacrifice so much.

Even fathers can feel that the loss of a child for a mother is greater than their own. But I argue this may be partly from a belief that this is the way it should be and partly due to how society positions men in relation to the media.

A BBC news programme talked to a group of men, (fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins, etc) about the loved ones they lost due to knife crime. These men reported that, when reporters spoke to the families affected, they felt that they were cut out, that they only wanted the mother’s or woman’s perspective. When asked why they felt this way, they stated that it was because speaking to the mother would produce more of an emotional response from the public.

So, it may be argued that men feel positioned in a way that their grief is of less importance than their partners. So, how might siblings feel in relation to the loss of their brother or sister, next to the loss of their parent's child?

American Psychotherapist and specialist in bereavement, David Kessler, argues that children are often the forgotten grievers. As a society, we feel it is something young children should not be aware of or only when they are adults should they be exposed to a funeral. Systemic counsellors/psychotherapists hypothesise this may communicate to children that their feeling of loss is not as great as that of their parents.

Children and adult children may feel that they cannot approach their parents and express their feelings of loss because they want to protect their parents. They may fear that their parent may dismiss how they feel or it’s something they should deal with on their own.

From my own experience, when we were told that my brother was going to die, I remember going into my own sense of grief. It is common in the first days of emotional loss that family members and friends will often retreat into what the loss means to them as an individual. As well as some of the societal factors previously discussed, this is more to do with the individual sense of loss from a social constructivist position (how we construct our inner world).

During this reflective time, parents may not see their remaining children’s sense of loss. However, this may change over time. As the parent processes the loss, they may start to see what the loss meant to everyone else. This is an important part of the process. It allows siblings a chance to talk about how this loss has affected them. This may take the form of creating a memory jar for small children. Adult children can do this too but they also may want a one-to-one conversation.

Sometimes referred to as 'complicated grief', this is where an individual cannot or is struggling to resolve their sense of loss. Perhaps, due to past trauma, not knowing how to process the loss or attachment issues.

How can counselling help?

If a parent is unable (for whatever reason) to explore their remaining children’s sense of loss, then therapy may be useful. Counselling can provide siblings with a space free from judgement to explore their feelings of loss. Systemic counsellors/psychotherapists may explore the relationship between the one the client has lost, how has this affected the wider social system and how this position makes the client feel.

The sibling-to-sibling, parent-child relationship is different but can be just as close. Societal notions of who should experience the loss of a child are understandable but sometimes unhelpful. It can shut out a sibling's loss and make them feel what they're going through is unimportant and make them feel unheard. When able, we should keep in mind that it is seldom just our loss; the loss belongs to others in different capacities depending on how close the attachment was.

Being able to talk about the loss as a family helps to share the weight of the loss. Our reluctance to share stories of the one who died can shut down the healing process for someone else, also sharing stories helps to keep their memory alive which can be important if siblings were young and may not remember them.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Bedwas, Caerphilly, CF83 8EH
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Written by Anthony Purnell, BSc Systemic Counsellor, MNCS (Prof Accred)
Bedwas, Caerphilly, CF83 8EH

I am a NCPS accredited counsellor providing counselling for couples, individuals over the age of 18. I create a safe, therapeutic and comfortable environment to discuss sensitive and difficult issues. I hold a BSc in Systemic Counselling (Relational) and is my main area of training.

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